How to Choose the Perfect Light Bulb for Your Lighting Fixture

Even though light bulbs are fairly basic in function, there are so many options available that you can easily get lost. Rather than buying the first bulb that ‘looks like it will work’, take the time to find the perfect bulb for your fixture. You’ll not only save money in the long run, you’ll end up with the most attractive lighting for your home, and prevent a possible fire from using the wrong option.

1. Look for the right wattage. The first thing to consider when matching a lightbulb to a light fixture is the wattage amount. Every light bulb has a matching wattage – the amount of energy it is capable of producing. This number will range anywhere from 40-watts to 120-watts for a traditional light fixture. On the flip side, every light fixture has a maximum wattage amount. This is the highest wattage the fixture is capable of using without becoming a fire hazard (it can’t handle a high wattage). You therefore need to choose a light bulb with a wattage amount that is equal to or less than the maximum wattage on your fixture.

  • Using a light bulb with wattage above the maximum that the fixture can handle is a major fire hazard.[1]
  • You can use a light bulb with wattage less than what your fixture asks for.

2. Pay attention to the lumens. Lumens refers to the amount of light the bulb will put out (as opposed to wattage, which is the amount of energy). The higher number of lumens, the brighter the light bulb will be. Therefore, if you’re trying to illuminate a large space, you’ll want to use a light bulb with a high number of lumens (above 1000). A small fixture or table lamp does not require a bulb with a high number of lumens.

  • The more lumens, the closer the appearance of the light is to that of natural sunlight.

3. Look at the shape of the bulb. There are many different shapes of light bulbs, each with a different use. The most commonly used bulbs are the generic ‘bulb’ shape, the spiral shape, and the A shape. Additionally, there are drop shaped, globe shaped, flame shaped, tubes, and more varieties of bulbs. Generally the shape doesn’t really matter, but some light fixtures require a specifically shaped bulb in order to work or appear correctly. Check your fixture first, and then look for bulbs that match.

  • Make sure to check the socket type and size of your lighting fixture so that you know what light bulbs you need.
  • There are 4 commonly used thread size groups for mains supply lamps: Candelabra – E12 North America, E11 in Europe; Intermediate – E17 North America, E14 (Small ES, SES) in Europe; medium or standard – E26 (MES) in North America, E27 (ES) in Europe; Mogul – Mogul: E39 North America, E40 (Goliath ES) in Europe.
  • The number after the E refers to the external diameter of the light bulb’s thread in millimeters. For example, E27 means that the external diameter of the thread is 27 millimeters.

4. Check the ‘life expectancy’ of the light bulb. All light bulbs are not created equal; in fact, some bulbs last quite a long time, while others will only remain lit for a few months or years of use. Each bulb should say on the back what the life expectancy is, normally based on three hours of use a day. If you’re putting the bulb in a well-used fixture, it will do you good to find a bulb that has a longer life expectancy than a bulb that goes in a rarely-used lamp.

  • Incandescent bulbs generally have the shortest life expectancy.
  • Halogen bulbs are cheap upgrades over traditional incandescent bulbs, having improved efficiency and lifespan with only a small increase in price.
  • Compact fluorescent bulbs have a lifespan that is several times better than an incandescent light bulb but the lifespan is reduced significantly if the bulb is switched on and off frequently.
  • LED bulbs have arguably the longest lifespan of all light bulbs, several times better than an incandescent light bulb and significantly better than most fluorescent bulbs. Manufacturers are giving long warranties to confirm the long lifespan of LED bulbs, typically 15,000 hours (15 years at 3 hours/day), and to support 50,000 switch cycles.
5. Make note of the ‘light appearance’ of the bulb. Most bulbs will advertise the ‘light appearance’ on the package – this tells you how warm or cold the color of the light is. Light appearance that is on the warm side will be more orange/yellow, while light appearance that is on the cold side will be more blue/white. Although this may not be a serious consideration for you when choosing your bulbs, you might want to make sure you don’t accidentally purchase a bright white bulb when you intended to buy a warm yellow bulb.
  • Light appearance is measured in temperature using the Kelvin scale. Color temperatures in the range 2700K–3000K are considered “warm white”. 3500K-4500K would be “neutral white”, sometimes called “bright white”, over 5000K would be “cool white” or “daylight”. (These names are approximate descriptions. Lower color temperatures are warmer/yellower; higher temperatures are cooler/bluer).
6. Look at the energy cost of the bulb. Besides the initial cost of the light bulb, there is an additional overall energy cost associated with the bulb. This is the price you will pay in electricity bills for the one bulb over its lifetime. Energy efficient light bulbs will cost much less over their lifetimes than will traditional light bulbs. When possible, you’ll want to choose bulbs that have a low lifetime cost. This may mean paying a bit more up front, but you’ll reap the benefits down the road.
7. Check the mercury content of the light bulb. The mercury content of the bulb doesn’t affect the light or overall use of the bulb; the only thing a bulb that contains mercury will do is prevent you from throwing it away. If your bulb has any mercury in it at all, it cannot be disposed of in the trash. Now, mostly screw-in CFL bulbs contain mercury, but you should check all bulbs you purchase just in case.[3]

Learning the Types of Light Bulbs

1. Try a compact fluorescent light bulb. Compact fluorescent is a generic term used for a variety of bulbs. CFLs use 20-40% less energy to produce the same light or lumens (a measure of light intensity). They are color adjusted to produce light close to real sunlight.
  • CFLs generate less heat and offer a longer lifespan than incandescent bulbs saving you money on electric bills and protecting the environment from harmful greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Look for Energy Star labels on fluorescent fixtures and lamps for assurance of maximum savings, quality and standards.
  • Compact fluorescent light bulbs are commonly used in desk lamps, floor lamps, under cabinet lamps, table lamps, linear strips, wall sconces, flush mounts, chandeliers, close-to-ceiling or flush mounts, pendants, ceiling clouds, kitchen island lights, path lights, outdoor wall lanterns, outdoor post lanterns, as well as outdoor wall and ceiling mounts. First generation compact fluorescents can not be used in motion sensor fixtures or lights with a dimmer switch; however newer second generation CFLs (that are usually more expensive) may be specifically labeled and sold for that purpose.
2. Look at using fluorescent light bulbs. Choose fluorescent light bulbs for energy conservation and versatility. Fluorescent light bulbs are an energy efficient bulb, using 20-40% less electricity than standard incandescent bulbs lasting up to 20 times longer. Many new compact styles make fluorescent bulbs practical for task lighting. Screw-in types can be used in place of incandescent bulbs in standard lamp sockets. The warmth and softness of the fluorescent light bulbs is improving.
  • Fluorescent light bulbs are commonly used in desk lamps, floor lamps, under-cabinet lamps, table lamps, linear strips, wall sconces, flush mounts, chandeliers, close-to-ceiling mounts, pendants, ceiling clouds, kitchen island lights, path lights, outdoor wall lanterns and outdoor post lanterns.
3. Try a halogen light bulb. Many of today’s lamps use halogen light bulbs. Halogen bulbs produce a whiter light and produce more light (lumens) per watt than standard incandescent bulbs. They most closely replicate the color spectrum of the sun. Their small size and intensity make halogens great for task lighting.
  • For precise and controlled beams of light, low voltage Halogen bulbs are specified for dramatic effect in highlighting details with pinpoint beams of light on artwork, architectural details, sculptures, etc… Low voltage bulbs are 12 or 24 volt and require a transformer.
  • Since halogen bulbs burn hotter than other types, they require more caution. All halogen lamps sold today in the USA have approved safety shields to reduce fire risk. When changing a halogen bulb, be sure to wait until the bulb cools to touch it. Always use a clean rag to handle a halogen bulb, as oils from your hand will cause the bulb to burn hotter and can greatly reduce the lifespan of your bulb. Examples: GU-10, MR-16, JC/JCD, G9, JDE-11, JT-3, JT-4, PAR
  • Halogen Lamp light bulbs are most commonly used in desk lamps, torchieres, floor lamps, accent table lamps, under-cabinet lighting, bath brackets, vanity lights, wall sconces, swing arm lamps, ceiling lamps, flush mounts, pendants, directional lamps, chandeliers, kitchen island lights, landscape lighting, path lighting, and also outdoor spot/flood lights.

4. Use an incandescent light bulb. Incandescent light bulbs are the most common bulb used in lamps today because they are inexpensive and widely available. Common incandescent bulbs vary from 15 to 150 watts and produce a soft yellow-white but are available in a variety of light temperatures ranging from pinkish to bluish. They are generally available in clear, frosted or colored styles.

  • With standard incandescent bulbs, light is generated when a filament is heated to incandescence (illumination) through an electric current within the glass bulb. Incandescent reflector bulbs provide general overall illumination and are often referred to as floor and spot lights.
  • Incandescent bulbs are great for standard ambient lighting and higher wattages and are good for task lighting. When using incandescent bulbs be sure to never exceed the maximum wattage recommended for your lamp! Examples: G25, G16.5, T Bulb, BR/R, Standard Medium Base, Standard Candelabra, Fan/Appliance
  • Incandescent light bulbs are typically used in accent lamps, buffet lamps, reading lamps, desk lamps, floor lamps, hurricane lamps, magnifying lights, display lighting, bath/vanity lighting, wall sconces, swing arm lights, wallchieres, ceiling clouds, chandeliers, close-to-ceiling mounts, directional lights, flush mounts, kitchen island lighting, pendants, pot rack lighting, outdoor hanging lanterns, landscape lighting, path lights, post lanterns, spot/flood lights, and outdoor wall lanterns.
  • Incandescent light bulbs are being phased out over more energy efficient lighting solutions. This is done by either a complete ban or a higher standard for efficiency.
5. Try a PAR bulb. Choose PAR lamps for control of light levels. PAR stands for Parabolic Aluminized Reflector. A PAR lamp can be incandescent, halogen or an HID and has a precision-pressed glass reflector lamp that reflects light coming from the filament much like a parabola. PAR lamps rely on both the internal reflector and prisms in the lens for a controlled or focused light beam. These bulbs are extremely bright and can be used for the accurate controlling of light levels.
  • Halogen PAR bulbs have a mirrored reflector to control the light. Halogen PAR bulbs are often specified for task and accent lighting.
6. Look into xenon light bulbs. Choose Xenon light bulbs for path lighting. Xenon light bulbs are made from Xenon, a rare gas used in specialized lamps. They are known to last up to 10,000 hours. Xenon bulbs can be touched with a bare hand unlike halogen bulbs and are commonly used in path lighting.
  • Festoon bulbs: Festoon bulbs have a unique shape and are usually a low-voltage bulb. They come in frosted or clear glass. If using festoon lamps for task lighting or indirect lighting (under cabinets and shelves, over cabinets, or inside cabinets), frosted lamps are best. However, if the festoon lamps are being used for accent lighting to illuminate items that should “sparkle” (jewelry, china, crystal), it’s recommended to use clear lamps.
7. Try LEDs (light emitting diode). LEDs are a small electronic device that lights up when electricity is passed through it. LEDs are highly energy-efficient and have very long lives. They can be red, green, blue or white in color. LED bulbs can be used almost anywhere, typical applications are general room lighting, desk lamps, outdoor hanging lanterns, landscape lighting, path lighting, and spot/flood lighting.
  • LED light bulbs are relatively new to the market but they show immense potential. The LED lamp market is projected to grow by more than twelve-fold over the next decade, from $2 billion in the beginning of 2014 to $25 billion in 2023, a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 25%.
8. Choose specialty bulbs for specialty needs. A few different choices might fit the bill.
  • Black Light: A fluorescent light designed to emit invisible ultraviolet (UV) light.
  • Heat Lamps: Light bulbs used to increase the temperature in a focused area. They are most often used in the food industry and outdoor waiting areas.
  • Krypton Lamps: A premium light bulb that uses krypton gas instead of argon.
  • Shatter Resistant, Silicone & Teflon Coated, Etc.: These light bulbs feature a safe shield coating that protects them from shattering and breakage. They come in different types.
  • Full Spectrum Daylight: Full spectrum light bulbs are designed to reproduce natural light and are thought to be beneficial to health by reducing stress, depression and headaches, amongst other things. Full spectrum bulbs are most often used in desk lamps and floor lamps.
  • Germicidal Lamps: Germicidal lamps offer ultraviolet technology that is a non-chemical approach to disinfection. In this process of disinfection, nothing is added which makes this development simple, economical and requires very low maintenance.

9. Consider Electron Stimulated Luminescence (ESL) bulbs in the future. These bulbs are an emerging technology that offers a new choice for consumers seeking energy-efficient lighting without the dangers of CFLs or the high cost of LEDs. The R30 ESL Bulb is designed to replace the 65-watt incandescent flood bulb commonly used in recessed “can” light fixtures, which are popular in new construction and remodeled homes.

  • The R30 ESL bulb gives uniform flood illumination virtually indistinguishable from the incandescent lamp it replaces. A high power factor gives the R30 ESL bulb less total power load than competing compact fluorescent lamps. It generates approximately 10,000 hours of light without any significant color shift. Its pricing is expected to be around $15-20 U.S. While testing and production of these bulbs has slowed their expected release to the public market, they are still planned for future mass production.[4]

Part 3

Matching Your Fixture to Your Bulb

1. Choose a bulb for a floor or table lamp. If you’ve got a free-standing lamp for a floor or a large table lamp, you’ve got a few options for possible light bulbs. Look into using a spiral or closed-A shape bulb that is compact fluorescent or incandescent. Stick with bulbs on the warm-side, as they will be lighting up your room and generally tend to be easier on the eyes in a warmer hue (like a ‘daylight’ bulb).
2. Find a bulb for your pendant fixture. Because pendant fixtures tend to have at least part or half of the bulb exposed, your choices are limited for possible lights. You’ll want to start by finding a bulb in a traditional ‘bulb’ or ‘globe’ shape, in the warmer side of the light appearance scale. Most people prefer to use a compact fluorescent light bulb or a halogen light bulb for this purpose.
3. Select a bulb for a ceiling fixture. Ceiling fixtures are generally enclosed so that the light bulb is not visible, giving you many more options for bulbs than a pendant fixture does. Choose a bulb that has a long lifespan, so that you don’t have to change it often. The light appearance you want will vary depending on the atmosphere of the room. Any type of bulb (so long as it is compatible with the fixture) will work for a ceiling fixture, but it will do you good to try to find an energy efficient bulb when possible.
4. Find a bulb for a wall sconce. Wall sconces tend to be on the smaller side and are mostly decorative, meaning that the bulbs you choose will need to be small enough to be covered completely by the sconce. Choose a bulb that is tube or flame shaped, as these are narrow enough to fit inside the sconce. Compact fluorescent light bulbs and incandescent light bulbs are most commonly used for a wall sconce.
5. Choose a bulb for a recessed can light. Because recessed can fixtures don’t allow much ventilation, they are the highest risk for fire hazard. As a result, your primary goal will be to choose a bulb that does not exceed the maximum wattage for your fixture. Most people choose a halogen, compact fluorescent, or incandescent light bulb for a recessed can fixture. The light appearance will vary depending on the location.[5]
6. Find a bulb for an outdoor fixture. If your outdoor fixture is exposed to the elements, you’ll need to purchase a special outdoor bulb which won’t be damaged from exposure. Otherwise, choose a bulb that is either spiral or tubed in a ‘bright white’ light appearance. LEDs are popular choices, as are incandescent and halogen bulbs. Keep in mind that you’ll need to buy a special bulb if you have a photosensitive fixture or a fixture that is on a timer. Check your local lighting store for these alternatives.[6]


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