Two years ago, under pressure from the U.S. government, lightbulb makers stopped manufacturing the humble incandescent bulb. You can still find some on the store shelves, especially specialty and 3-way bulbs, but standard 40/60/100-watt A19s are no longer available.
Unless you stockpiled a lifetime supply of incandescent bulbs, you're probably in the market for replacements. Maybe you've already bought a different type of bulb and aren't happy with it. That’s pretty common, by the way.
I'm going to walk you through the options on the market, and very important aspects of buying bulbs that work well in your home.
1. Know the options
There are three major alternatives to incandescent bulbs: halogen, CFL and LED. Each one has its pros and cons.
Halogen bulbs are a more efficient version of incandescents. In many stores, they're even labeled as "eco-incandescent." They eke out an improvement of 28 percent over incandescent, which puts them over the 25 percent limit needed to avoid being banned.
So the energy savings aren't too great, and they last only as long as standard incandescents. They also put out more heat than older incandescents, though many have an inner layer that reflects the heat back toward the filament for improved efficiency. In terms of cost, they're the cheapest alternative, and they have the traditional color temperature of incandescents. (More on the really important color temperature aspect in a minute.)
If you want a no-fuss replacement for your existing bulbs, this is still a good choice. But in four years, the second stage of the lighting efficiency rules is supposed to go into effect, and halogen bulbs will probably disappear as well.
Compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs have been around for a while, and they have improved since they were introduced. You can see up to 75 percent energy savings, and they're supposed to last around 10 times longer than incandescents. Price-wise, they cost only a few dollars more than halogens.
One concern with CFLs is that they contain trace amounts of mercury, which makes cleaning up broken bulbs and disposing of old ones a bit more complicated. Read the EPA's recommended disposal steps.
Like larger fluorescent lights, CFLs can take a second to turn on and a little time to warm up to full brightness. Manufacturers have improved this, but there might still be a delay. Also, like any other fluorescent lights, CFLs can flicker, which may cause eye strain.
If you have dimmer switches in your house, note that not all CFLs are dimmable. You'll need a CFL that specifically says it's dimmable, and even then it might not work correctly with incandescent, or "legacy," dimmer switches. You might have to upgrade your switches to ones designed to work with CFL and LEDs. Manufacturers Leviton and Lutron both make UL Listed dimmers and have lists of compatible bulbs.
Light-emitting diode (LED) technology is the newest addition to the home lighting market, though you've already seen LED lights in LCD TV and monitor backlights, car headlamps, Christmas lights, municipal lighting and other places.
LEDs save even more energy than CFLs, and they last up to 25 times longer than halogens (at three-hours-a-day usage, they can supposedly last 20 years, and there are some that can last 40 years or more). Of course, they can cost six times more than halogen bulbs, so it's a bit more of an investment up front. But you should see big savings down the road.
As with CFLs, not all LED lights are dimmable, although most new ones are. Look for bulbs that say "dimmable" on the packaging. However, even dimmable LEDs might not work correctly with older dimmer switches. You might have to upgrade your home's dimmer switches to ones that are designed to work with CFL and LEDs.
2. Watts vs. Lumens
When you bought an incandescent bulb, you knew how bright a 40-, 60- or 100-watt bulb would be – even though a watt is a unit of energy, not brightness.
With newer, more efficient lights, a little watt goes a long way. That means a 10-watt CFL might give you the same light as a 60-watt incandescent. Fortunately, most lighting packages will say “60-watt equivalent.”
But that measurement won't be around forever, and it isn't always right. You might get a 60-watt equivalent CFL but find that, due to its shape or color, it's not as bright as you were hoping.
That's why you should start looking at a bulb's lumens rating, which is the measure of brightness. When you buy a new bulb, try it out and make a note of the lumens. This will help you find the sweet spot for your rooms. And no matter what type of bulb you buy in the future, you’ll know the brightness will be right.
3. Color temperature
Color temperature is something many people don't consider, but they should. It's what makes the difference between a warm homey lamp and sharp white daylight. Any bulb you buy is set to a specific color temperature, such as 2,700K (K stands for the Kelvin temperature scale).
The lower the number, the warmer the light. Warm light is good for area lights and bedrooms at night. For reference, a candle is around 1900K.
The reason many people didn't like LED lights at first was that the only available color temperature was on the high side and seemed too bright and harsh for most homes. But now you can find both LEDs and CFLs in the full color temperature range.
So, what color temperatures should you consider?
Those in the 2700K to 3300K range will give you a warmer light, like a typical incandescent bulb. Many manufacturers call it "soft white." That's good for bedrooms and general lighting at night.
Bulbs from 3500K to 5000K are usually called "bright white." They’re not as warm, but they show more detail in the room. They’re a nice middle ground for a living room.
Anything 5500K and higher gives an effect like white sunlight. Some manufacturers even label them "daylight." They’re better for reading or work because they help you pick out text and detail. Just be aware that they will trick your brain into thinking it's daytime, which can affect your sleep schedule.
Bonus: Special Features
Modern lightbulbs can do much more than just brighten up a room. Lighting manufacturers have started adding special features to their bulbs, especially LED bulbs.
For example, Philips makes the Hue "personal wireless lighting" system. The Hue bulbs hook up to your Wi-Fi network so you can control your lights from a smartphone or tablet. You can put the lighting on a schedule or hook it into a full home automation setup. Other manufactures, like Cree, make connected lights that can link up with home automation systems, as well.
Philips also makes Hue bulbs that can display up to 16 million colors, so you can choose a color that matches your mood or time of day. It has these in standard A-19 form, or as part of units like the Hue Go, Hue iris or Hue bloom. Just know you will pay a premium for these bulbs.
You might also run into some security concerns. Wi-Fi connected bulbs often don't have the security they should. The original Philips Hue bulb let anyone connect to it, so a neighbor could take control of your light if he wanted. And once someone connected, there was no way to disconnect him.
While Philips fixed the problem, it's still something to think about as you bring high-tech connected appliances into your home. Some manufacturers take the time to put in good security, but many don't. Learn more about how the Internet of Things is opening your home to hackers.
On the Kim Komando Show, the nation's largest weekend radio talk show, Kim takes calls and dispenses advice on today's digital lifestyle, from smartphones and tablets to online privacy and data hacks. For her daily tips, free newsletters and more, visit her website at Komando.com. Kim also posts breaking tech news 24/7 at News.Komando.com.