Your Ultimate Guide to Light Bulbs
Light bulbs have a more significant effect on our homes than we give them credit for. They can change the mood, alter the look of a room, add heat, and increase your energy bill. Choosing the right bulb can seem unnecessarily complicated—you have to learn a whole new set of vocabulary just to read the label! Luckily, if you use the right ones, you'll only have to worry about it once every 25 years or so. Before you make any decisions, check the light source for the maximum wattage and base type to ensure that the bulb and source will be compatible. Most sources will call for a specific shape of bulb; a recessed can, for example, requires a downlight, while a table lamp will require a bulb with an omnidirectional glow such as an A-type or a globe.
First, a primer on the basics. Every bulb will have a list of lighting facts associated with it that reads similarly to the nutrition label you find on a cereal box. Brightness is quantified in lumens (think "luminous"). Lumens measure of the amount of visible light the bulb gives off. Energy use is measured in watts, which is a unit that expresses how much electrical power needs to pass through the bulb in order to light it. Most LED (or Light Emitting Diode) bulbs and CFL (or Compact Fluorescent Lamp) bulbs measure somewhere in the range of 13 watts. That means they use very little energy no matter how bright they are. Light color is measured in Kelvins, which is a temperature unit. The measurement will appear on a scale from warm (golden) to cool (bluish).
Most lighting facts will also provide some details about their life span and estimated yearly cost, but those are a lot more self-explanatory: The longer the life, the less often you have to change it; the higher the estimated yearly cost, the higher your electricity bill will be. Incandescent and halogen bulbs, for example, lose a lot of energy to heat so the estimated yearly cost is high. The heat also burns out the filament so they both have lifespans of about one or two years.
Ready to find the best light bulbs for your home? Here, we take you through all the options.
Different Types of Bulbs
These days, LED bulbs as are touted as the most energy efficient option; they're also popular because they do not get hot to the touch. "Early on, the quality of light of LED was not as good as it is today, so some people have bad perceptions about LED," says Justin Brown, lighting merchant for The Home Depot. "Today's LED bulbs give off a very high-quality of light and should be considered as an alternative in every room." The upfront cost is somewhat higher but because they last longer than other types (up to 25 years!), you'll most likely end up spending less in the long term. LEDs don't burn out; instead, their brightness just dims over time. CFL bulbs are about as efficient as LED bulbs but they usually don't last as long. Other downfalls: The coiled bulbs contain a trace amount mercury, which is toxic and needs to be disposed of properly when it's time to replace the bulb, and they don't dim. Incandescents are the old-school light bulbs, and they produce light using a heated filament. They are not energy efficient and any that don't keep up with today's energy standards—as set by the Energy Independence and Security Act—are being phased out. Finally, a halogen bulb is a type of incandescent light that uses a chemical reaction between halogen and tungsten filament to produce light. They are more energy efficient than an incandescent bulb and are a good option for those who have been holding off on switching to LED.
Bulbs range in brightness from 10 to 10,000 lumens, and you should consider both function and design when determining where on the spectrum your bulbs should fall. Rooms that require lots of visibility—such as in the kitchen or bathroom—will require bulbs that supply at least 4,000 lumens of light. The larger the room and more detailed work, the higher you want to go. Rooms meant for relaxation will need bulbs on the lower end of the spectrum. For close-up lighting, your bulbs won't need to be any brighter than 800 lumens. The wattage typically correlates with the brightness, but its role is to tell you how much energy is used. Brown says that because LEDs are so energy efficient, you don't need to pay very much attention to that number.
Light appearance is more a matter of aesthetics. The color of light that the bulb gives off is indicated by a sliding scale from 2,500 to 6,500 Kelvins. On the lower side, the light will appear more golden and soft. That type of light (below 4,000 Kelvin) is best for rooms where you want to feel cozy. Those on the higher side provide an energetic, but softer feel that is best for the spaces you spend a lot of time getting things done during the day.
Layer Your Lighting
There are three different types of lighting: ambient, task, and accent. In order to have a well-lit room, you should incorporate all three.
Ambient is the main source of light and it can come from recessed lighting, chandeliers, or pendants. "If it is the primary light source, then downlights, or general purpose bulbs, will give you the most light," says Brown. If your chandelier uses decorative bulbs, you might need a secondary source. For rooms with a lot of art, you should use bright bulbs that give off a daylight appearance. Bedroom bulbs should be dimmable as too much bright light late at night can disrupt your circadian rhythm.
Desk lamps and under-cabinet lighting are typical task light sources. As opposed to ambient lighting, you'll want to use omni-directional bulbs that shine in all directions. To prevent the light from affecting your sleep, reading lamps should only give off 100 to 180 lumens. You might also consider using a bulb that doesn't emit blue light (like the kind that comes from screens) which suppress melatonin, the hormone that regulates the sleep cycle.
Accent lighting—such as sconces or track lighting—are used to highlight aspects of your home décor. Since these are primarily decorative, you don't need to worry about the brightness of the bulbs as much as you do with ambient or task lighting. If the fixture will expose the bulb, look for one with a decorative element. Globes, candelabra bulbs, frosted bulbs, and bulbs with vintage-style filaments will add extra drama to the fixture.
If you have a backyard or front lawn, you might consider adding path lights or spotlights so that you get as much use out of them at night as you do during the day. You won't need much light in the dark and should aim to reduce light pollution as much as possible, so select bulbs that provide 50 to 300 lumens. Ensure that they are waterproof and give off a yellow glow as bugs have difficulty seeing yellow and won't be attracted to the light they give off. A yellow tinted bulb or one with a light appearance lower than 3,000 Kelvin both work.
A smart bulb is an LED bulb that can be synced with Bluetooth so that it can be controlled by a smartphone or virtual assistant. It's pricier than the standard bulb, but will provide a wide variety of features that will make it worth it. "Smart bulbs are all about making life simpler," says Brown. "You can turn them on and off or dim them with your phone or voice." Some smart bulbs also give you the option to change the color—not just from warm to cool or soft to bright, but also from red to green and purple to orange—or schedule them for when you want them on or off.