This report covers light bulbs that fit into medium-base Edison sockets, the type used in most household lamps and fixtures. The emphasis is on energy-saving choices, which is especially important in light of a December 2007 federal energy law that mandates phasing out many incandescent light bulbs beginning in 2012. The first to go is the 100-watt incandescent light, with the phaseout slated for January 2012. The last will be the 40-watt bulb, which will disappear from shelves in January 2014. Bulbs with higher and lower wattages are exempt from the regulation, as are many specialty bulbs such as plant bulbs and appliance bulbs. Three-way light bulbs are also unaffected. (The U.S. is not alone in this effort and, in fact, many other countries are phasing out inefficient incandescent bulbs even earlier.)
Reviews and lighting experts say that energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs (also called compact fluorescent lamps, or CFLs) are much better now than they were just a few years ago. Prices are lower, too, and there are many choices that fit standard medium-base screw-in sockets. New energy-saving halogen lights are gaining ground for their pleasing light quality, and they are a good choice for use with a dimmer switch (although dimmable CFL bulbs are also available). Finally, LED light bulbs save the most energy of all, but high costs and brightness issues have kept them from gaining ground in the household lighting market until recently. A few newer LED light bulbs can produce light equivalent to a 40-watt or greater incandescent light bulb for a reasonable price per bulb, making them a good choice for some household lighting purposes. In addition, several makers have announced higher equivalent wattage bulbs, and some are expected to reach market by the end of this year.
Experts say the best compact fluorescent light bulbs use about 75 percent less electricity than incandescent light bulbs that put out the same amount of light. Although fluorescent light bulbs contain mercury (a neurotoxin), they can be safely recycled; experts say that even if fluorescent light bulbs are disposed of improperly, they create less mercury pollution than coal-burning power plants. Most CFL bulbs now being manufactured contain even less mercury: ConsumerReports.org worked with an outside laboratory to determine the mercury content of 10 different CFL brands in testing and found that all contain significantly less than 5 milligrams.
Because energy-efficient light bulbs produce more light using less wattage, wattage has become an outdated gauge of a light bulb's brightness. Light bulb packaging has traditionally displayed the wattage of a bulb, but that will be changing early in 2011. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is mandating light bulb packaging to display the bulb's brightness in lumens in addition to a year's worth of estimated energy costs. Also included on the new packaging will be a label similar to a dietary label you would find on food products, which will display facts including brightness, wattage, color temperature and mercury content. Consumers will be able to clearly compare different bulbs in terms of brightness in lumens, rather than try to equate a lower wattage with an incandescent light bulb equivalent.
We found the best reviews of compact fluorescent light bulbs at ConsumerReports.org, The New York Times and Popular Mechanics, which run bulbs through both objective and subjective tests. ConsumerReports.org compares 10 major brands and covers several types of bulbs in addition to standard household lighting in its latest roundup of light bulb testing. This review rates CFLs for warm-up time, actual brightness in lumens and actual color temperature after 3,000 hours of use. Durability is also tested in terms of general life (whether each bulb is still functioning after 3,000 hours) and rapid cycling, or how many five-minute-on, five-minute-off cycles each light bulb withstands.
Popular Mechanics editors compare seven CFL brands to a 75-watt incandescent light bulb, using equipment to gather objective data, including the color temperature, actual energy consumption and brightness in lumens. A panel of four judges examines objects under light in a blind test, providing a subjective rating for the brightness and light quality of each light bulb. The New York Times uses a panel to rate 21 brands of light bulbs, mainly compact fluorescent and halogen bulbs. The panel rates the bulbs on the major consumer complaints that surround most alternative light bulbs, including whiteness, brightness, buzzing sounds, flickering and run-up time. Though the conclusions reached by these reviews remain valid, both are a little older.
We found some more recent feedback on light bulbs from the environmentally focused blog FivePercent.us and on lighting expert Don Klipstein's website. Both update their content and recommendations regularly, although testing is informal. The Environmental Working Group makes recommendations for light bulb brands based on mercury content and expected life span. Consumer feedback from sites like Amazon.com, GreenOptions.com, HomeDepot.com and AceHardware.com are useful for uncovering issues with warranty fulfillment and customer service, as well as for how satisfied owners are with the bulbs' light and life span.