Lightbulb Facts: What's New, What You Need to Know

Under a new law, traditional incandescent lightbulbs are gradually being replaced by more efficient technologies. Here's how to find the lightbulb you need. Plus, learn more about CFL bulbs, LED bulbs, and halogen bulbs.

The traditional 100-watt incandescent lightbulb is like an old friend. Essentially unchanged since its invention in 1879 by Thomas Edison, it offers a familiar glow. But legislation intended to reduce energy consumption and utility bills has sent consumers scurrying to hardware stores, stashing away packages of 100-watt bulbs in a mistaken belief that incandescent lightbulbs have been outlawed.

It turns out those are unnecessary trips. Yes, requirements in the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA), signed into law in 2007 by George W. Bush with the support of U.S. lighting manufacturers, are aimed at cutting energy costs by implementing efficiency standards for a range of items. That mandate includes the use of lightbulbs that last longer and are less expensive to run, which in essence means a phase-out of traditional incandescent bulbs -- but not of incandescent technology. "In almost every news story I've read, there's misinformation," says Joe Rey-Barreau, an architect and lighting spokesman for the American Lighting Association.

New Lightbulb Technologies

Traditional incandescent technology has long been on the way out in favor of newer technologies that mirror its look and appearance but consume vastly reduced energy. The distinction is important: Traditional incandescents use only 10 percent of their energy to produce light; the rest is converted into heat.

Manufacturers have already created spot-on replacements, including the incandescent technology halogen, as well as even more energy-savvy compact fluorescent and LED lightbulbs.

"You are going to start finding lightbulbs that look like traditional incandescents but are halogen, which is a gas inserted into an incandescent bulb," Rey-Barreau says. "Those produce a slightly whiter quality of light and are 25-percent more energy-efficient."

Compact fluorescent lamps, or CFLs, come in a variety of light colors and generate about 75-percent less heat than traditional incandescent bulbs but are more expensive than traditional incandescents.

Light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, unlike fluorescent and incandescent lamps, are made of single or multiple semiconducting chips mounted on a circuit board and attached to a bulb design. They offer exceptionally long bulb life.

Consumers remain confused about how the various lightbulbs work and are struggling with labels that are bewildering to interpret. For starters, the same wattage from different kinds of bulbs will not produce the same light output, or lumens. Take the 72-watt halogen incandescent: It puts out 1,490 lumens, approximately the same as that of a 100-watt incandescent, but does so while consuming less energy. A new Lighting Facts label should help by distinguishing differences -- light color, energy consumption and cost, lifetime, lumens, and dimmability -- in a much clearer fashion.

Lightbulb Buying Tips

Still, there will probably be irritation -- with new terms, lightbulbs, and technology -- particularly with CFLs. That's understandable, Rey-Barreau says. "People get frustrated because they think they are going to have to buy CFLs, but there's an alternative in the halogen incandescent," he says. "The other problem is that with an incandescent, no matter who made it, the technology is the same. For CFLs, three bulbs by three manufacturers may have slightly different colors. I tell people to experiment, and when you find one you really like, stick with that brand."

The mercury in CFLs also makes consumers wary, but Rey-Barreau says it's a misplaced fear. "A CFL lightbulb contains only 4 milligrams or less of mercury, and no mercury is released when the lightbulb is intact or in use," Rey-Barreau says. "For comparison, there is 125 times more mercury in a traditional thermometer."

Traditional Incandescent Lightbulb Phase-Out

The EISA institutes a gradual phase-out of traditional incandescent technology, with California a year ahead of the rest of the country. Still, 22 types of incandescent bulbs are exempt, including decorative bulbs such as candelabra bulbs, three-way bulbs, reflector bulbs, and appliance bulbs.

Here's the EISA-mandated phase-out schedule:

January 1, 2012: 100-watt incandescent lightbulbs. Existing inventory may be sold but manufacturers are not shipping any more.

January 1, 2013: 75-watt.

January 1, 2014: 60- and 40-watt.

Traditional Incandescent Lightbulb Replacements

To replace your 100-watt traditional incandescent bulb, you have three options (look for warm-color light):

  • Halogen: 72 watts, 1,490 lumens, 1,000 hours of use; 25-percent energy savings with same life
  • CFL: 26 watts, 1,600 lumens, 10,000 hours; 75-percent energy savings, 10 times the life.
  • LED: 12 watts, 800 lumens, 25,000 hours; 75-percent or more in energy savings, 25 times the life. (LEDs are also available to replace 40-, 60-, and 75-watt incandescent bulbs.)

Lumens, or light output, are printed both on the new lightbulb label and the lightbulb itself. To replace your other favorite traditional incandescents, look for these lumens:

  • 40-watt bulb = 450 lumens
  • 60-watt bulb = 800 lumens
  • 75-watt bulb = 1,100 lumens
  • 100-watt bulb = 1,600 lumens

Lightbulb Costs

Traditional incandescent bulbs are fairly inexpensive -- about $.30 per bulb -- while halogen incandescents are about $1.50 per bulb and CFLs are about $2 per bulb. However, the savings accrue over the lifetime of the bulb; traditional incandescents are fairly expensive to operate. Halogens consume less energy, and CFL and LED bulbs drastically reduce even that. And the latter three last longer than a traditional incandescent. In fact, CFLs last 10 times longer on average than comparable incandescents.

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Editor's Tip: Every state (and some cities) regulates the disposal of CFLs differently. If a CFL breaks, go to for advice. At, you'll find a ZIP code-searchable database with disposal regulations and CFL-disposal sites.

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