A wall in a home with a large, ornate, flat metal sculpture on the wall with two lamps below on either side.

2019 5-Step Lightbulb Buying Guide

Yes, it is another post on lightbulbs.  If you want someone else to make the decision for you, go out any buy Philips Soft White Dimmable LED with warm glow effect.  If you want to brave the lightbulb aisle on your own, read on.

I am going to conveniently avoid the obvious question a post like this should pose: why, oh why do we need a guide to buy a lightbulb??  These are the times that try a lighting designer’s soul.   You need to buy a lightbulb.  I feel compelled to help.

Choose brightness. Most bulbs list a lumen output and a "wattage equivalent" which approximates similarly to outdated incandescent bulbs. A 60w Equivalent LED should have around 800 lumens; adjust for more or less as needed. Chandelier bulbs: 400; small lamps: 600; large lamps: 800; ceiling fixtures: 1000; garage and shop: 2000

Step One: Choose Brightness

For the lighting geeks like me who believe “brightness” is a subjective and therefore useless term, this category can cause a little stress. I guess it sounded less intimidating than luminance or luminous flux or candelas-per-meter-squared or any of the other technical metrics professionals use.

Most lightbulbs available to the consumer are labeled “60-watt Equivalent” and so on. This can be quite helpful: if you want more light, get a higher number. If you want less, get less. As a basic guide, a 60-watt Equivalent LED bulb should have about 800 lumens. Much less and something is wrong.

Choose color temperature. Homes with crisp whites, blue, and cool grey look better under 3000-3500K. Homes with warm whites, tans, and creams look better under 27000-3000K. 2700K-3000K: warm colors natural woods; 3000K-3500K: cool colors grey stones; 3500K-4000K: offices schools; 4000K-5000K: midday daylight

Step Two: Choose Color Appearance

We call this one “color temperature” and measure it in degrees Kelvin, like 3000°K. We also use the terms “warm” and “cool,” which are opposite the Kelvin temperature. All this is done to make buying a light bulb as bewildering as possible. I guess we want you to mess up and then hire an expensive lighting consultant to help you fix the problem.

At home, you should be choosing between 2700°K, 3000°K, and 4000°K. These are often labeled warm, neutral, and cool or daylight, but be careful. Those terms are not regulated well, and looking for the color temperature in Kelvin will be more accurate.

If you have a home with a lot of browns, ambers, yellows, natural hardwoods, wood cabinets, and warm beige paint or rugs, stick with 2700°K.

If your home has a very cool color palette of crisp whites, cool grays, and sharp pale blues, 3000°K might be a better choice.

If your home is really ugly and you want to make it worse while disrupting your circadian rhythm, choose 4000°K or 5000°K. Otherwise, sit by the window or go outside during the day and you should get plenty of daylight when needed.

Check the facts: check the Lighting Facts label on the packaging and use these basic metrics for a 60w Equivalent A19 bulb. Other wattages may be more expensive. Life: 13.7 years or more (15,000 hours); Annual Energy Cost: $1.15 per year or less; Purchase Price: $1.50 per bulb or less

Step Three: Check the Facts

Learning to read the Lighting Facts Label is a bit like reading the nutrition information on a box of cereal.  There are some drawbacks (see Step Four), but this is a good place to start.

The label will list “Life, based on 3 hrs/day.”  The typical bulb will say 13.7 years, or about 15,000 hours.  If it says less than 13.7 years, it is probably junk and will end up costing you more money.  There are bulbs that last much longer- 22 years and more- but I am not buying those yet for my home.  They’re not perfect, and I don’t want to be stuck with a substandard bulb for 22 years.

Estimated Yearly Energy Cost is also given on the label, and you should expect to see $1.15 or less for a typical 60w Equivalent.  This will go up for higher wattages/lumens.  If you’re paying much more, you may be getting ripped off.  If you’re paying $60 for the bulb, it had better talk to your smart phone from Asia.  I have a few of those in case I ever need to turn on my light bulbs from Asia.  You never know.

Purchase Price is not listed on the label; you’ll need to do some basic math (sorry).  A typical 60w Equivalent should cost no more that $1.50, or $6.00 for a four-pack.  I recently examined 18 different bulbs and found that the higher cost bulbs available locally offered no real benefits.

Think like a designer. Look closely for additional labels and at the construction of the bulb itself, which may push light in the wrong direction. Not all bulbs will carry these labels, so look for those that do. Color Rendering: CRI 90 or above; Warm Dimming: dim and color shift to 1800-2200K; Direction: choose direction of the light output

Step Four: Think Like a Designer

The Lighting Facts Label should be retitled The Lighting Facts the Manufacturer Wants You to Have, But Not the Facts They Want to Hide.  As a designer, I am frustrated that certain metrics are missing from the label, so take a few of these items into consideration when shopping.

First of all, color rendering (CRI) is a metric that helps reveal how “true” colors will appear under the bulb.  It is not a complete metric, but bulbs labeled with CRI values of 90 or 95 (a perfect is 100) are better than anything less.   Whenever possible, choose higher CRI values.

Direction is not listed in the label, though many manufacturers put an “omni-directional”  tag on the packaging.  That is meaningless, really.  If you are putting a bulb in a lamp, lean towards the bulbs that do not have a solid section hiding electronics.  That section also blocks light from heading towards the table in most lamp configurations.

Finally, I strongly prefer bulbs that shift color temperature as you dim them.  Called many different names like Warm Dim, Warm Glow and Sunset Dim, this feature shifts the color temperature from its normal (say 2700°K) to a much warmer 1800°K or 2200°K as it dims.  This is just as important- if not more- to setting a relaxing mood than just dimming.  Most LEDs go “gray” when dimmed, and that just looks like a cloudy day.

Step Five: Testing 1 2 3 4

I recently brought home several bags of LED bulbs from Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Menards.  I plugged them all in, compared appearance, dimmed them in competition with each other, and compared facts.  Only in testing did I finally decide which bulbs to buy.  They met the requirements of steps one through four, of course, but then had to pass the most important test of all: did they look good to me.

Your eyes are unique, your home is unique, your brain is unique, and with all the LED bulbs on the market it should be no surprise that personal preferences will differ.  Buy a bulb, put it in your lamp, and see how it looks.  If it doesn’t look good, if it puts more light on the ceiling than your book, if the color looks odd, if it makes too much noise…take it back and try something else.

Or just buy that Philips Soft White Dimmable LED with warm glow effect I mentioned in the first paragraph.   Aren’t you glad you read this whole post??

Need a guide to take with you to the store?  Print the PDF here: lightbulbs


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