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Welcome to Light Bulb Selection Hell

May 10, 2017
Anyone can still change a light bulb without too much trouble, but buying one has become an altogether different matter.

How many engineers does it take to change a light bulb? The answer is “one,” but maybe the question should be changed to: How many engineers does it take to choose a replacement light bulb? Today, it actually requires an engineer’s knowledge.

It used to be easy to buy a light bulb. You simply noted the wattage of the defective bulb and bought a replacement from the minimal choices available (e.g., frosted vs. clear). Not so today. Most of the popular old incandescent bulbs have been banned and phased out over the years by way of a government mandate to save energy. Standard 40, 60, 75, and 100 W bulbs are no longer available other than via any lingering inventory.

To replace a bulb today requires that you buy a compact fluorescent (CFL) or an LED of equivalent brightness. They cost more, but last longer and use much less energy. So it is a positive thing overall. What makes things so difficult is that there are so many replacement choices. And instead of just a wattage rating, you need to pay attention to the lumens (brightness) rating and color specification.

Recently I went to Home Depot to buy some replacement bulbs. The light bulb section takes up one whole side of an aisle and presents literally hundreds of bulb sizes and types. I was eventually able to find what I needed: a 65 W incandescent flood for a recessed ceiling light and a standard three-way 250 W bulb for my reading lamp. They still sell these. The equivalent LED flood was way too pricey, so I stayed with the incandescent. As for the 250 W bulb, I know that it’s wasteful—but also bright. I like bright, and replacement CFLs and LEDs just don’t do it for me.

A few years back I did replace most of the lamp, ceiling fixture and outdoor bulbs with CFLs. They’re certainly bright enough, and I felt good that I was saving energy. However, I never did see what I would call a real savings on my electric utility bill. Then I found out why: According to government statistics and studies, lighting represents only 9 to 14% of a typical household’s electric budget.

In case you didn’t know, most of the energy consumed in the home goes to air conditioning, heating, water heaters, refrigerators, and other major appliances. So even if you did decrease your lighting energy usage by a few percentage points, that’s still only a small percentage of a small percentage. No wonder I didn’t see a major change in my bill. However, I have noticed that increasing the temperature setting 3 to 5 deg. on the AC during the summer makes a significant difference.

My next light bulb adventure is changing out the under the cabinet kitchen lights. The old fluorescents fail regularly and the fixtures have broken. I just acquired a set of peel-and-stick LED strip lights. These are super-bright and the package says they should be good for 23 years. I think that’s probably long enough for me. I won’t worry about any miniscule energy savings, but I will cheer the minimal maintenance required.le

As for regular light bulbs, you still have some choices. For example, halogen or xenon gas-filled incandescent bulbs continue to be available. They are bright and use less energy than an equivalent incandescent. CFLs are still available, but some forthcoming new government regulations are expected to make it tougher for them to receive an ENERGY STAR rating. As a result, CFLs are being phased out by some manufacturers.

So today, LEDs are the focus. Thanks to technological developments, their prices have come down significantly, making them a practical choice. You will benefit from the lower prices, brighter light, and energy savings. Just know that you’ll have hundreds of versions to choose from, including colors and Wi-Fi dimming via smartphone app. Have fun with that. That’s business as usual, though, since technology usually makes things better…but also more complex.

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