Demystifying light bulb options

When you go to a home improvement store, the sheer number of light bulb options can be overwhelming. Not to mention the fact that most of the terms used to describe the bulbs sound like a bunch of industry jargon!

Here’s a quick guide to those terms, so you can choose the right bulbs for your family’s home.


There are three main types of bulbs you’ll run into. Each have their pros and cons, and they’ll be good for different purposes.

Incandescent: Incandescent lights are what most of us think of as the traditional light bulb. They tend to burn out quickly, but they’re relatively inexpensive. Incandescent bulbs have been phased out by the EPA, so they aren’t being manufactured in the US anymore, though you can still buy them. They aren’t very efficient or very bright, but they are definitely an affordable option.

CFL: This stands for compact fluorescent lights bulbs. CFLs are growing in popularity, because as the EPA has phased out incandescent lights, CFLs have become less expensive. They’re brighter and last longer than incandescent light bulbs.

However, they’re very sensitive to the light switch being turned on and off frequently, so they usually don’t last as long as the box says they will. They aren’t very environmentally friendly because they have mercury in them.

LED: LED (Light-emitting diodes) are tiny bulbs that can make up any kind of bulb shape and light color. They are becoming more common and can work the majority of light fixtures. LEDs are not as hazardous to dispose of as CFLs and they last for a very long time. They are the most expensive out of this list, though.


Now that you’ve got a handle on the different types of bulbs out there, it’s helpful to know the meanings of the different measurements listed on each box.

Watts: This measures how much energy the bulb uses (not how bright the light is). A lot of home light fixtures shouldn’t take bulbs over 60 watts.

Kelvins: This is a measurement of where the light is on the color spectrum. There’s often a color wheel accompanying this measurement, so you can choose warm or cool lights.

Lumens: This measures the brightness of a bulb. CFLs and LEDs put out more lumens per watt than incandescent lights do—they shine brighter while using less energy.

Once you find a light bulb you like (or which light bulbs you like for each room of your house), make sure you keep track of it. Whether you use a spreadsheet, notes, or even pictures on your phone, that will help you keep your home lit consistently just the way you like it.

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