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Shedding Light on the Types of Bulbs

bulbsWith so many different types of light bulbs on the market today, it may get confusing when trying to pick out the right one. Incandescent, halogen, CFLs, LEDs- there’s so many options! Let’s take a closer look at each one of these bulbs.

Incandescent light bulbs are the ones most people are familiar with and can be found in many households giving off a steady, warm glow. A standard incandescent bulb, which has the ability to be used with a dimmer, has a lifespan between 700 and 1,000 hours. With an average price of $0.60, this traditional “Edison” light bulb emits more heat than visible light. Due to this inefficiency, incandescent bulbs are beginning to be phased out all across the globe. Australia placed a ban on them in November 2009 and the United States will be following with a similar action expected to take place in 2014.

Halogen bulbs, which are slightly more efficient than incandescent bulbs, have a lifespan of 2,000 to 3,000 hours. These are also compatible with dimmers, but when fully lit, can reach triple digit temperatures, making them a potential fire hazard. With an average price of $4 per bulb, this form of incandescent has the truest color rendering of any light source aside from the sun.

Compact Fluorescents (CFLs) are similar to regular fluorescent bulbs but are much more efficient and produce less heat. Although most cannot be used with dimmers, they can last up to 10,000 hours. These bulbs also have the ability to last up to eight times longer than incandescents, and at about $4 per bulb, you’ll see your monthly electric bill start to decrease. Be careful though, CFLs enclose trace amounts mercury and require special disposal methods.

Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs) are low in power consumption and have a long life span, ranging from 25,000 to 50,000 hours! With a price tag of $20-$80 per bulb, many people will be uninterested, but this high cost can be justified over time by their long life, high efficiency, and low toxicity. To see how LEDs compare to other types of light bulbs on factors not mentioned here, be sure to check out this chart.

Finally, there is a new type of light bulb making its debut. A group of seven guys recently created the LIFX, an energy-efficient, multicolor bulb that has the ability to be controlled with a smartphone. A customized iOS or Android app will put the power in your hands, allowing you to dim the bulb, schedule it to come on at certain times with increasing light, or even change to different colors! The LIFX is so technologically advanced that it can colorfully pulse to the beat of your favorite music and even flash when you receive a Twitter or Facebook notification. This Wifi-enabled bulb is highly efficient, using approximately one tenth the amount of power of regular bulbs. As expected, with all these features, the LIFX does not run cheap. At a price of $69, this light bulb will give you 25 years worth of electricity and entertainment.

As mentioned before, dealing with all these types of light bulbs can get pretty confusing. If you spend the time to research the best option for you, you will be sure to use less electricity and begin to see lower electric bills.

Sarah Battaglia's picture

Thank Sarah for the Post!

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Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on February 26, 2013

A few more thoughts on light bulbs:

Halogen bulbs are actually a type of incandescent.   All incandescents make light by running electricity through a wire filament to make it hot.  The filament must be enclosed in an oxygen-free environment so it doesn't burn; normally the inert gas argon is used for this.  In halogen bulbs, a special mixture of gases (including halogens, a family of gases including chlorine, bromine, etc) is used instead of argon; the gases are selected to allow the filament to be operated at a higher temperature (which boosts efficiency and whitens the light).  The gas surrounding the filament in a halogen bulb is also at higher pressure, which requires the high temperature quart-glass tube within some halogen bulbs.

Contrary to the article, compact fluorescent bulbs are not more efficient than conventional straight-tube fluorescents, they are about the same.  The main advantage is the fact that they are made to go in the same sockets as incandescent bulbs (i.e. they are the right shape, and they include miniature electronic ballasts to stabilize the power).

Another important difference between incandescents and both compact fluorescent and LED bulbs are the color.  For incandescent bulbs, the filament temperature (which is easy for a manufacturer to control) determines the color (hotter=bluer, cooler=redder) and life (cooler = longer life).  Fluorescents and LEDs both make white light in two steps, which allows for color selection and color errors.

Fluorescents start by making green and UV light, LEDs start with blue light.  Both use a "fluorescent" material to absorb some of the initial light, and convert it to other colors to fill out the spectrum.  By tailoring the fluorescent material, the color of the light can be made in different shades of white, ranging from “soft white” to “daylight”, which can affect the apparent color of everything in the room.  “Soft white” is designed to mimic the reddish light of a typical incandescent bulb with a filament at 2700K (4400 degrees F), and “daylight” mimics bluer light from the much hotter sun at 6500K (11,300 degrees F).  The color temperature rating of a bulb mainly describes the balance between red and blue, and unfortunately, leaves room for some low quality fluorescent bulbs to produce too much green light, which can be rather unattractive.

LED bulbs do not suffer from the slow (tens of seconds) warm-up time that plagues some compact  fluorescent bulbs.  

LED bulbs are also unique in that their efficiency can vary greatly from one model to the next (it’s very hard to consistently manufacture the LED element, so vendors bin-sort them and sell to bulb manufacturers in different grades).  They range from much worse than compact fluorescents, to slightly better.  So read the label.

One personal opinion: we don’t need the government dictating which light bulbs to buy, it is sufficient to require standardized efficiency, energy cost, and life data on the label.  When people see that a 100 Watt incandescent bulb that costs only $0.60 will cost them $10 worth of electricity over its 1000 hour lifetime, and when they realize how much time they waste changing light bulbs, it will be much easier to choose a more efficient and longer lasting bulb instead.

Sarah Battaglia's picture
Sarah Battaglia on February 27, 2013

Wow, great info Nathan.  Thanks for posting!

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