Are You Using the Right Lightbulb? There's More Than Just Wattage

Are You Using the Right Lightbulb? There’s More Than Just Wattage

Trying to decide how to light your newly built home? Or do you just need to replace a few bulbs around the house? While at one time, it might have been possible to grab the right lightbulb at the hardware store based solely on the wattage, today you’ll find shelves and shelves of bulbs with all sorts of numbers, abbreviations, and claims about lifespan and cost per year. Here’s a quick guide on what to look for when buying bulbs.


This one’s easy—the bulb needs to fit in the base you want it for. The most common household lightbulb base is E26. Smaller, candelabra-type bulbs (in a chandelier, for example) are typically E12. In some cases, the box of bulbs won’t even list the size. You can usually just assume that standard household bulbs will come in one of these two sizes. If you’re looking for a specialized bulb (like in an antique lamp), it’s a good idea to bring the old bulb to compare at the store.


Lumens tell you how bright your bulb will be. The higher the number, the brighter the light. This number is not directly related to wattage anymore, although it used to be. With so many more energy-efficient bulbs, you can now find high lumens at a very low wattage.

Voltage and Wattage

You’ll see most bulbs rated at 100V–120V. This is the standard voltage in homes in the United States, so you don’t need to worry too much about the voltage when buying a bulb. Wattage, though, is a different story.

Wattage is one of the most important safety factors when buying a bulb. Your lighting fixture will list a wattage, and that number is the highest wattage bulb it can safely use. Anything below that number is fine. Use anything higher, and you are at risk for overheated bulbs, melted wires, and even house fires. Just don’t risk it.

Wattage is also important in understanding how much the bulb will cost you in the long term. Wattage is a measure of how much energy the bulb needs to work, so the higher the wattage, the more it will cost you to use.

Energy Efficiency

Not so long ago, incandescent light bulbs were the standard. Today though, other, more efficient bulbs have taken over the market. They come at a much lower wattage and higher lumens, so they cost less to run while producing more light. The price on these other types of bulbs has come down a lot in recent years, making them an increasingly popular option. Here are the two types you’ll see most often:

● CFL (compact fluorescent): These are the curly bulbs that take a few minutes to warm up and produce maximum light. On average, they use 70% less energy than a standard incandescent and last 6 times longer. CFLs are very sensitive to high temperatures, so you should not use them in enclosed fixtures indoors.

● LED (light emitting diode): These bulbs run at a cooler temperature than incandescent or CFL bulbs, but they still shouldn’t be used in enclosed fixtures unless the bulb is specifically approved for that kind of use. LEDs are the most energy-efficient bulbs, about 90% more efficient than an incandescent and lasting twenty times longer.

CFLs are currently the most popular type of bulb because they are more efficient than incandescent bulbs and a bit cheaper than LEDs. LEDs are becoming less expensive though, as demand and competition increase; and if you’re planning on staying in your home for many years, they will save the most in energy costs in the long run.

Color Cast

When you buy a bulb, it will have a color rating, such as soft white, bright white, and daylight. You’re probably most used to soft white indoors since that’s what most incandescent bulbs are, but if you want more variety, these are the typical guidelines – but use what you like best:

• Soft white is best for cozy spaces, like bedrooms or a living room.
• Bright white is best for kitchens and bathrooms.
• Daylight is also good for kitchens and bathrooms as well as basements or anywhere else you would want excellent contrast, like at a worktable or in a reading lamp.


Be sure that if you have a dimmable switch, you get a dimmable bulb. If you use non-dimmable bulbs in the wrong fixtures, they may hum, flicker, and die early.

With all these facts in hand, you’re set to conquer the light bulb aisle at the hardware store. We’d love to hear from you! Have you ever used the wrong type of bulb and come to regret it?

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