Buying Light Bulbs: You May Be Doing It Wrong


There’s a good chance that you’re using the wrong criteria when deciding which light bulb to buy. Traditionally we’ve primarily used watts, a measure of the energy, when we’re buying light bulbs. Now, we should also be considering lumens when choosing a bulb that’s right for our needs.

Why You Know Watts, Not Lumens

Bulb manufacturers have highlighted a bulb’s wattage on the front of packaging for decades, giving consumers a high level of comfort with the term when they’re buying light bulbs. We’ve also associated a higher number of watts with a brighter bulb, which is no longer the case.

Technology has allowed us to produce energy-efficient bulbs that use fewer watts while producing the same amount of light. This means that only comparing watts for different light bulbs doesn’t provide consumers with a complete picture of what a bulb offers.

For instance, what about how bright the bulb is? Wouldn’t a bulb’s brightness be nice to know when making the switch from incandescents to energy-efficient bulbs? That’s where lumens come in. 

So What Is A Lumen?

If you’ve never heard of the term “lumen” (pronounced lü-mən), it may sound like something out of a Dr. Seuss story. But it’s not. It’s actually a measure of brightness.

The more lumens a light bulb has, the brighter it will be. So a bulb that produces 1,600 lumens will be much brighter than a bulb that emits 450 lumens.

New Labels Emphasize Lumens

You might have noticed a new label on bulbs that makes it easy to compare various aspects of bulbs – including lumens – if you’ve had to purchase some in the past year.

In June of 2010 the Federal Trade Commission announced they would require marketers to use a new light bulb label on packaging that uses lumens as the primary measure of brightness beginning in mid-2011.

Here’s an example:

light bulb label

As you can see, the new label contains information on:

  • Brightness – measured in lumens
  • Estimated Yearly Energy Cost
  • Life Expectancy – how long the bulb will last before burning out
  • Light Appearance – a sliding scale indicating the color of the bulb. The warmer a bulb is, the yellower the light emitted. Cool indicates a bluish hue similar to daylight.
  • Energy Used – measured in watts
  • Mercury Disclosure – will only be on bulbs, mostly CFLs, that contain small amounts of mercury.

“The new labels that focus on brightness in lumens will help consumers make purchasing decisions as they transition to more energy-efficient types of bulbs,” reads the FTC release.

Tips For When You Shop

Here are some rules of thumb from the U.S. Department of Energy if you’re replacing bulbs in your residence and you aren’t sure how many lumens you should be looking for.

Incandescent Bulb You’re Replacing

New Energy-Saving Bulb

100 watts

1,600 lumens

75 watts

1,100 lumens

60 watts

800 lumens

40 watts

450 lumens

If you want something dimmer than what you have currently, go for fewer lumens. The opposite holds true if you want a brighter light – get a bulb with more lumens.

If you’re a visual person, we’ve included a video below that explains all of this and what you should look for when buying light bulbs.

Light Bulb Shopping 101: Lumens

For more information about lighting, brush up on your knowledge of the different types of light bulbs.

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