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3 things to know before buying your next lightbulb

3 things to know before buying your next lightbulb
photo courtesy of SHUTTERSTOCK

Two years ago, under pressure from the U.S. government, lightbulb makers stopped manufacturing the humble incandescent lightbulb. 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 for your home. 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 various 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 own pros and cons.

Halogen bulbs are a more efficient version of incandescent. In many stores, they're even labeled as "eco-incandescent." These manage to eke out an improvement of 28% over incandescent, which puts them over the 25% limit needed to avoid being banned.

So, the energy savings aren't too great, and they only last as long as standard incandescent. They also put out more heat than older incandescent, although many have an inner layer that reflects that 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 incandescent. 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. In four years, however, the second stage of the lighting efficiency rules are supposed to go into effect and halogen bulbs will probably disappear as well.

CFL, or compact fluorescent, bulbs have been around for a while, and have improved since they were introduced. You can see up to 75% energy savings, and they're supposed to last around 10 times longer than incandescent. Price-wise, they're only a few dollars more than halogen.

One concern with CFLs is that they contain trace amounts of mercury. This does make cleanup of broken bulbs and disposal of old bulbs a bit more complicated. Read the EPA's recommended disposal steps.

Like larger fluorescent lights, CFLs also 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 might 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.

LED, or light-emitting diode, technology is the newest addition to the home lighting market. However, you've already seen LED lights in LCD TV and monitor backlights, car headlamps, Christmas lights, municipal lighting and other places. Speaking of Christmas lights, check out this year's hottest high-tech Christmas decorations.

LEDs save even more energy than CFLs, and they last up to 25 times longer than halogen (at 3 hours a day usage, they can supposedly last 20 years, and there are some that could 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.

Next page: Watts vs. Lumens
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