Why are Light Bulbs So Confusing These Days?

More than ever, it can be overwhelming heading to the store to buy a simple thing like light bulbs. You’re having to decipher terms like CFL, LED, Kelvin, Lumens, Wattage, and beyond! So what does it all mean and how do you pick the right kind of lighting for your home? Today I’m covering Lighting Basics 101. To better understand what kind of lightbulbs to buy at the store, we first have to better understand the different kinds of lighting in a home. There are 4 common types I want to go over. There are others beyond these like Halogen or High Intensity Discharge (HID), but for your everyday light bulbs in your home, these 4 should cover most of your bases:

Incandescent Light Bulbs

Let’s get science-y for a second: An incandescent bulb consists of a tungsten filament placed within a sealed bulb containing inert gas. When electricity is passed through, the filament glows. Incandescent bulbs come in a large variety of shapes and sizes.


Prior to 2011, this was the most common type of lightbulb and likely what you grew up screwing into your lamp or chandelier. However, the government passed measures to phase out incandescent light bulbs in favor of more energy-efficient lighting alternatives like CFL and LED. Phase-out regulations ban the manufacture or sale of incandescent light bulbs for general lighting, so you likely aren’t seeing them as much anymore.

When they were used, the pro’s were that they were very inexpensive, easily dimmable, and had great color rendition. However, they had a very short lifespan and had a high heat output (hot to the touch).

Fluorescent Light Bulbs

Getting back to my scientific roots (just kidding. science has never been my jam), a fluorescent bulb is a mixture of inert gas and low pressure mercury vapor. When the bulb turns on, a mercury arc is formed creating an ultraviolet light. These bulbs use a ballast that supplies voltage to the bulb.


You’ve probably seen fluorescent lights more heavily used in commercial settings or in workshop and garage lighting. It’s not uncommon for them to be paired with a drop ceiling, but they can also be surface mount.


They come in linear, tubular, or circular shapes, and purchasing them at the store can be very overwhelming because the manufacturer uses a code that combines the wattage, shape, diameter, temperature of light, and type. It’s important to know that lightbulb diameter is often labeled in 1/8” increments. So a T8 bulb is 1”. If it lists the size as 12, that means it’s 12/8” or 1-1/2” diameter. If you’re buying a fluorescent bulb, you might see a confusing code something like this:


It’s not so tricky if you break it down. This code means it is a fluorescent bulb (F) that is 40W (40) and is tubular in shape (T) with a 12/8” diameter (12) in warm white (WW) with a rapid start circuit (RS).

Compact Fluorescent (CFL) Light Bulbs

You’ve probably heard of CFL bulbs. This stands for Compact Fluorescent Lamp, and they’re the ugly swirly bulbs that everyone started using when incandescent became less popular (er... illegal), and energy efficiency started to be important to the everyday consumer. The problem is, while they are much more efficient than incandescent, no one wants to look at a CFL bulbs, so if you can see the bulb in the fixture, it’s a ‘no bueno’ choice.


Cost wise they tend to be a little less expensive than LED, but they also don’t last as long and they’re not as efficient as LED. CFL bulbs come in similar ‘temperatures’ options as LED, and we will cover more about that below.  While they use dramatically less energy than incandescent bulbs, they also contain mercury – a dangerous toxin - so you have to be careful if one breaks. Clean it up thoroughly as soon as possible, and increase ventilation in the space.  

Light Emitting Diodes (LED) Light Bulbs

LED bulbs have come A LONG way in the past few years. These bulbs use a solid state of electronics to create light. They’re often used in traffic lights, and most recently have taken over for incandescent bulbs. The pros are that they have a super long life, are energy efficient, have no heat output (so they aren’t hot to touch like incandescent), and there is a wide range of shapes and temperatures available. The con is that they are typically the most expensive option. Most of the light bulbs you see on the shelves these days are LED, so here’s your guide to buying them!

Dimmable: Not all LED bulbs are dimmable, so if you’re going to put them in a lamp or fixture that has dimmable setting, make sure to get LED bulbs that specifically says it’s dimmable.

Temperature: the way a light appears is measured in temperature using the Kelvin scale. Is it a warm orange-ish light or does it cast more blue tones? You often see cooler toned lighting in hospitals. Unlike the temperature outside, the lower the Kelvin temperature of a bulb, the ‘warmer’ or more orange the light is. So, a 2700K bulbs is going to be much warmer and more orange than a 6500K bulb which would be extremely blue. Most bulbs will advertise color temperature on the package, so some even break it down into simpler terms like ‘warm white’ or ‘daylight’.

A good rule of thumb is you typically want to aim for 3000K which is close to a sunny day outside and will most accurate depict the colors of walls and furnishings in your home. Choosing the wrong temperature for your home can significantly affect how the colors in your home look. I’ve had clients call me in a panic that their blue walls look green. What do blue and yellow make? By lowering their lightbulb temperature to the correct temperature, it accurately showed the color of the walls instead of turning them yellow. It’s also the reason why it’s incredibly important not to pick out paint colors at the hardware store. The temperature of the bulbs in stores tends to be very cool, so paint chips look a lot different than when you get them home.


Here’s a simple breakdown of the various light bulbs temperatures available:  

·       2700K – 3000K – This is the warm or soft white range (going any warmer than this will lead to your rooms looking too orange like the room on the far left below)

·       3500K – 4500K – This is more a neutral white to cooler light range

·       Over 5000K – This is a very cool light range. Best suited for use in offices or hospitals where high detail visibility is important


 Wattage: So your light says it takes 60 watt bulbs, but when you go to the store, the LED bulbs range between 2 to 20 watts. How does that work!? LED bulbs are energy efficient because they use less wattage while still outputting the same amount of light as a traditional incandescent bulb. Here’s how the wattage converts


**BUYER TIP: For most light bulbs in your home, you’re going to buy an LED bulb that is around 6-9 watts (equivalent to an incandescent 60 watt bulb) that is a ‘warm white’ or 3000K.

Shape: Similar to incandescent, LED bulbs come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. There’s a lot of different diagrams out there of lightbulb shapes, but this is one of my favorites and it actually covers all of the types of light bulbs we went over today.


You know the question ‘how many blondes does it take to screw in a lightbulb?’ Well - hopefully it only takes ONE blonde to help you find the right bulb, and I’m here for you! Happy hunting!