CNET logo Why You Can Trust CNET

Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Reviews ethics statement

The End of Incandescent Light Bulbs Is Coming. Really

Here's how to make the switch to LED now that a new US federal rule requires it soon.

Brian Cooley Editor at Large
Brian Cooley is CNET's Editor at large and has been with the brand since 1995. He currently focuses on electrification of vehicles but also follows the big trends in smart home, digital healthcare, 5G, the future of food, and augmented & virtual realities. Cooley is a sought after presenter by brands and their agencies when they want to understand how consumers react to new technologies. He has been a regular featured speaker at CES, Cannes Lions, Advertising Week and The PHM HealthFront™. He was born and raised in Silicon Valley when Apple's campus was mostly apricots.
Expertise Automotive technology, Smart home, Digital health Credentials
  • 5G Technician, ETA International
Brian Cooley
5 min read

You may have heard this before, but the end of the traditional incandescent light bulb is now truly near thanks to two new US Department of Energy rules that incandescent bulb technology can't skirt. Here's what's happening and how to deal with it.

A hurdle incandescent bulbs can't clear

The first new rule says household light bulbs need to emit at least 45 lumens of light per watt of power used. Typical 60-watt incandescent bulbs only emit 14 lumens per watt compared to popular replacement LED bulbs that generate 91 lumens per watt, far exceeding the new federal standards. Incandescent bulbs fail the new standard due to their antiquated technology that relies on heating up a resistive filament of metal, functioning as a heater almost as much as a light.

The second new rule expands the scope of the first rule to cover virtually every shape, style and wattage of bulbs used in homes.

Light Bulb Types

Just about any kind of bulb used in the home today can be had in an LED version.


The timeline for all this is playing out fast: Bulb-makers must end production of inefficient incandescent bulbs for the US residential market by January of 2023, while wholesalers and retailers have until July 2023 to finish selling their stocks. 

At least 20% of light bulb sales in the US are still power-hungry incandescents, so the Biden administration estimates that zeroing those out will save US consumers $3 billion per year in energy expense. That sounds impressive, but spread across 129 million US households, it's only about $2 a month.

The administration also estimates that reduced energy use from this mandate will cut 222 million metric tons of CO2 emissions over 30 years. Again, that sounds like a lot, but the US emitted over 4.5 billion tons of CO2 in 2020 alone. Don't expect the remaining migration to LED to save the planet. But it won't hurt.

These new regulations will be a short, sharp shock to those still living an incandescent lifestyle, rumblings about the end of which have inspired instances of incandescent bulb hoarding since 2007. You may have already received an error message when trying to buy some types of incandescent bulbs on Amazon, especially for shipment to California, which has, as usual, been running ahead of the new federal rules. 

Light bulb not sold on Amazon

Some types of inefficient incandescent bulbs have been under pressure from 2007 federal rules and tighter 2018 California rules. 

Amazon/Screenshot by Brian Cooley/CNET

If holdouts are to be convinced to come along willingly, rather than trading in an underground incandescent market for years to come, they need to believe LEDs offer high quality light, last as long as their hyperbolic package claims, and are worth a higher upfront cost.

How to buy LED bulbs

LED bulbs can be credited with a lot of attributes, but being simple to select isn't one of them. 

Bulb shape and base size are the most essential -- and easiest -- spec to get right, since LED bulbs are now produced in sizes or shapes analogous to virtually any traditional bulb you're replacing them with. LED bulbs in the classic A19 shape with a medium screw base are now so common it's often hard to find anything else at retail.

Light output is easy to figure out since almost every LED bulb is retailed in terms of its watt equivalence: A "75 watt" LED bulb may only consume 8.5 watts of power but is labeled "75 watts" to give an approximation of light output in terms of something you know.

LED bulb watt equivalence

Most LED bulbs are labeled with a prominent "watt equivalence" label on the package. This "75-watt" LED bulb only uses 8.5 watts, but is labeled as 75 watts to readily communicate the amount of light it puts out. 


Light distribution is a new concern with LED bulbs. Unlike incandescent bulbs that tend to throw light where it looks like they will, LED bulbs can have a more restricted lighting pattern, especially A19 styles that have a pronounced skirt where the bulb's electronics are housed. Look for such obstructions and read the package details to find a bulb that throws light as broadly as a traditional bulb, otherwise you might have some unappealing cutoff shadows in the lamp or fixture you're installing the LED in.  

LED bulb design

The deep plastic base on this A19 LED bulb prevents it from throwing light as broadly as the traditional incandescent it replaces.


The next LED spec to scrutinize is color temperature which indicates what shade of "white" the LED bulb emits, specified in arcane degrees Kelvin, or K. LED bulbs will range from 2,500K, a very warm almost yellow light, to over 5,000K, which is pure white that tends toward a slightly bluish cast. Choose the tone that looks best to you, but if you buy a warmer color bulb consider stepping up to the next higher light output to compensate for slightly less perceived illumination.

Kelvin light temperature

The color of LED bulbs can range from a warm white Kelvin rating of 2,500K to the almost blue white rating of 6,000K.

Mifsud 26 via Wikimedia

Promised bulb life is to be taken with a large grain of salt, since the claims on the package are almost impossible to believe and couched in qualifications. It's a consumer-friendly metric for how long a bulb's internal electronics will last, something which is affected by the quality of components, where you install the bulb and in what orientation. Keep your LED bulb receipts and demand replacement when they die prematurely; it's more common than you might think.

Long life LED bulb

If this bulb lasts its touted 25,000 hours, that's an incredible lifespan of nine years at eight hours of use every day. 


Flicker is an underrated consideration, in my opinion. Unlike incandescent bulbs, LEDs flicker as an essential part of how they work. That flicker may barely be perceived, noticeable as strobing when you move your head or eyes quickly, or dramatically obvious when the bulb is dimmed. "The human eye is incredibly good at detecting things we don't even know we see," says Richard Slovenko, lab manager at 360 Test Labs in Yonkers, New York, which evaluates LED lighting and other electronics for manufacturers. There's also an open question about the negative effects of LED lighting on pets and wild animals, which can have markedly greater perception of light flicker than humans do.

As with bulb life, there's no solid way to gauge a bulb's flicker but a rough workaround is available. "Look for good compatibility with dimmers," says Slovenko, even if you have no plans to use a dimmer. "Those bulbs should be less likely to show flicker" due to overall higher quality of internal engineering and power supply components that convert the AC power in your home to the DC power supply the actual LED modules inside the bulb use. Slovenko also recommends buying name-brand bulbs for similar reasons.

Finally, you'll often see something called Color Rendering Index trumpeted on LED bulb packaging. It's a measure of how accurately colors are rendered to your eye when illuminated by the bulb. Since few scenes around your home are illuminated solely by a single bulb, CRI may not be dramatically perceptible, but the closer to a 100 CRI you get the better the bulb will contribute to overall illumination quality.


A CRI rating closest to 100 will yield LED light that let's the colors of an object be perceived most accurately 

Chris Monroe/CNET

If you tried LED bulbs before and hated the light they put out, I don't blame you. The product category is still in its awkward teenage years.

"[LEDs] haven't had 140 years to be perfected," says Richard Slovenko. "We're still on a learning curve for best practices. It's a constantly changing industry." The combination of more specs to understand and the technology's relative short maturity have conspired to put a lot of junk on the market, but with the new federal regulations almost all US consumers are going to have to make peace with LED lighting soon.