Lighting Your House

By Jonathan Susser | March 2, 2017

Lighting accounts for approximately 5 to 10 percent of your household energy bill. This amount may not seem like a lot, but it can add up quickly. In recent years, energy efficient lighting has become available, but the variety of bulbs and their features can be overwhelming. So what options are there? Before diving into what’s in store today, it is important to understand some history.


The bulbs that were most popular throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries were incandescent bulbs. These bulbs have their origin nearly 150 years ago, becoming reliable and first commercially successful in the late 1800s thanks to Thomas Edison. Incandescent bulbs went through multiple improvements in the following decades, but one problem remained: only about 10 percent of the energy they used went toward producing light; the other 90 percent was being wasted as heat. Therefore, scientists continued to look for ways to make lighting more efficient.

In 2012, new U.S. lighting standards went into effect through the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. These standards (which apply primarily to conventional medium-sized bulbs) require that newly manufactured and imported light bulbs consume less energy for the amount of light they produce. In other words, they must be more efficient by using at least 25 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs. With traditional incandescent bulbs being phased out, an energy-saving version has been promoted, known as a halogen incandescent. However, halogens save only about the minimum 25 percent on energy, last just slightly longer and may no longer be considered sufficiently efficient when new standards are developed, likely in a few years. The other common energy efficient bulbs are compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

Types of Energy Efficient Bulbs

Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) first became available for purchase in the mid-1980s. You have probably seen them around in their spiral shaped form. These bulbs initially suffered from inconsistent performance and low light output but have drastically improved over the years. Now, they can save you approximately 75 percent in energy costs when compared with incandescent bulbs, and they last about 10 times longer. However, these bulbs have some drawbacks. For example, they lose life expectancy when used in short bursts (i.e., are not left on for longer periods of time) and many take some time to warm up. They also contain small amounts of mercury and therefore need to be handled and disposed of properly. When future lighting regulations are introduced, CFLs, like halogens, may likewise fail to make the cut.

Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are becoming the mainstay of energy efficient lighting. They are a type of solid-state lighting that use semiconductor technology to convert electricity into light. LEDs have been around for many years (i.e., indicator lights on electronics), but their application as a conventional light bulb is less than a decade old. They are the most expensive of the energy efficient bulbs, but they continue to get cheaper, and they also save the most money on energy costs, upwards of 75 percent. Additionally, they can last 20-30 times longer than incandescent bulbs. Their versatility allows them to be used in a variety of applications, including as outdoor and holiday lighting.

Potential Savings

In the past, energy efficient bulbs cost significantly more than incandescents, but developing technology and a competitive market have caused their prices to continue to drop. This means you can start saving quickly and for years down the road. Check out the potential savings you can see by replacing just five of your more frequently used bulbs with energy efficient alternatives.

Lighting Lingo

Now that we know the current state of light bulbs, it is important to understand their terminology. Two critical features to keep in mind are watts and lumens.

  • Watts (W): The amount of energy a bulb uses to produce light, or how much energy the bulb consumes. Lower watts = lower electric bills.
  • Lumens: The amount of light that a bulb gives off, or how bright it is.

In the past, light bulb branding and packaging emphasized watts, and this made sense: with only one primary bulb available (incandescents), more watts = more light. The rise of more efficient bulbs, however, has caused this notion to be inaccurate: newer bulbs use much less energy to produce the same amount of light. As an example, a 10W LED bulb gives off approximately the same amount of light as a 60W incandescent bulb. So, more watts ≠ more light. Therefore, branding now emphasizes lumens, which is typically what consumers are interested in.

Another key aspect to consider when purchasing light bulbs is their appearance, or color temperature. Color temperature is measured in degrees Kelvin (K). Lower values, between approximately 2,600 K and 3,000 K represent warmer light. Typical incandescent bulbs tend to give off light in this range. Higher values represent cooler and bluer light, such as daylight. Whitish light is in the middle of the scale. Different environments can benefit from different color temperatures. For example, a bedroom may be a better place for a warmer light, while a kitchen might be better suited with something a little whiter. Nowadays you can purchase energy efficient bulbs across the color temperature spectrum. The important thing is that you know the ambience you are getting.

Starting in 2011, light bulb packaging has included a Lighting Facts label, which is similar to the Nutrition Facts label you find on food. This label provides the bulb’s brightness (in lumens), estimated yearly cost, projected life span, light appearance (color temperature in K) and energy consumption (in watts).

Other Considerations

Not all energy efficient bulbs are created equal. You will first want to consider the different features discussed above. However, something else to keep an eye on is whether a bulb is certified by ENERGY STAR®. ENERGY STAR is a program through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that performs third-party testing to evaluate energy efficient products, including light bulbs. To pass the tests and become ENERGY STAR certified, LEDs and CFLs (halogens cannot be ENERGY STAR certified) must be of high quality and produce savings. They must meet strict quality and efficiency standards, including demonstrating consistent light output, excellent color and brightness, and more.

What to Do With Old Bulbs

If you’re making the switch to new energy efficient bulbs, it will help to know what to do with your old ones. There are many options available for recycling bulbs. First, check your local waste and recycling department to see if bulbs are accepted. You can also drop off most bulbs at a local Batteries Plus Bulbs store to be recycled. To find other recycling centers near you, visit Earth911.

Traditional incandescent bulbs and halogens may be accepted at household hazardous waste facilities. Many recycling drop-off centers, however, do not accept the bulbs for recycling, but be sure to check with your local recycling center.

CFLs are the bulbs that need to be handled most carefully because of their mercury. Disposing of them in the trash may cause them to break, which would release mercury into the environment. Therefore, the EPA recommends recycling them at local facilities, and some states even require it. Many hardware supply and home improvement stores, such as Home Depot and Lowes, offer CFL recycling, and you can also seek out your local hazardous waste facility.

LEDs, like incandescents and halogens, do not contain any hazardous materials and do not require any special disposal treatment. Because LEDs are made from materials that can be recycled, find out if your recycling provider will accept them.

Lighting Key Points

Energy efficient bulbs are here to say. And not only do they save you money, but they benefit the environment as well. Some electric utilities even offer rebates for purchasing energy efficient lighting or will have bulb giveaways. What’s not to like? Because there are a number of things to consider before purchasing, here is a recap of the key points.

  • LEDs are the most efficient bulbs. Although they cost more upfront, they will save you the most money, and relatively quickly.
  • Focus on lumens (brightness) more than watts (energy consumption).
  • Consider what type of atmosphere you want to have with your bulb by looking at color temperature.
  • Look for ENERGY STAR certification to be more confident in your bulb purchases.
  • When replacing bulbs, be sure to handle old ones (especially CFLs) appropriately.