Understanding the Different Types of Light Bulb Choices

It may only take one person to change a light bulb, but selecting the right light bulb is much more than simply screwing or snapping the bulb into the socket. Choosing a light bulb is no longer a simple choice.

The incandescent light bulb was invented in 1879 and was the standard lighting process for more than 100 years. During World War II, fluorescent lights which lasted three times longer and were more energy efficient were utilized to make war production plants more efficient. The original fluorescent bulbs were long tubes that needed a ballast to regulate the flow of electricity through the tube. Following the war, fluorescent bulbs began to be used more readily, but it was not until the energy crisis in the early 1970’s that the pursuit of a consumer version of the fluorescent light bulb began. The first Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) bulb using technology that bent the tube became available in the mid 1980’s at a retail price of $25-$35. The early CFLs of the 1990’s were also bulky and did not fit well into many fixture designs. These CFLs had low light output, inconsistent performance, and could not be used with a dimmer switch (a problem that still exists today.)

Halogen Brings an Improved Bulb

In the 1980’s a Halogen version of the incandescent light bulb was made commercially available. Halogen bulbs use incandescent technology but add a thicker glass envelope containing Halogen gas that lasts 3 times longer and produces a higher quality of light using less energy. Although a more eco-friendly and longer lasting alternative to incandescent bulbs, the nature of the glass and of the halogen gas, make it detrimental to handle halogen bulbs with your fingers. When handling the bulbs, oil from our skin breaks down the quality of the glass once the bulb heats up. This can lead to reduced life or even explosion. For this reason, when handling halogen bulbs, you should wear gloves or use a clean tissue without additives.

CFLs improved

Evolving over the last 20 years, the price, performance, size and efficiency have made CFLs a much more viable option compared to incandescent light bulbs. Although incandescent bulbs cost less, CFL’s consume 75% less energy and last about 10 times longer, more than compensating for the higher initial cost. Since incandescent bulbs are inefficient and don’t last long, their production began to be phased out by governments around the world in 2005, and in the U.S. in 2014. As a result of new government restrictions, incandescent light bulb manufacturers were forced to produce more energy efficient bulbs. Today, incandescent bulbs use 30% less energy than the previous generation, while producing the same amount of illumination. With further restrictions arriving in 2020, the incandescent manufacturers must continue to improve the energy efficiency of this lower cost alternative.

LED Bulbs

Although the light-emitting diode (LED) technology was invented in the 1960’s, it was not until 2008 that there were a few commercially available LED light bulbs. These bulbs use a semiconductor to convert electricity into light. Initial attempts to introduce LED bulbs to consumers required significant rebates to make the bulbs reasonably priced to motivate initial purchases. Although the LED bulbs were much more efficient and lasted as much as 20 times longer than incandescent bulbs, the high initial cost made them prohibitive for widespread use. Today, LED bulbs are 80% more efficient and last 25 times longer than incandescent bulbs with costs continuing to come down.

LED vs CFL vs Incandescent

The difference between CFL and LED is less drastic and requires more comparisons to select the right bulb for your needs. Understanding the differences between incandescent, CFL and LED light will make it easier. In order to compare products beyond the price and life expectancy, you need to consider the watts and lumens. A watt refers to the amount of energy required to power the bulb. Incandescent bulbs have typically been judged by the wattage (e.g. 40, 60, 75, 100) which mistakenly does not measure how much light is being emitted. It is Lumens that indicate how much brightness the bulb projects. A traditional 40-watt incandescent light bulb produces 400 lumens of light, a CFL requires 9-13 watts and an LED typically uses 6-7 watts to produce the same 400 lumens.

At the present time, LEDs seem to be the technology of the future since they use half the power of CFLs and last 10 times longer, making the initial higher cost a better value proposition. In addition, LED bulbs do not contain dangerous mercury like CFL’s. This eliminates any disposal problems. The ability to utilize an LED bulb with a dimmer switch also makes the LED more flexible than CFL bulbs. Incandescent bulbs, although still the least expensive alternative, cost much more money in the long run without even considering the inconvenience of having to change them so often.

Color Temperature

Another important consideration when choosing replacement lightbulbs, is color temperature. A standard, “old fashioned” incandescent bulb produced a “warm” light, with a yellow appearance. This light was rated as 2700 on the Kelvin Scale, or 2700K. Nearly all lightbulbs sold today will be labeled with a K number somewhere on the packaging. While many lightbulbs may be described as “warm,” “soft,” or “warm white,” the only way to be sure the light will be what you are expecting, is to understand the light quality associated with the color temperature number. Typically, warm lights will range from 2700K to 3500K, while cool lights are typically around 4000K (like a typical office or workshop fluorescent.) Newer “daylight” bulbs have temperature ratings above 5000k and as high as 8000k. Many people describe these higher color temperatures as blindingly white or harsh, while others feel the light is crisp and produces more natural color renditions. Much of this depends upon the specific application for the lighting, as well as individual preference. There are also slight variations in light quality, depending upon the technology being used to produce the light, as well as the quality of the bulb itself.

Regardless of the type of bulb that you select, there are several different bases and you will need to know the kind of socket that you need the bulb to match. 3rd Street Hardware (153 N 3rd Street, Philadelphia) has a full array of bulbs for just about any need. If you need more information and guidance, bring your old bulb into the store and one of our knowledgeable and friendly staff will help you to decide. If you can’t bring the bulb or socket, be sure to take as many close-up pictures as possible, or write down any information you can find on the socket or the old lightbulb.

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