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The Right Light

Martha Stewart Living, September 2008

By now, the case for energy-efficient lightbulbs has been made by many and publicized widely. So there's no need to repeat it here.

Less well-known, even among those who have made the switch, is how to be happy with the light these bulbs emit and the ambience they create.

Some people quietly curse the ghastly glow that's cast by certain compact fluorescents. Others miss the look of traditional bulbs and find it hard to embrace glass coils. But better and more varied bulbs have become available, and decorative solutions (sometimes simply a good lampshade) can alleviate any harsh effects.

Whatever the setting, there's an energy-saving lightbulb that will work.

The Best Bulb for the Job, and the Lamp
There are two widely available types of bulbs: fluorescent and incandescent. The fluorescent group includes compact fluorescent lightbulbs, or CFLs, the energy savers that have become popular in recent years. The incandescent family, known for its warmth and sparkle, includes the traditional lightbulb along with halogen, xenon, and krypton bulbs. The latter three (named for the gases they contain) are better choices than standard bulbs but not as efficient as CFLs. A note on sizes: Xenon and krypton bulbs are designed mainly to fit small sockets, such as those found in chandeliers.

Table and Floor Lamps
Best bulb: Compact fluorescent in warm white.
Tips: Consider using a shade lined in a warm color, such as gold. This will counter the residual coolness of a CFL. A transparent or painted-white glass shade, however, may need the warmth of a halogen bulb.

Best bulb: Halogen, xenon, or krypton.
Tips: The warm, sparkling lighting expected from a chandelier calls for a halogen, xenon, or krypton bulb.

Reading and Task Lamps
Best bulb: A 23-watt CFL (comparable to a traditional 100-watt bulb) in warm white or daylight.
Tips: The high wattage means better light for small tasks. Although daylight CFLs can be harsh in some settings, they're great for reading lamps. The high contrast makes it easier to see text.

Best bulb: Depends on the shade and the distance from lamp to surface.
Tips: CFLs are best for casting light over short distances. So if a fixture is 4 or more feet from the surface it's illuminating, use a halogen, xenon, or krypton bulb. The latter bulbs are also better for translucent shades.

Best bulb: Depends on the shade.
Tips: If the shade is warm in tone, try a CFL. The cool cast of a CFL will be unfavorably exaggerated by white or transparent shades and in exposed-bulb settings or around mirrors (skin tones will look sallow). In those instances, try a halogen, xenon, or krypton bulb.

Recessed Fixtures
Best bulb: CFL in warm white or a halogen.
Tips: If the interior of the fixture is a metallic color, such as gold, use a warm-white CFL. If the interior is white or black, try a halogen bulb. You may also need a halogen bulb if the ceiling is high -- it has a longer "light throw" than a CFL.

Under-Cabinet Lights
Best bulb: Depends on the surface being illuminated.
Tips: Pair matte surfaces, such as Formica counters, with a warm-white CFL or an LED strip, which is also energy efficient. Natural surfaces with depth, such as granite, need a xenon or krypton bulb. (Avoid halogen -- it gets too hot.)

Accent Lights and Picture Lights
Best bulb: Halogen.
Tips: Like traditional bulbs, halogen ones let people see 100 percent of the available colors indoors -- an important quality when illuminating art.

Flush-Mounted Fixtures
Best bulb: Depends on the fixture.
Tips: If the glass housing is a warm color, try a CFL in warm white. But the cool cast of CFLs will be accentuated by white or transparent glass. In those situations, consider a halogen bulb. (When buying any new bulb, always check that it will fit the housing.)

Find the New Version of Your Old Bulb
A 75-watt, soft-white bulb burns out. What do you replace it with? This chart lines up comparable versions of traditional and energy-saving bulbs. Oddly, there is no standard wording for color quality: One bulb's "warm white" might be another bulb's "daylight." Color temperature, measured in degrees Kelvin and sometimes listed on packaging, is a more accurate gauge.

Appearance: Traditional
Color and Light Quality
Warm White:
This is the standard color of a traditional incandescent bulb. Confusingly, the package is sometimes labeled "soft white."
Cool White: Not available in this color.
Daylight: The packaging usually includes the word "daylight" and sometimes touts the bulb's ability to filter out yellow casts.

Efficiency and Costs
The least efficient bulb. The higher the number of watts, the more energy it consumes.
Price: $0.75 per bulb
Lifetime: 1,000 hours

Appearance: Halogen, Krypton, Xenon
Color and Light Quality
Warm White:
Even though the bulbs' color temperature makes them warm white, the packaging is sometimes labeled "daylight."
Cool White: Not available in this color.
Daylight: Although sometimes labeled "daylight," the color temperature of these bulbs is actually consistent with warm white.

Efficiency and Costs
More efficient than a traditional bulb (by about 25 percent), but not nearly as efficient as a CFL.
Price: $4 per bulb
Lifetime: Halogen: 2,000 hours
Xenon and krypton: 10,000 hours

Appearance: Compact Fluorescent
Color and Light Quality
Warm White:
Some boxes are labeled "warm white." Others list degrees Kelvin. Look for bulbs rated 2,700 or 3,000 degrees Kelvin.
Cool White: Packaging might advertise "cool white" or "bright white" tones. Other boxes list degrees Kelvin, usually 4,000 to 4,200 degrees.
Daylight: Some boxes are labeled "daylight." Others list only degrees Kelvin. Look for bulbs rated 5,000 degrees Kelvin and higher.

Efficiency and Costs
The most efficient.
Price: $2.50 per bulb
Lifetime: 6,000 to 10,000 hours

Bottom Line
Energy-saving bulbs have adopted the shapes, sizes, and appearance of traditional bulbs, making it easier to phase them in.

Warm White
When in doubt, opt for a warm-white CFL, 3,000 degrees Kelvin or lower. It has the color quality most associated with traditional bulbs.

Cool White
This color temperature is best avoided. It washes out skin tones and makes reds, oranges, and browns look muddy.

Daylight Bulb
In general, you should use a daylight bulb only in a reading or task light. The cool, bright tone makes text jump off the page.

To find the approximate CFL equivalent of a traditional bulb, divide its wattage by 4.
For the approximate match in halogen, krypton, or xenon, divide by 1.5.

Energy-efficient bulbs tend to cost more at the register, but they last far longer and yield the best savings in electricity.

When considering the overall cost of a bulb, factor in how often you will need to replace it.

Text by Suzanne Kantra

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