A Simple Guide to Your Household Lightbulbs

There are more choices than ever when it comes to lightbulbs. With all the new options from decorative to energy-efficient, it can be very overwhelming when trying to determine the correct bulbs for your home. I’ve put together a very easy guide to a few of the popular options that you will find at your local stores. And on that note, keep in mind that the “big box” stores have a very limited offering of bulb options – so expand your search to lighting specialty stores and on-line for the best selection!

First, let’s discuss some important terms to know. 

Lumens - The amount of light emitted from your light bulb. The more lumens you have the brighter the light. The lower the lumens, the dimmer the light. 

Watts - The amount of energy that your light bulb uses. The less watt the less you pay your electric company. But our old way of using watts to signify the brightness of a lightbulb is a thing of the past! Use lumens for an as easy way to compare light bulbs! 

Kelvin (K) - Light color or your light appearance is measured by this. It is a temperature scale. The lower the Kelvin number will mean more yellow light; the higher Kelvin number translates to a whiter (or more blue) the light will appear. 
To give you an idea of what this translates to on real world terms, a traditional incandescent bulb measures 2700K whereas a basic first-generation LED might measure between 4000K-4500K. Nowadays a 3000K LED is a great option!

Color Rendering Index (CRI) - this is a measurement of the ability for each different light source to correctly display various colors. For example, warmer colors, like red and golds, tend to look more appealing in a warmer light source like an incandescent. That same color, red, under a cooler fluorescent appears purple. CRI is measured in a range between 1-100. This system of measurement is somewhat flawed and will probably be overhauled in the next year or so.


Here are the 4 basic types of light sources that are in use in residential lighting and some factors that make them good or poor choices.

Incandescent - Since the time when we depended on fireplaces and lamplight as our main source of lighting, the warm glow of incandescent makes incandescents a natural favorite. Most of us would say our warm skin tones just looks better in this warmer light. But the fact that most of the energy these bulbs use is given off in unwanted heat rather than actual lighting, makes them innately inefficient as a light source.

  • Incandescent bulbs last on average only 1000-2000 hours
  • Come on instantly and no flicker
  • Can be used with any dimmer switch
  • Bulb replacement/maintenance is an important factor as they don't last as long as other sources – so not a good choice for hard-to-reach areas

Halogen Bulbs -  These bulbs are in the incandescent family, but use less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs. Their appeal comes in the form of a brighter, whiter light that makes them great for spotlights. However, halogen bulbs give off even more heat and the life span is not really improved.

  • Easily dimmed
  • Small, compact sizes
  • Some versions of this bulb that are not a standard screw-base can be difficult to install
  • Get very hot

CFL (Compact Fluorescent) - This light source has come a long way since the first generation of fluorescent bulbs were introduced in the late 1930's. Certainly, this smaller scale version made them an energy efficient option to incandescent, but several problematic features made consumers dislike this light source despite the energy-savings. In the beginning, the "color" of CFLs just didn't feel good, and improvements in CRI over the past few years have been overshadowed by the introduction of LEDs into the residential marketplace.

  • Sometimes a delay when turning on and flicker
  • Dimming can be problematic
  • Bulbs contain mercury
  • Affected by external temperature
  • Life expectancy 8,000 – 10,000 hours
  • Fluorescent tubes will not work without an electronic or magnetic ballast as part of the fixture, which can cause a humming or buzz.
  • Fluorescent lighting fixtures, which work only with these types of bulbs make this light source even more efficient, but not available in many styles.

LED (Light Emitting Diode) - This relatively new light source is actually multiple "lights" which are made of a semiconductor material, (similar to a computer chip) which illuminates when an electric current is passed through them. There are two ways to use the LED technology; first by using a "retrofit" LED bulb in a traditionally incandescent fixture. The second being a fixture that is made specifically for a LED bulb. The latter is actually an even more energy-efficient option, but they can be expensive.

  • Many bulb options are bulky and unattractive
  • The heat produced is absorbed in a special heat sink, keeping the bulbs cool to the touch.
  • Quality is a consideration as there are minimal manufacturing guidelines so color temperature can be compromised
  • Dimming can be problematic 
  • Life expectancy 15,000 - 25,000 hours
  • Be wary of the new “smart LED bulbs” which you can control from a phone app – do you really want to have to use your phone to dim your lighting vs a simple wall switch?


Some final details to note when purchasing your bulbs:

  • Never exceed the maximum wattage that your lamp or light source recommends. Those are there for a reason, to keep you safe.
  • Look at the Light Facts on all packaging. This is a great source of information. It gives you the Life, Brightness (Lumens), Light Appearance and Energy Used.
  • Bring your old bulb with you if you’re unsure of what kind of bulb you need or that is required. 
  • You can and should recycle your Fluorescent and CFL bulbs. 
Carrie Oesmann