Design & Make

Choosing Your Light Bulbs

by Sophie Zifcak June 18, 2018
ReadChoosing Your Light Bulbs

Picture your favorite place to sit. It is likely next to a sun-filled window or in a cozy spot next to a lamp. Think about the lamps in your living room or the antique glow of a city café. Now think about places that are unpleasant: Safeway, hospital waiting rooms, the DMV. The reason we like the sun, candlelight, and fireplaces is the same reason we like incandescent lighting. The reason we feel uneasy with institutional lighting is the same reason we resist putting compact fluorescent lights in our bedrooms and living rooms. We’ve all been inundated with “proof” that incandescent bulbs are bad for the earth, and that switching is so worth the energy and cost savings that our love of incandescence is just nostalgia-laden selfishness. But never is it that simple.

Compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) use 75% less energy to power and have up to 10 times the life span. You get 8,000 hours of light compared to 800. CFLs win the efficiency of use contest, but to this day three out of every four sockets in the U.S. still contain the least efficient bulb available on the market, the 100-year-old incandescent bulb. Clearly there’s more at hand than energy efficiency.

America is hesitating at the register on CFLs partly because they cost more money up front, and partly because they are ugly. The cheapest CFLs cast a universally unflattering, cold light, and while some are better than others, no CFL so far can replicate the warm, saturated glow of incandescents. Apparently, we’re not up for changing the world if we have to change it to a creepy blue one.


There are two ways to think about the way light looks: its ‘color temperature’ and its ‘color rendering index’ — the way the light colors objects and surfaces. We read/feel incandescent bulbs like we do flames, when it’s all the way up, we read it white (like the hottest center of a flame) and as it dims, we read it warm and yellow like the outer tip of candle light. Incandescents cast a saturating glow on the space around it.

We read/feel fluorescent bulbs the opposite: cold and blue, making everything around it seem dead and uninviting. That dimmer switch is no help either, fluorescent light only becomes colder and eerier the dimmer the bulb gets.

When buying CFLs, talk to someone who works at the hardware store, or just buy a few different brands, some different wattages, some bright white, some daylight, some soft white and see what looks best to you in your space. Mixing incandescents with fluorescents can work well to soften the harshness of CFLs, but mixing CFL brands and colors could produce a rather unsettling effect, so be systematic. Also, techniques are improving and new CFLs more closely mimic the visual effect of incandescent light in bulb appearance and light color quality.


It is worth noting that CFLs don’t fulfill all their claims. Price pressures and government subsidies compromise quality. A large number of CFL bulbs are shipped with faulty ballasts, so they don’t last as long as they claim.

Shoddy, and also unsafe. Fluorescent light is created by exited mercury vapor racing back and forth. Mercury is a poison that affects the nervous system, endocrine glands, kidneys and other organs. Symptoms vary with severity, but they all suck and should be avoided. There’s less mercury in a CFL bulb than a watch battery, and way less than a thermometer, but there are more of them, and they break. If you break a light bulb, the EPA advises you to evacuate the room of humans and animals, shut the broken pieces into an airtight container and dispose of it in a properly designated landfill (to keep the mercury from leaching into our soil and water).

Basically, we can only handle CFLs in rooms that can be ventilated and easily evacuated, or risk human and puppy hazard. Besides individual and environmental dangers, there’s a human cost to CFLs: Closing incandescent factories shed jobs in the U.S., and Chinese workers are suffering Dickens-style health problems from working in CFL factories. As if that’s not enough, more energy is expended making and using CFLs. They don’t do the two-for-one room heating that incandescents do, so gains there are off-set to some degree by higher heating costs. A Danish study also found that it took 1.8 kilowatt hours of electricity to assemble a CFL compared to 0.11 kilowatt hours to assemble an incandescent bulb. The bulbs are also heavier and take more energy and money to transport.

These factors need to be considered when claiming that compact fluorescent lighting is leading the way to an energy efficient future. Luckily scientists aren’t so quick to give up on incandescent lighting. Improvements aren’t far in the horizon and hybrids are trickling out into the market. They may not be quite as energy efficient as CFLs claim to be, but neither are CFLs.

Brighten your home with items in our Lighting Category

Leading Image: Uncle Sam testing light bulbs, 1938. Harris & Ewing Collection. (Image via Shorpy)

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