Light Bulbs Explained: How to Choose the Right Bulb Every Time

Though our homes may differ in paint schemes, furniture layouts, and decor, we have at least one thing in common: the lights in our homes influence all of that! The kind of bulbs we use can change the brightness, hue, and aesthetic of any room. Light bulbs affect energy efficiency at home and at work, not to mention interacting differently with our mood, health, and productivity. Here’s a breakdown of the most common types of light bulbs, with tips to help you make the best choice for your wallet, aesthetic and safety.

1. Incandescent: The Original Bulb

Incandescent lights are the most traditional form of light bulb and are based on technology developed by Thomas Edison. The electricity passes through a filament, causing it to burn and give off light.

Incandescent lights are more expensive in the long run because they are not energy efficient compared to fluorescent or LED options. Why? The method of heating a filament in an incandescent bulb produces much more heat than light, wasting most of its energy consumption. The 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act reformed the incandescent market by creating a minimum standard for incandescent energy efficiency, but even still, fluorescent and LED lights are much more energy efficient.

Incandescent lights come in a variety of colors and work with dimmer switches. Their design allows for more variation in style, and they’re typically more aesthetically pleasing than other options. This makes them a popular choice for easy-to-see places, like in lamps and hanging from low ceilings.

Incandescent bulbs also do well in easily-accessible locations, since they have the shortest lifespan of all the bulb options and burn an average of 1,000 hours. They are also good for spaces that don’t use light often, like closets and garages.

As for pricing, incandescent bulbs are typically the cheapest of bulb options. Most incandescent bulbs range from $.70 to $1.50 per bulb.

2. LED: Best for Customization

LED stands for “light-emitting diode”. Simply put, they’re microchips that glow as electricity passes through them. Because there’s no exhaustible filament burning in LED lights, they don’t actually die or burn out. They simply dim over time, and are considered replaceable once they emit 70% of their original light.

This unique design makes LED’s up to 90% more efficient than incandescent bulbs, with the average LED lasting up to 25,000 hours. LED circuitry still gives off a good amount of heat, but it is processed through a type of heat sink common to microchips. If the heat sink does happen to malfunction, your LED may not last for its expected lifespan.

Additionally, the microchip design allows for customization in size and grouping. Lights can be easily lined up in a strip, or grouped in clusters for a bulb-like configuration. They also glow in every conceivable color, a feature that allows for further customization and creative flair.

Beyond adding flair and personality, LEDs add functionality and value. Simply adding LED strips under kitchen cabinets or along a dark stairway brightens an otherwise shadowed space. LED bulbs are commonly used as smart bulbs, in conjunction with smart home assistants like Google Home and Alexa. They’re a smart, energy-efficient choice for any home or workspace.

LED bulbs average around $8 per bulb, and strip lighting (depending on length and color of strip) ranges from $20-$50.

3. Fluorescent: Easy Choice for Large or Commercial Spaces

The original fluorescent light bulb, shaped like a long tube, often lights offices and commercial spaces. Fluorescent bulbs use a gas and a filament combination, like argon and tungsten, to emit a glow. They are much more energy efficient than incandescent bulbs, consuming 75% less energy. Fluorescents also have a longer lifetime than incandescent bulbs, estimated between 6,000 and 15,000 hours.

Fluorescent lights do contain small amounts of mercury, but as long as the bulbs remain intact, they’re perfectly safe. When it’s time to dispose of old bulbs, contact your local waste management for local guidelines and keep them away from the reach of children.

Expect each fluorescent tube to cost $2-3.

4. CFL: Energy-efficient Home Upgrade

CFL bulbs, or compact fluorescent lamps, are a condensed version of fluorescent lights. It’s similar technology, with the electricity activating a gas such as argon. The difference, however, is that these don’t have a filament— instead, the argon interacts with a fluorescent coating called phosphor to produce visible light. These bulbs are largely replacing incandescent bulbs in the shift for green homes.

CFL bulbs can last anywhere from 6,000 to 15,000 hours of use, making them 6-15 times more efficient than incandescent options. They come in a variety of shapes, and if the bulb is tinted, they can even come in a variety of colors.

Generally these bulbs will be about $5.50 to about $10 each. While they’re more expensive than incandescent options, the price is typically offset by their much longer life.

5. Halogen: Best for Headlamps and Flood Lights

Halogen bulbs produce light through a heated filament, similar to incandescent bulbs. However, the filament in halogen bulbs is surrounded by a tiny tube of pure glass (quartz). This tube is filled with a halogen gas, and when the filament emits wasted energy, the halogen gas returns it to the filament. This recycled energy causes the filament to live much longer than those used in incandescent lights.

Unfortunately, halogen bulbs still create a large amount of heat, resulting in wasted energy. Though their lifespan is significantly longer than incandescent, they still only last about 2,000 hours.

Halogen lights are commonly used in vehicle headlamps, outdoor floodlights or to light workspaces. If you choose to use these elsewhere, be aware that they generate significant heat and could affect the temperature of small areas.

Expect each bulb to cost between $6 and $12.

6. HID: Great for Street Lamps

HID stands for “high intensity discharge”. These bulbs function by passing electricity in an arc between two metal points, aided by a gas like xenon, which glows in reaction to the electricity. They produce strong, long lasting light, but are typically restricted to street lighting or warehouses because of their orange hue and intensity. HID bulbs are also used in headlights at times, and usually clock in at about 2,000 hours.

These are a great option for outdoor spaces, or in places where nighttime safety is a concern. HID bulbs range in price from about $14 to $21.

How Will You Light Your Space?

You know your space better than anyone, and now, you know a lot more about light bulb technology! When deciding which bulb is best for you, consider the details of your space. Is it residential or commercial? Indoor or outdoor? How much do you value aesthetic, energy efficiency, or purchase price? Give us a call and let our lighting experts make your project easier.