How to Shop for Energy-Efficient Light Bulbs

Old incandescent bulbs can cost you more than $100 per year in wasted energy—which costs the planet as well. Do the earth a favor and invest in new, energy saving light bulbs.

Credit: Dan Whiteley

One of the easiest, cheapest ways to fight climate change may be shining down on you right now. The bulbs you use in your kitchen ceiling, chandelier, bedside lamp, or bathroom vanity can be either a major energy suck or a smart way to lighten your power load.

Incandescent light bulbs were a revelation when they were introduced by Thomas Edison in the late 19th century, but those bulbs were so inefficient that up to 90 percent of the energy they used was wasted as heat. These were the only option until 1980, when compact fluorescent lamps (known as CFLs) hit the market as a more efficient alternative. The early CFLs were not only prohibitively expensive but also too bulky for most lamps, and slow to fully light up. But over the next 20 years, CFLs improved dramatically.

A newer, more efficient halogen version, which used 25 percent to 30 percent less power than the old incandescents, became available in 2007. More recently, engineers have perfected the light-emitting diode (LED) light bulb (originally introduced in 1962) and in the past five years, LEDs have come a long way. Today, they are by far the best bet in terms of performance and energy savings, using one-sixth the amount of energy to deliver the same amount of light as CFLs and lasting at least 10 times longer. And the design innovations, combined with legal mandates, have cut our energy demand for lighting way, way back. In fact, until recently, lighting represented 15 percent of all residential electricity use, and dozens of extra power plants had to operate in order to keep those incandescent bulbs burning.

Now, as the Biden administration moves forward with implementing commonsense light bulb efficiency standards that were illegally delayed by the Trump administration for more than two years, experts say implementing the new rules phasing out the sale of inefficient light bulbs will result in huge savings. All told, our collective actions will yield annual utility bill savings of $3 billion for consumers and prevent 222 million tons of dangerous, climate-warming carbon pollution over the next 30 years—equal to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of over 48 million vehicles. Given the enormous impact of such a small household fixture, it’s highly worth the effort to do your part for the climate and keep your sockets planet-friendly.

Do the Math

The average home has more than 40 light sockets. Should you add up all the bulbs lighting up your place and find yourself with a similar number, consider this: If you’re using incandescents and replace them all with LED bulbs, you’ll save more than $100 per year. Nationally, if all households phased out their incandescents and halogens and switched to light bulbs that save energy, it would break down to an annual savings of $12 billion.

When purchased in a multipack, LEDs that replace 60-watt incandescents are around $2 per bulb. LEDs are 85 percent more efficient than old incandescents, needing only around 10 watts (units of power) to deliver the same amount of light as the old 60-watt bulb.

Decode the Labels

Back when incandescents reigned, people got used to selecting light bulbs based on their wattage, even though that measurement referred to energy usage, not brightness. Now all bulbs come with information about the bulb’s lumens—a measure of the quantity of light—printed on the label. (The higher the lumens, the brighter the light.) To help consumers used to reading wattage levels, LED manufacturers usually include the incandescent-equivalent wattage on the package too. For example, the package might also say “60W replacement,” even though the LED likely uses only 9 or 10 watts.

While different brands use different terms, LED packages will always include a lighting facts label with a sliding scale indicating whether the bulb is “warm” or “cool.” Warm, or “soft white,” is reminiscent of the yellowish glow emitted by incandescents. At the other end of the spectrum, “cool white” gives off a light that’s slightly blue. You’ll find these qualities measured via the Kelvin scale, with bulbs ranging from around 2,700 to 3,000 Kelvin emitting warm light and 5,000 to 6,000 Kelvin producing bluish light. If you’re not sure which you prefer, try one of each. “See which one you like before buying 30 bulbs and retrofitting the whole house,” says NRDC energy efficiency expert Noah Horowitz.

Whenever possible, Horowitz recommends you choose bulbs that have earned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star. If a manufacturer’s bulb has earned the star, it means that it meets a long list of requirements: It dims well, it doesn’t flicker, and it gives off a good light color—all while meeting strict energy efficiency standards. “It's kind of an implicit endorsement that the bulb will be longer lasting,” Horowitz adds.

Make Some Swaps

If you’ve got incandescent or halogen bulbs, Horowitz suggests replacing them with LEDs even before those bulbs burn out. (The exception would be for older bulbs in places like closets or basements, where they’re used only occasionally.) “LEDs are a perfect one-for-one replacement for an incandescent,” Horowitz says. “They do everything the incandescent can do with the exception of one thing: They don’t waste energy.” Recently, there’s been a surge in LED sales, thanks to the vast number of affordable options on the market, with manufacturers spurred by the new efficiency standards to keep innovating. (Hundreds of varieties of LED bulbs currently meet the requirements.)

If you have CFLs and you’re happy with them, keep using them for the rest of their lifetime, since LEDs are only slightly more efficient. But if you’re not very fond of your CFLs—say, because they don’t dim or you find the light they cast unflattering—go ahead and switch them out.

Avoid the “Penny-Wise and Pound Foolish” Consumer Trap

While incandescents and halogens have already been phased out in Europe and will be eliminated in many other countries in the near future, they are still being manufactured in places like Mexico and China. And because they’re nominally cheaper up front than LEDs, many consumers may continue to buy incandescents and halogens if they’re available, despite their higher long-term cost. Remember: While LEDs can cost slightly more than less efficient bulbs, they typically pay for themselves in less than a year based on the reduced energy consumption alone.

Dispose of Your Old Bulbs Properly

Incandescent and halogen light bulbs can be tossed out, since they don’t contain any hazardous materials. Due to the small amounts of mercury contained in CFLs, however, those should be sealed into a Ziploc bag and brought to a local recycling center or a hardware store like Home Depot or Lowe’s. You can find the recycling center closest to you here.

And when your LEDs eventually burn out, you can put those in the trash too, since they don’t contain any hazardous materials. Because they do have some electronics in the base, these bulbs may be recyclable in the future, assuming new systems will be introduced to better dispose of these materials.

Spread the Word

Once you change the incandescent light bulbs in your home to LEDs, encourage your neighbors and friends to do the same. You can also contact your local retailers and urge them to stop selling incandescents and halogens if you spot them on the shelves. The more shoppers who take it upon themselves to work toward a more energy-efficient future, the better off we’ll be.

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