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Incandescent lightbulbs are on the way out. So which new lightbulb should you choose?


The Biden administration is phasing out the use of old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs. Once the new rules are in place, the Energy Department claims Americans will save nearly $3 billion per year on their utility bills. There will still be plenty of light bulbs to choose from at your hardware store, though, so which light bulb is the best? Well, a couple of years ago, NPR's Jeff Brady tried to answer that question for NPR's Life Kit podcast.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: I've spent a lot of time in lightbulb aisles recently because I've been reporting on changes to energy efficiency regulations. And one thing I've noticed is a lot of confused people holding an old lightbulb and trying to find a new one just like it.

JOHN PENNICK: I'm looking for a bulb to go inside of my refrigerator.

BRADY: John Pennick is at a Home Depot in suburban Philadelphia.

PENNICK: This is a 40-watt. It's a 40-watt. The bulb seems to be the same. The only thing is, I don't want dimmable. I'm not going to be dimming inside the refrigerator, so...

BRADY: Turns out, that means it's able to be dimmed, not that it has to be. This confusion is the result of a revolution in the lighting industry. The old energy-hogging incandescent lightbulb is going away, and new LED, or light-emitting diode, bulbs are taking over.

There are really good reasons to switch to LEDs. Later, we'll learn how using them can help you sleep better. While they are a bit more expensive, they last a lot longer, so you'll change bulbs less often. And they use a fraction of the energy old bulbs do. That's important for addressing climate change. The Energy Department estimates switching to LED bulbs across the country saves the amount of electricity produced by 44 large power plants. Interior designer Erin Shakoor says that's good for your budget, too.

ERIN SHAKOOR: Here's the deal. You're going to save so much money on your electric bill by transitioning from regular incandescent to LED bulbs. So that's the first, like, no-brainer.

BRADY: Erin owns Shakoor Interiors in Chicago, and she knows how to use light to enhance your space. She often talks about the role of light fixtures like this.

SHAKOOR: Like that badass hat that you put on right before you walk out the door or that beautiful piece of statement jewelry that you're like, oh, this just made my outfit; yes, I'm ready to go. And I'm just - I'm rocking this look (laughter).

BRADY: Erin says LEDs allow her to be more creative because they're small. You no longer need a big, ugly lightbulb poking up from a metal base. She says manufacturers are coming up with all kinds of interesting new fixtures. And assuming you have the cash, firms like hers can even design a custom fixture with LEDs.

SHAKOOR: And then you've got this amazing statement piece that is, you know, calling, you know - what's that "Milkshake" song?


SHAKOOR: ...Calling all the boys to the yard, so to speak (laughter).

BRADY: (Laughter).


KELIS: (Singing) ...Better than yours. Damn right, it's better than yours. I can teach you, but I have to charge.

BRADY: So here's our first takeaway. The LED revolution has made the light bulb aisle more complicated, but there are big benefits to switching to LED lighting in your house. You can save energy and money, and you can be more creative.


BRADY: So now, assuming you're sold on LEDs, Erin says it's really important to think about how you want a lighted space to feel. What happens in that room? That can affect what lightbulbs or even what light fixtures you buy.

SHAKOOR: When you're sitting on a sofa sectional watching the game, you're not interested in, you know, high, glaring lights right on your face, your head and coming into your sort of view while you're watching the TV. So we would like this footprint within the room one way, usually with dimmable, recessed fixtures.

BRADY: But in the kitchen, Erin says you want to flood the space with light. It's a workspace where it's important to see things clearly. That's our second takeaway. Think about the space you're lighting and choose bulbs and fixtures that complement what happens in that space. Erin says if you're renting, you can use floor and table lamps. Those can be pretty inexpensive.

SHAKOOR: Once you make those fixture choices or those lamp choices, now you can easily make a bulb choice.

BRADY: And to do this, we need to learn a few terms - watts, lumens and Kelvin. Watts refer to energy consumed. Lumens refer to brightness. And Kelvin is the color of the light.

First, watts - the old way of picking a lightbulb focused on watts. I always thought that was an indication of how bright the bulb is. One hundred watts is brighter than 60. But actually, watts refer to the energy the bulb consumes. And since LEDs need less energy to produce the same amount of light, those bulbs have really low wattage numbers.

SHAKOOR: The simple formula and kind of rule of thumb is to multiply that number times five to understand what kind of light output you're going to be getting in a lamp or fixture in the room. If it says 12, you're going to be getting 60 watts of light.

BRADY: But the real measure of light output is lumens. That's the second term you need to know. Many manufacturers still use both watts and lumens. They'll say something like, this is equivalent to a 60-watt incandescent bulb, and that's 800 lumens. You don't need to obsess over any formula for this. Just know that more lumens is brighter, and less is dimmer.

Another term you may really want to pay attention to is Kelvin. That's a measure for something called color temperature. Now, if you're confused already, don't worry. Erin was there, too.

SHAKOOR: In the beginning, it confused all of us. So designers and architects alike were like, wait, what?

BRADY: (Laughter).

Erin says color temperature is a scale. And the most important thing you need to know is, on that scale, 2,700 Kelvin is about the same color as a typical incandescent bulb.

SHAKOOR: It's got a slightly warm glow to it. And I think from my perspective, when I see it next to a 3,000 - oh, the 3,000 makes me so happy.

BRADY: So is there sort of, like, a general guide? Like, the lower the Kelvin number, it's closer to this color, and the higher the Kelvin number, it's closer to that color?

SHAKOOR: Yes. And so when you start going lower, it gets very gold, very yellow, and you can - in almost that Edison bulb, that retro Edison bulb kind of look.

BRADY: So lower number is going to be golder (ph). And if you go higher, what are you getting to?

SHAKOOR: You're getting blue. It just gets bluer and bluer and bluer.

BRADY: For our third takeaway, we need to learn a few new terms. Lumens measure light output. The higher the number, the brighter the light. Color temperature is measured in Kelvins. Lower numbers look more gold, and higher Kelvin numbers look blue. If you're still a little confused, we have all this written out. Search NPR Life Kit and lightbulbs.


BRADY: So we've covered a lot here, but you may still have questions. Erin Shakoor suggests skipping the big box, do-it-yourself stores for answers. She says go to a lighting store instead.

SHAKOOR: So that's the place to go where you can have someone who just is specializing in lighting, not in screwdrivers and lumber and lighting and power tools.

BRADY: And I might spend a few more pennies on the bulb or the fixture, but that's all right. That's worth it.

SHAKOOR: It's totally worth it because you're not changing it out in three weeks or in three months.

BRADY: And a specialist can help you pick that perfect fixture or bulb that will be the best fit for the space you're trying to light.

CHANG: That was NPR's Jeff Brady reporting for NPR's Life Kit podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.