If you wind up with lighting that’s harsh, flat, or unpleasant — like when you’re trying on bathing suits in a retail dressing room — it won’t matter that you got that LED on sale or that it lasts forever. You’ll wish it didn’t.
For most home lighting, your choice boils down to three options, from most to least expensive:
- Fluorescents (including CFLs)
- Energy-efficient (halogen) incandescents, which meet the government’s new energy efficiency standards and aren’t being phased out.
So how do you choose?
New Labels Can Help
New Federal Trade Commission-required labels can help make your decision easier , but they don’t include all the info you need, and you may not find the new labels on all packaging just yet. So research individual bulbs online, says independent lighting consultant Deborah Witte. You can often find the necessary info on manufacturers’ websites.
What You Need to Know to Buy a Bulb
1. Exactly how warm or cool the light is. Appears on FTC label as: light appearance
Terms such as “soft white” don’t mean the same thing from brand to brand. To compare bulbs, you need to know their color temperature, which is measured in kelvins on a scale of 1,000 (the warmest — think candlelight) to 10,000 (the coolest — like a blue sky). LEDs, CFLs, and halogen incandescents all come in a wide range of color temperatures.
Stick to around 3,000 kelvins or less — warmer light is more flattering — and stay consistent, Witte says. Don’t put cool task lighting in a warmly lit room just because it theoretically offers more contrast: “You’ll get a weird blue glow,” she says.
2. How bright it is. Appears on FTC label as: Lumens
Bulb brightness is purely a personal choice, because it depends on:
- Natural lighting in the room
- The task or object you’re illuminating
- How old you are. 60 isn’t the new 30 when it comes to your eyes; you need twice the light at age 60.
Tip: Don’t confuse lumens with wattage. A low-wattage, energy-efficient bulb can burn just as brightly as a high-wattage incandescent
- Wattage: how much power the bulb uses.
- Lumens: how much light the bulb produces.
Specs not covered on the FTC label: (You’ll have to look at manufacturer websites.)
3. How well the bulb shows off colors and textures. This is the key to whether you’ll be satisfied with the quality of light you get. Look for the color rendering index (CRI), a measurement of 1 to 100. The higher the bulb’s score, the better.
- Incandescent halogen bulbs score a perfect 100.
- CFLs and LEDs don’t fare as well as a group, although some individual bulbs get high scores.
4. How the bulb spotlights stuff (in technical terms, beam spread). Let’s say you use track lighting to highlight a piece of artwork. “If you want to light a 15 in. x 9 in. picture on the wall, you don’t need a 4 ft. x 4 ft. spread of light,” Witte says. “To be energy-efficient, match the beam spread with the task, putting light only where you need it.”
Wanna Light Your Home Like the Pros?
The key to setting the mood is combining different sources to create pleasing layers of light, says lighting designer Rosemarie Allaire.
Good for …
- Showing off art
- Task lighting
- Mood creation or the “human experience,” as Allaire says. “Incandescent light renders color and texture beautifully.”
Energy-efficient incandescents give off the same quality of light as the old bulbs, but save 25% on energy costs. They do cost more than the originals, but less than LEDs or CFLs.
Good for …
- Step and stairway lights
- Under cabinets
- Cove lights (for ledges, recessed areas, and tray ceilings)
- Holiday lighting
“LEDs don’t have the three-dimensional light quality that incandescents do, and I find them to be flat,” Allaire says. “They’re all over the map as far as color rendering goes, and they don’t dim well, so I don’t use them in living areas or for art lighting. But their long life is a big plus.”
LEDs will continue to improve rapidly as technology advances. But for now, be sure to check the label for color rendering and color temperature before you buy.
Fluorescent (Meaning the old-style long tubes.)
Good for utility lighting in garages, closets, and laundry rooms.
Neither Witte nor Allaire use CFLs much for clients. CFL lighting is diffuse, so its color rendering generally isn’t up to snuff compared with incandescents. But if you find a particular brand with a color temperature you like, CFLs can work nicely in drop-bowl fixtures and table lamps — places where air circulates freely around the bulb. CFLs don’t do well with too much heat buildup.
How to Make the Final Call
Test-drive individual bulbs. Once you’ve picked a bulb based on the above criteria, buy one and see its light quality in a fixture at home before you commit to buying multiples.
Visit a lighting showroom. Lighting stores can connect you with a wider range of products than you’ll find in big-box stores. Also, the way a bulb casts light in a particular fixture is crucial, so view different combinations in a showroom setting.
Consult a pro. If you’re stuck, ask a lighting designer for help. The International Association of Lighting Designers is a good source for independent consultants (those who don’t sell products). Ask a designer for a one-hour consultation.
Which types of bulbs do you use around your house and why? Share pictures tips from your home in the comments section.