The Lighting Lowdown: Everything You Need To Know About Lighting

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The Eleek Nouveau Pendant is compatible with LED or CFL blubs.

Soon, choosing energy-efficient lighting will be a must for every homeowner. Thanks to new efficiency standards set by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, U.S. retailers will start phasing out many incandescent bulbs by 2012. Happily, a wide range of new, efficient options match the quality of incandescent light but last much longer and pay for themselves through lower energy bills.

LED-ing the way

The biggest buzz in efficient lighting today surrounds light-emitting diodes (LEDs). Because they emit light using electron movement and have no filament to burn out, LEDs last as long as 10 to 20 years. They’re also four times more efficient than incandescents and, unlike compact fluorescents, contain no mercury. Though LEDs have been illuminating digital clocks, watches and appliances for years, the new LEDs are bright enough to handle many other tasks. The LR6, a recessed can-style light by Cree, is one of the first LEDs on the market with a color rendering index (CRI) higher than 90, which makes it ideal for task lighting in places such as the kitchen. Though they’re designed for ease and work with existing can light fixtures, they’re pricey at more than $100 each.

Just as CFLs have dropped in price since their market introduction, LEDs are becoming more affordable. Researchers at Purdue University are exploring low-cost, metal-coated silicon wafers that would help cut the expense of making an LED lamp.  New advances in LED technology combined with improved manufacturing techniques could reduce the price of LED lamps to around the cost of a coffeehouse specialty, says Timothy Sands, director of Birck Nanotechnology Center at Purdue University. “When the cost of a white LED lamp comes down to about $5, LEDs will be in widespread use for general illumination,” Sands says. “LEDs are still improving in efficiency, so they will surpass fluorescents.  Everything looks favorable for LEDs, except for that initial cost, which is a problem that is likely to be solved soon.” 

DON’T be afraid to pull a bulb out of the box and screw it into the store’s lighting display to see if it’s the brightness and color you want.

DO choose energy-efficient bulbs with a “Kelvin temperature” (usually listed on the box) of 2,700 for warmer, general lighting and around 5,000 for cool task lighting.

CFL controversy

Compact fluorescents have come a long way from the flickering, unflattering light of a decade ago. Both screw-in and pin-based bulbs are available in a wide range of light temperatures and sizes, and some are now dimmable. Energy-efficient fluorescents use one-fifth to one-third the electricity of a comparably bright incandescent bulb and can last 10 times longer. Look for Energy Star indoor fixtures with pin-based CFLs that carry a two-year warranty–double the industry standard.

Though the Energy Star program has been campaigning for Americans to use CFLs, some consumers have resisted because of concerns over their mercury content. But coal-fired power plants contribute 40 percent of the mercury released into the environment, so using an inefficient incandescent results in the release of twice as much mercury as the tiny amount contained in a CFL bulb, according to the EPA. And that’s only if the bulb is broken or improperly disposed of; as long as you properly recycle your CFL, no mercury is released. Home Depot, Ikea and True Value recycle them for free.

When shopping for efficient bulbs, you may run across cold cathode CFLs (typical fluorescents are known as hot cathode). The coils in cold cathode bulbs are even smaller than in standard CFLs, and they consume extremely low levels of electricity while producing very little heat. Cold cathode CFLs withstand extremely cold temperatures, making them good for outdoor use. 

The Right Light
Which type best suits your needs?







Inexpensive and widely available, pleasing warm light

Energy-inefficient, generates heat, burns out quickly, many are soon to be banned



More efficient and long-lasting than incandescents, high light output

More expensive and hotter than incandescents, can create fire risk



Recyclable, long lasting, energy-efficient

Contains mercury, must be recycled appropriately, limited color range



Burns cooler than standard CFLs and withstands extreme cold

Mostly used for accent and outdoor lighting, contains mercury, must be recycled appropriately



Wide range of colors, longest lasting, no bulb to break

Very expensive, limited supply, most have poorer quality of white light

Switch your switches

Putting your lights on a dimmer switch not only offers a variety of moods for a room, but also can save energy and help your bulbs last longer. Dimming the voltage by just 10 percent can double a bulb’s life. All dimmers cut energy when you lower the light, but some new models do an even better job. Lutron Electronics‘ Skylark EcoDim dimmer is programmed to reduce energy consumption by at least 15 percent at all times, and the manufacturer says the decrease in light is imperceptible to the eye. Lutron’s online calculator can help you calculate how much money and energy you can save by swapping your home’s switches for dimmers.

Motion sensors, designed to turn off after you leave a room or shut a closet or garage door, are another good option. It’s easy to replace regular light switches with dimmers or motion sensors, which range in price from $3 to $30 or more. 

Most dimmer and motion sensors work well with incandescent bulbs, but you’ll need to seek out specific switches and lighting for CFLs and LEDs. Look for fluorescents that specifically say they’re suited for dimming, as well as a compatible dimmer. LEDs use so little power that many dimmers won’t work with them. Cree offers a list of dimmers that are compatible with its recessed LR6 models. 

Incandescent update

The technology behind standard incandescents has changed little since Thomas Edison invented them in 1879. Incandescents are energy hogs that use only about 10 percent of the electricity they draw for light–the rest is emitted as heat. (A 100-watt light bulb generated enough heat to bake a cake in the old Easy-Bake Ovens.) Philips was the first lighting manufacturer to introduce an updated incandescent.  The company’s Halogená performs like a conventional bulb but uses halogen technology to improve its efficiency by 30 percent, thus meeting the new efficiency standards.

Regular halogens, which have been around for 50 years, are more energy-efficient than standard incandescent bulbs and can last up to two to six times longer. Though classified as incandescents because they use the same tungsten filament, halogen filaments are housed in smaller quartz bulbs filled with halogen gases. Halogen bulbs burn extremely hot, giving them a bright, clear light that resembles daylight. They work well for track and task lighting, but their extreme heat makes them a fire hazard in lamps. If you choose halogen, the best option is the more efficient infrared coated (IRC) bulb. IRC bulbs have the same bulb and filament, but the infrared coating helps produce more light for the same amount of energy. A 35-watt IRC produces the same amount of light as a 50-watt standard halogen. Both GE and Philips offer IRC bulbs. 

CFL breakdown

Accidents happen, so don’t panic. Here are recommendations from the EPA on what to do if you break a CFL.

1. AIR OUT THE ROOM. Have everyone, including pets, leave the room for at least 15 minutes. Turn off the heating/air conditioning system and open a window.
2. CLEAN UP. Scoop up glass fragments and powder on hard surfaces using stiff paper or cardboard and place everything in a glass jar with a metal lid (such as a canning jar) or in a sealed plastic bag. Get the last bits of debris using sticky tape, then wipe the area clean with a damp paper towel or disposable wet wipe; again, place these in the glass jar or plastic bag. If the bulb breaks on your carpet, carefully vacuum and place the vacuum bag in a sealed plastic bag for disposal. If broken glass or mercury-containing powder from inside the bulb come in direct contact with clothing, throw the clothes away. If it gets on your shoe, wipe it off with a damp paper towel or wet wipe and dispose of it in the glass jar or plastic bag.
3. DISPOSE. Immediately place all cleanup materials and the CFL debris outdoors in a trash container or protected area. Check with your local or state government about disposal requirements in your area. Some states require that broken and unbroken mercury-containing bulbs be taken to a local recycling center.

For the most updated information:


Jim Hackler is a writer and photojournalist who runs his website,, out of Atlanta.


Energy Star
(888) 782-7937
Energy Star lighting

American Lighting Association
(800) 274-4484
tips on efficient lighting


Advanced Lumonics
(877) 855-1625
range of LED lights

Cree LED Lighting Solutions
(919) 991-0700
LED recessed cans

(503) 232-5526
lighting fixtures with CFL or LED

GE Lighting
(800) 435-4448
CFLs and infrared halogens

(248) 614-2400
LED tube to replace fluorescent lamp

Litetronics International
(800) 860-3392
cold and hot cathode CFLs

(800) 555-5629
efficient lighting including cold cathodes

Moda Light
(239) 242-6667
LED lighting

Philips Lighting
(888) 744-5477
Halogená incandescent bulbs and IRC halogens

Progress Lighting
(864) 678-1000
LED pendants and recessed cans


(888) 588-7661
dimmers and motion sensors

(800) 762-7846
screw-in motion sensor switch