Even if you’ve never bought one, you’ve probably heard some talk about energy-efficient bulbs. Fans point out that they use way less electricity than traditional (incandescent) bulbs, last longer, and can save money and help the environment. But a lot of people don’t like them – they say the bulbs are expensive to buy, look weird, and give off an ugly “cold” light. That can be true, but if you know what to look for you can get all the benefits without the downsides.
CFL or LED?
CFL stands for Compact-Fluorescent. These are the most common kind of energy-efficient bulbs, and they work like a miniature version of the fluorescent tubes you see in offices and big stores. A CFL can last 10 times as long as a regular incandescent, and uses less than 20% as much energy! But there’s a big downside: mercury. All fluorescent lightbulbs contain mercury vapor. The mercury can be dangerous if you break a bulb, especially if you cut yourself on the glass. In many areas, it’s illegal to throw the bulbs in the trash. Instead you have to bring them to a recycling center, or drop them off in a special bin at your hardware store. In addition, a lot of CFLs take a few seconds to “warm up” when switched on, and that’s annoying when you’re in a hurry.
LED stands for Light-Emitting Diode. LEDs are used as illumination in lots of electronics, from bicycle headlights to the screens of smartphones. LED bulbs are often more efficient than CFLs, and can last for decades. They’re difficult to break, don’t contain any dangerous chemicals, and can be thrown away in the regular garbage. They’re also much more expensive. Most incorporate a set of fins called a “heat sink” in the base. In the majority of lamps these aren’t visible, but they can look strange on an exposed bulb.
I like LEDs a lot more than CFLs, for the convenience, efficiency, and durability. (Plus I kinda dig the weird look.) But I’d still recommend CFLs, at least until LED bulbs become less expensive. To avoid the safety issues, look for “A-Shape” CFLs. These have a protective glass or plastic dome over the fluorescent coil, which makes them harder to break (and safer to clean up if they do). It also makes them shaped like traditional bulbs, so you can use clip-on lampshades or other old-fashioned accessories.
Check the Color Temperature
“Color Temperature” is a term physicists use to describe how cold or warm a light is. Ironically, the lower the number, the warmer the light. For example, candlelight has a color temperature of about 1850K, while a computer monitor has a temperature above 5000K. Incandescent lighting is usually around 2700K, the cozy yellowish glow sold as “soft white.”
Don’t let that trick you into thinking an efficient bulb labeled “soft white” will look the same. Since efficient bulbs are naturally cooler than incandescents, it’s easier for manufacturers to call one “soft white” than to get the color right. But all CFL and LED bulbs have their color temperature listed on the packaging. Ignore the marketing, and look for that number. My rule: if it’s over 3000K or under 2700k, don't buy it.
Find your Brand, then Find a Bargain
Efficient bulbs are supposed to save you money, but they won’t if you keep replacing ones you don’t like. Use the recommendations here to find one in your price range, then buy one (just one!) to take for a test drive. Use it for a few days, and even try it in a few different rooms. You want to make sure you like it – and if you don’t, you can always use it in the basement or garage.
Once you’ve found the bulb for you, Google to find the cheapest supplier. You’ll be shocked at how much cheaper most of these are online, even if you’re not buying in bulk. Stick to the same brand and model, since two bulbs that look the same on paper can be very different side-by-side.
Everyone has their own preferences, and these are only guidelines. Some people like a color temperature higher than 2700K; others would rather spend the money on LEDs than deal with recycling CFLs. But if you know what to look for, you can light your house and lighten your electrical bill.