The start of 2014 brought a major change in the way most Americans use light bulbs. Incandescent light bulbs, the standard for more than a century, have all but disappeared from store shelves as a result of new efficiency requirements. The 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act required new light bulbs to become about 25 percent more efficient, with the changes gradually taking effect between 2012 and 2014. Since traditional incandescent bulbs can't meet the new standards, they have faded from the scene over the past two years, starting with the 100-watt bulb and ending with the 40-watt bulb. A few types of specialty incandescent bulbs -- such as appliance bulbs, three-way bulbs and bug lights -- remain available, but for the most part the Edison light bulb has gone the way of the dinosaur.
Although old-fashioned incandescent bulbs are off the table, there's no reason to get stuck in the dark. Assuming you use a standard light fixture with a medium-base Edison socket, you now have three basic choices in bulbs. New halogen incandescents are the most similar to the old-fashioned bulb in both shape and light quality. They're essentially just incandescent bulbs with a bit of halogen gas trapped inside, which helps "recycle" the tungsten gas that burns off the filament. These bulbs are efficient enough to meet the new standards, but only just. They also cost significantly more than an old incandescent bulb without lasting significantly longer. If you're looking to save money, consider a more efficient bulb.
Compact fluorescent lamps, or CFLs, have been around for decades, but people disliked their awkward shape, bluish flickering light, delayed startup and high price tag. New CFLs have resolved all of these problems. Costing as little as $2 per bulb, modern CFLs light up instantly, fit virtually anywhere an incandescent bulb can and have no discernible flicker. Soft white CFLs also match the light color of an incandescent extremely well.
However, CFLs still have their limitations. Although they come on right away, they take several seconds or even minutes to come up to full brightness, and most won't work with a dimmer switch. Although CFLs last longer than incandescent bulbs, switching them on and off frequently can greatly shorten their lifespan, so they're not ideal for fixtures that are used for only short periods. Also, CFLs contain a tiny amount of mercury, a hazardous substance. This means they have to be recycled, not just tossed in the trash, and you must take some minor precautions when cleaning up a broken bulb. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has more details about disposing of CFLs.
The most efficient light bulbs on the market use light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. LED bulbs use only slightly less energy than CFLs, but their lifespan is significantly longer. Most manufacturers claim their bulbs can run for 25,000 hours -- more than 22 years in a fixture that is used three hours a day -- and switching them off and on doesn't shorten their life. Unlike CFLs, they come on at full brightness right away, and most work with dimmer switches (although not with every dimmer). While LEDs struggle to distribute light evenly in all directions, their biggest drawback is their cost, which ranges from $10 to $40 per bulb. However, LED prices have dropped significantly in the past year and are likely to continue falling as demand ramps up. Even at today's prices, the reduced energy use and long lifespan of these bulbs means they will save money over the long run.
Because new light bulbs produce more light than an incandescent with fewer watts, wattage has become an outdated gauge of brightness. All new bulb packaging includes a "Lighting Facts" panel that displays the actual brightness of the bulb in lumens, a measure of light output. The panel also includes facts about wattage, color temperature, mercury content and the bulb's estimated yearly energy costs. All this makes it easier to compare different types of bulbs directly, rather than trying to relate them to outdated incandescent bulbs.
To select our Best Reviewed light bulbs, we looked at professional comparison tests from sources such as ConsumerReports.org and Good Housekeeping, which measure the light output, durability and efficiency of different bulbs. Then we checked their recommendations against user reviews at retail sites such as HomeDepot.com and BestBuy.com, which provide useful information about real-world performance. Based on all these sources, we identified CFL and LED bulbs that stand out for their light production, lifespan, energy use and price.