It's the end of the light bulb as we know it

With new, stricter efficiency standards almost upon us, it's time to think differently about your lights. Here's why you should feel fine.

Ry Crist Senior Editor / Reviews - Labs
Originally hailing from Troy, Ohio, Ry Crist is a writer, a text-based adventure connoisseur, a lover of terrible movies and an enthusiastic yet mediocre cook. A CNET editor since 2013, Ry's beats include smart home tech, lighting, appliances, broadband and home networking.
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Ry Crist
7 min read
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In 2007, the US Congress under President George W. Bush passed the Energy Independence and Security Act. Key among its provisions was a new series of regulations mandating the gradual phase-out of the manufacturing, importation, and sale of inefficient lighting. We've already said goodbye to 75- and 100-watt incandescent light bulbs, and on January 1, 2014, we'll be bidding adieu to 40- and 60-watt bulbs as well.

The move is intended to kick-start a new era of longer-lasting, more efficient lighting, and according to some, it's a move that's long overdue. After all, incandescent bulbs waste up to 90 percent of the energy they consume on heat output, which is why incandescents get so hot when they're turned on. According to EnergyStar, if every American household replaced just one standard light bulb with one of its certified, high-efficiency light sources, we'd save about $600 million in annual energy costs and prevent 9 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions per year -- equivalent to the yearly output of roughly 800,000 cars.

Still, plenty of folks are concerned about the higher costs of higher efficiency, and some simply prefer the warm tone that you get from incandescents. Just before 100-watt incandescents were phased out last year, one in eight Americans said that they'd stockpile the bulbs when polled by lighting company Osram Sylvania, and you can find similar chatter right now with regards to the 40- and 60-watt varieties that are on their way out next year.

Regardless of whether you love the idea of a greener energy standard or hate the idea of additional mandates on the free market, the bottom line is that you're going to need to change the way you think about your lights. No longer will swapping a bulb out simply be a matter of slapping a buck or two down on the hardware store counter for a quick, readily disposable lighting fix. The bulbs of tomorrow are already here today, and they're more advanced, more efficient, and yes, more expensive. You're going to need to put some thought into which ones will serve as the best investments for your home.

In short, it's time to start thinking about light bulbs the way we think about appliances. Here's what you'll need to know.

GE's "omnidirectional" bulb gives off as much light as a 40-watt incandescent, while only consuming 9 watts. Martin LaMonica/CNET

You've still got options
In 2007, when the law was enacted, one of the key criticisms of the legislation was that the only real alternatives to incandescents would be compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs, which, despite their high efficiency, were largely unpopular with consumers and perhaps even dangerous because of the trace amount of mercury contained within each bulb. Times have changed in the last six years, though, with manufacturers stepping up to the challenge -- and the opportunity -- of an impending bulb void.

The most obvious change since 2007 is the wide arrival of high-efficiency LED bulbs that only use a fraction of an incandescent bulb's wattage, and promise to last up to 20 years or more. Take note that LEDs don't suddenly "burn out" the way that traditional incandescents do. Instead, their brightness fades slowly over a long time period. Manufacturers can calculate how long it will take the light to fade to 70 percent of its original brightness, and this point, known as L70, is the current definition of an LED that's reached the end of its life.

These bulbs can run on the expensive side, with some hitting the $30 mark or higher, but there are more-affordable varieties, too. Take a quick glance at what Home Depot is offering, for instance, and you'll find highly rated LED bulbs from Philips and Cree selling for about $10 -- and the price per bulb gets even lower if you buy in bulk. Additionally, as more competition arrives to the free market and these bulbs become more widely used, don't be surprised if prices fall even further.

Don't be too quick to rule out CFL bulbs, either. Since 2007, the variety of tones and color temperatures has improved, and more CFLs are dimmable these days. As for the mercury, the amount sealed inside each CFL is less than 1/100th of what you'd find inside an old-style thermometer -- enough to warrant a fair degree of caution when it comes time to recycle the light or clean up a broken bulb, but not enough to justify avoiding them outright.

One other option consumers should keep in mind are halogen bulbs, which are simply incandescent bulbs with the addition of a small amount of a halogen gas like iodine or bromine. Major manufacturers like Philips, GE, and Sylvania have already released higher-efficiency halogens that meet the new lighting standards, and at a few bucks a bulb, these lights should serve as a solid compromise for incandescent users reluctant to spend double digits on a replacement.

Philips EcoVantage halogen incandescents are an affordable middle-ground between futuristic LEDs and your standard, everyday bulb. Philips

Incandescents aren't necessarily going away
If you're worried that the EPA will come knocking on your door, ready to fine you for each desk lamp that still has an incandescent screwed into it, you can relax. The law restricts incandescents from being manufactured, sold, or imported, but it doesn't say anything about using them, so feel free to use up any bulbs you have on hand before making the switch.

What's more, even after those bulbs have burned out, you may still be able to go out and replace them with additional incandescents. One of the law's concessions is that retailers will be allowed to continue selling whatever incandescent bulbs they already have in stock after the regulations fall into place. When the initial round of regulations phased out 75- and 100-watt incandescent bulbs, it was still possible to find them on the shelves of local stores as long as six months after the law's enactment. If you're one of these consumers who feels hesitant about saying goodbye to your old-school bulbs, you've got a little bit of wiggle room.

Finally, keep in mind that the 2007 law is "technology-neutral," meaning that incandescent bulbs aren't banned outright. Instead, the law regulates the sale of all lights deemed "inefficient' by the new, stricter standards. While this falls largely in Thomas Edison's incandescent lap (the technology is 134 years old, after all), it still leaves room for the development and sale of higher-efficiency incandescents, like those low-cost halogens.

Rated at 2,700 Kelvin, this Philips LED features a more yellow light than the white light some LEDs give off. Martin LaMonica/CNET

Know the numbers
Today, light-bulb manufacturers are required to include a great deal of information on their packaging. Some of these figures, like the bulb's average energy costs per year, are pretty self explanatory, but others, such as the color-rendering index (CRI) are less clear. Understanding all of these figures is key in determining which light bulbs will provide the best value for your home.

One of the first things consumers might look at is the average life expectancy of the bulb. With your standard incandescent bulb, this is usually something like 1,000 hours, or just under a year if the bulb is used for an average of 3 hours per day. With a high-end LED bulb, you might see a figure like 25,000 hours or even 50,000 hours. I'll save you from doing the math -- that's as much as 45 years of hypothetical usage. Throughout that entire time, you'll be paying significantly less on energy than you would have been with your old light, so an LED bulb that's built to last can make for a terrific investment.

As for that CRI number, think of it like an average grade for the bulb's ability to faithfully reproduce various colors in comparison with natural daylight. During testing, a bulb gets a grade of 1 to 100 for each color. For instance, a bulb that scores high with greens will make limes look just as green as they would in the sunlight. These color grades get averaged, and the result is the CRI number -- the higher the better. Bulbs with CRI numbers in the 80s are typically very good, high-end lights, although we're seeing some consumer-level bulbs, like the recently announced Cree TW Series LED Bulb, start to creep up into the 90s. If you're looking for clear, vivid colors from your light, seek out bulbs such as these.

Cree's new TW Series LED Bulb boasts an impressive CRI of 93. Cree

For brightness, you'll want to look for the number of lumens that the bulb puts out. A lumen is a unit of measure for light output. In essence, a bulb is simply a device that converts watts (electricity) into lumens (light), and generally speaking, the more lumens a bulb produces, the brighter it will appear. Remember that not all bulbs are created equal -- some are dramatically better at converting watts into lumens than others. An 8-watt bulb might produce more lumens than a 10-watt bulb, for instance. If brightness is your chief concern, check the boxes carefully.

Don't get confused by color temperature, either. Color temperature, measured on the Kelvin scale, is not an indication of how hot or bright the bulb gets. Instead, it's a measure of the color of the light that the bulb produces. Think of a flame -- it's orange and yellow at first, but a really hot flame glows blue. Color temperature works the same way. Lights on the low end of the spectrum (2,700 to 3,000K) will have a warm, orange color, whereas lights on the high end (4,500 to 6,500K) will look more bluish. Lights that fall somewhere in the middle of the scale should shine bright white.

The color temperature difference between the 17-watt Philips Ambient LED (left) and a 26-watt CFL is easy to see. Candace Lombardi/CNET

No matter how you end up lighting your home, the important thing to remember is that you'll still have the power to decide what's best for you. No one is forcing you to use a certain kind of light bulb -- the government is just forcing manufacturers to build you better ones. After 134 years of incandescents, maybe it's about time.