Decoding the New Light Bulb Lingo

Posted by on March 10, 2012


Last week I went shopping at my local home improvement center to replace one of the light bulbs in my kitchen. Wow was I surprised! Not only could I not find the same bulb that I’ve been buying for about 10 years, I didn’t recognize some of the more alien-looking bulbs, and the labels were in another language completely. All I wanted was a 75W floodlight!

I was dazed, confused and utterly frustrated by the new world of light bulbs and determined to figure out what the heck is going on, not only to help myself, but to help other consumers from needlessly going crazy in the light bulb aisle.

Here’s what I found: in 2007, Congress passed a law that created new standards for light bulbs based on the amount of light produced for energy consumed—standards which traditional incandescent bulbs are unable to meet. The law requires all light bulbs to use 30 percent less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs by 2012 to 2014. The phase-out started with 100-watt bulbs beginning in January 2012 and will end with 40-watt bulbs sold starting in January 2014. In conjunction with the new law, the Federal Trade Commission issued a new rule for the labeling of light bulbs, which resulted in a new look beginning in January 2012.

In short, the light bulbs you’ve been buying for decades will no longer be manufactured or sold. In their place are newer, more efficient light bulbs that generally fall into three categories:

Energy Saving Incandescents — about 25% energy savings

These look the most like “old fashioned” light bulbs. Energy-saving, or halogen, incandescents have a capsule inside that holds gas around a filament to increase bulb efficiency. This type of incandescent bulb is about 25 precent more efficient and can last up to three times longer than traditional incandescent bulbs. They are available in a wide range of shapes and colors, and can be used with dimmers.

CFLs — about 75% energy savings

Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) are simply curly versions of the long tube fluorescent lights you may already have in a kitchen or garage. New CFL bulbs are available in a range of light colors, including warm (white to yellow) tones that were not as available when first introduced. Some are encased in a cover to further diffuse the light and provide a similar shape to the bulbs you are replacing. If you are looking for a dimmable bulb, check the package to make sure you purchase a CFL with that feature. CFLs contain a small amount of mercury, and they should always be recycled at the end of their lifespan. Many retailers recycle CFLs for free. See for more information.

LEDs — about 75% – 80% energy savings

The light emitting diode (LED) is one of today’s most energy-efficient and rapidly developing technologies. ENERGY STAR-qualified LEDs use only 20% – 25% of the energy and last up to 25 times longer than the traditional incandescent bulbs they replace. LED bulbs are currently available in many products such as replacements for 40W, 60W, and 75W traditional incandescents, reflector bulbs often used in recessed fixtures, and small track lights.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, while the initial price of the newer light bulbs is typically higher than the inefficient incandescent bulbs you are replacing, you’ll spend less each year to operate them. Most CFLs pay for themselves with the energy they save in less than nine months.

Average consumers will spend about $4.80 to operate a traditional incandescent bulb for a year (electricity cost). By comparison, average consumers will spend about $1.00 to operate an ENERGY STAR LED bulb, about $3.50 on a halogen incandescent bulb, and about $1.20 on an ENERGY STAR CFL bulb — each that produces about the same amount of light. (Costs based on 60W replacement, 2 hours/day usage; local utility rates and charges vary.)

Note: There are many types of incandescent bulbs that are exempt from this law, such as specialty bulbs for appliances, candelabras, globes and 3-way bulbs. Those will still be available as traditional incandescents.

Reading the New Labels

The first thing you may notice when shopping for bulbs is that the terms “watts” is gone. In its place, we are shopping based on “lumens.” Lumens measure how much light the bulb produces, how bright it is. More lumens means it’s a brighter light; fewer lumens means it’s a dimmer light. What you will not see is any kind of conversion from traditional incandescent watts to lumens, so here is a reference guide to convert what you’re replacing to the new lingo:

100W incandescent bulb = about 1600 lumens
75Wincandescent bulb = about 1100 lumens
60W incandescent bulb = about 800 lumens
40W incandescent bulb = about 450 lumens

The label on the front of the package emphasizes the bulb’s brightness as measured in lumens, rather than a measurement of watts. The new front-of-package labels also include the estimated yearly energy cost for the particular type of bulb.

At first I was confused by the new measurements, but with all the different technologies now available, using “lumens” creates a standard that is technology-neutral. See, “watts” measured the amount of energy a bulb used, not the strength of the light it produced. So a consumer looking at a CFL with a “12W” label might think the bulb would be dim, when really it just uses much less energy.

The back of each package of light bulbs now have a “Lighting Facts” label modeled after the “Nutrition Facts” label that is currently on food packages. The Lighting Facts label provides information about:lighting_label

  • brightness;
  • energy cost;
  • the bulb’s life expectancy;
  • light appearance (for example, if the bulb provides “warm” or “cool” light);
  • wattage (the amount of energy the bulb uses); and
  • whether the bulb contains mercury.

The other thing that has changed is the description of the color of light, which can be important in a room’s design and use. One of the biggest complaints about CFL bulbs has been the color or quality of the light begin too harsh and blinding. If you were used to buying “soft white” incandescent bulbs, you will no longer find that term on the new packaging. In its place is an indication of the temperature of the light, measured in degrees Kelvin (K) (which sounds vaguely familiar from a high school science class).

While most energy efficient bulbs now come in “warm” colors to match the yellowish light of incandescent bulbs, you can also choose “cooler” colors with whiter and bluish hues for reading and task lighting.

For warmer color (formerly soft white) look for 2700–3000K, 3500–4100K gives a bright white light and 5000–6500K is bluer and most like daylight.

For more information, go to The site includes  Frequently Asked Questions addressing topics such as lighting choices, the new law standards, lumens and mercury.