The Different Types of Light Bulbs You Can Buy, and How to Choose


Energy-efficient light bulbs are a great way to save money on your energy bill, not to mention keep your bulbs lasting longer. But there are multiple kinds of light bulbs out there, and multiple kinds that are energy efficient. Here’s what you should know about the different types of light bulbs and which ones are worth buying.

There are only a handful of bulbs that are actually meant for household use, so we’ll focus on those in this guide. Each type of light bulb acts differently and uses up different energy amounts, so let’s take a look at the ones you’re most likely to run into, and which are best for you.

Incandescent: Old and Cheap, but Not Very Efficient


Incandescent light bulbs use some of the oldest technology around, which dates back to the early 1800s when the first conception of an incandescent light bulb was introduced by Humphry Day. It wasn’t until later that century when Thomas Edison created an economically-viable incandescent bulb that would later become a staple in every household.

Incandescent bulbs achieve light by heating up a wire filament using electricity, which then produces a glow, and the enclosed glass globe prevents the heated wire from combusting and catching fire by blocking out oxygen.

It’s really simple technology, and these bulbs are really cheap. They’re the bulbs you’ve probably been using in your house most of your life. However, they use up the most electricity out of the bunch, so they aren’t the best option for your wallet in the long run. Most household incandescent light bulbs use anywhere from 40 watts to 100 watts of electricity. That may not seem like a whole lot, but wait until we talk about some other options.

Fluorescent: Not Ideal for Most Household Uses


Fluorescent lights are mostly used for commercial and industrial purposes. You’ll see them in most public buildings like grocery stores, schools, banks, etc., and that’s because fluorescent lights give off a lot of light, which is useful in larger spaces. However, anyone can buy them and use them in garages, workshops, and other similar areas.

Furthermore, fluorescent lights use less energy than incandescent bulbs overall. So while a 60-watt incandescent bulb can put out around 800 lumens, a typical fluorescent tube can put out around 3,000 lumens using only 35 watts or so. One of the fallbacks, though, is that fluorescent light takes some time to heat up and achieve full brightness, whereas incandescent light is instantaneous.

Fluorescent lights are also a bit more dangerous, since they contain mercury gas on the inside. These lights work by sending an electric current through the mercury gas, which produces an ultraviolet light that then makes the fluorescent coating on the inside of the tube to brightly glow, which creates the light. If a tube breaks, the mercury gas can escape, which is dangerous to breathe in.

CFL: Middle-of-the-Road in Efficiency, Dangerous if They Break


A few years ago, CFL bulbs were seen as the saving grace to incandescent light bulbs. CFL stands for compact fluorescent light, so as you might have guessed, CFL bulbs are simply a more compact version of fluorescent tubes, and were made to replace household incandescent bulbs.

CFL bulbs work the same way as regular fluorescent tubes, which also means they take a bit of time to warm up and contain harmful mercury gas. However, they’re also much more energy efficient than incandescent bulbs. For instance, a CFL bulb can easily replicate a 60-watt incandescent bulb, but will only use around 15 watts to achieve the same brightness. Plus, the cost of CFL bulbs is pretty low. However, they’re still not the best in terms of energy efficiency.

LED: Costly, but Very Efficient, and Worth It In the Long Run

The gold standard right now in the lighting industry is LED, which stands for light-emitting diode. LED is a technology that has been around for a while. If you look at your TV, speakers, or anything else that’s electronic, you might notice a small little light indicating whether or not the device is on. Those are tiny LEDs.

LED lights in the form of light bulbs, though, are still rather new, thus they’re more expensive than other types of light bulbs. However, LED bulbs last way longer than incandescent and fluorescent bulbs. Even the cheaper, less reliable LED bulbs can last around 10,000 hours, which is about 10x longer than an incandescent bulb. Plus, they’re safer than fluorescent bulbs–they don’t even get very hot.

However, any decent LED bulb is rated at around 25,000 hours, so it’s unlikely that you’ll need to replace the bulb anytime soon. Even if you left an LED bulb on for eight hours every single day, it would take around 8.5 years for it to reach the end of its lifespan. So, while you’re spending more up front, you won’t have to replace LED bulbs nearly as often as other types. Plus, you can take advantage of utility rebates to save money on these LED bulbs.

All smart bulbs (like Philips Hue, Osram Lightify, GE Link, etc.) are LED bulbs, so when you spend big money on a smart light kit, you’ll have the confidence knowing that the bulbs will last for a significantly long time. Plus, there are all different kinds of smart bulbs you can buy as well.

One downside to LED bulbs, though, as that they can sometimes emit a faint humming noise if you dim them down. It’s not terribly annoying, but if it’s dead quiet and you’re listening for it, it can be pretty apparent.

In the end, we’d say LED bulbs are the bulbs to get. They’re a bit costly, but you can easily find some for as low as $2.50 per bulb, and the energy savings over the long run is definitely worth it.

Images by Jan-Erik Finnberg/Flickr, Jeff Wilcox/Flickr, Daniel Oines/Flickr

Craig Lloyd writes about smarthome for How-To Geek, and is an aspiring handyman who loves tinkering with anything and everything around the house. He's also a mediocre gamer, aviation geek, baseball fan, motorcyclist, and proud introvert.