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Solving the Lightbulb ­Puzzle

To buy the right bulb, you need to be an engineer

In the electrical department of a local big box home improvement store, I couldn’t help but overhear a woman mumbling, “When did things become so complicated?” I drifted in the other direction to avoid the drama.
    Then I realized she wasn’t talking about her love life. She was trying to buy a light bulb. There were no sales people in sight. I’m not sure if I was motivated by human kindness, ­chivalry or the need to show off my knowledge from 40 years of electrical engineering. Whatever my reason, I volunteered to help.
    For more than 100 years, buying a 60-watt light bulb for a lamp or fixture was easy. You had only one choice: The standard tungsten-filament incandescent bulb. Hardware, grocery, variety stores or the local 7-Eleven — all offered only one bulb.
    No more. Traditional incandescent bulbs are still sold for specialty applications, like decorative fixtures and oven lights. Otherwise, the old-style light bulbs we have been putting into our lamps and light fixtures for the last century are gone.
    Now we have two new bulb choices: CFLs (Compact Florescent Lamps) and LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes). Further complicating your choice is the phasing out of the traditional method of sizing a bulb. Wattage, the energy consumption of the bulb, is yielding to lumens, a measure of the light output. A third new characteristic to think about: color temperature.
    Color temperature is the hue of the light source. Incandescent lights use tungsten filaments, and the hue of tungsten is warm and yellowish. In both LED and CFL bulbs, color temperature is a choice you must make. Typically color temperature ranges from warm white to cool white to daylight, with the hue changing from yellowish to blue from one to the other.
    In some uses, you won’t care about color temperature. In others, you will have to experiment to see what works best for you.
    In my garage, for example, I don’t care about whether the light looks yellowish or bluish; in my closet, where I must choose a tie to go with a shirt, the color temperature of the light matters.
    Yes, light bulb choice has become complicated.

Two New Choices
    CFLs have been popular a little longer than LED models. These compact fluorescents are typified by the spiral coil shape of the tube — although models with a more traditional look are coming on the market. A limitation of CFLs is cold weather performance. It can take five to 15 minutes to reach full brightness. Sometimes that matters — you don’t want to wait on a sensor light — sometimes not. Today, CFLs enjoy a cost advantage over LEDs.
    Light emitting diode bulbs are today’s superior technology. They come in lots of shapes — most commonly traditional — can be more compact and energy-efficient, have much longer life and are bright from startup. Price and selection have kept LEDs from dominating the market, but that is changing. Prices have been dropping rapidly and choices increasing.
    An American Lighting Association website from 2012 describes a 12.5-watt LED bulb as costing about $40. Now that bulb costs $11 at Home Depot. I think prices will continue to drop and in a decade will wipe CFLs off the market.

Making Your Choice
    It’s complex but not insurmountable, and the consequences of making the wrong choice are minor.
    If you need help after reading Bob’s Guide (below), your local hardware store is a best bet.
    Not all sales people are equally knowledgeable; don’t be shy about asking for the expert on light bulbs. Keeping up is a struggle even for the stores.
    “As much as you think you’re on top of the technology, new products are coming out that are cheaper and better,” said Gordon Clement, owner of Clement Hardware in Severna Park. “We’re always learning; we need to stay on top of things to serve our customers.”
    Because the technology is changing so rapidly, I don’t recommend an immediate shopping trip to buy new bulbs for your entire house. Buy one or two and see what looks best to you. Then buy replacements as you need them. The longer you wait, the lower the price will drop.

Motive to the Madness
    We need to save energy every way we can, and a device — no matter how cheap and familiar — that converts only 14 percent of its energy input to useful output is an obvious target.
    The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 required the gradual phase-out of the old familiar incandescent light bulb. As of 2014, traditional, common incandescent bulbs were no longer for sale. Fortunately, Congress timed it right. The CFL and LED technologies were ready to explode. The additional demand anticipated by this legislation motivated manufacturers to invest in making their products better and cheaper.
    The movement toward more energy-efficient light sources is global; most countries are going this way.
    Ten years from now, the technologies will mature and our choices will probably be simple again. Now we’re in a transition period, and things are changing fast. The new generation of bulbs might never rival the 70 cents a traditional incandescent bulb cost when it was last available, but it’s not unrealistic to think that an $11 LED bulb will be less than $5 in a few years. Factor in the longer life and your energy savings, and you’re saving both energy and money.


Bob’s Guide to Light Bulb Selection