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Light up your house for less with our illuminating guide to LED bulbs

Spend some time in the light bulb aisle of your local hardware store, and you’ll become familiar with the Federal Trade Commission’s lighting facts label. It sort of resembles and nutrition label and is meant to help you compare between bulbs. All light bulbs should have information on their brightness (measured in lumens), cost per year, life span (in years), color temperature (measured in Kelvins), and energy use (measured in watts).

As LEDs (light-emitting diode) replace incandescents on store shelves, these labels and other information on bulb packaging are supposed to let you find a light to replace the familiar glow from your favorite lamp. But because LEDs are so different from their earlier counterparts, some things may get lost in translation. This guide will help you walk you through some of the big questions.

Watt the heck?

Dim-some

If this was five years ago, and you were buying an incandescent light bulb in the grocery store, you would probably know that a 60-watt bulb wouldn’t be as bright as a 100-watt bulb. A lot of LED makers put phrases like “60-watt equivalent” on the packaging to help out consumers, but what watts actually tell you is that when a 60-watt bulb is on for an hour, it’s using 60 watts of energy. But LED packages also give you another unit, lumens, to tell you the amount of visible light produced. More lumens means brighter bulbs, but because saying one bulb is 850 lumens and another is 1,100 might not tell you much, Energy Star made a handy chart for replacing incandescent bulbs with LEDs.

Old incandescent bulbs

(Watts)

Energy Star bulb brightness

(Minimum lumens)

40 450
60 800
75 1,100
100 1,600
150 2,600

You’ll notice some manufacturers say their 850-lumen bulb is a 75-watt equivalent, but you may be disappointed in the brightness when you get home, so mind the lumens, instead.

Take the temperature

Take-the-temperature

Brightness is one thing; color is another. Using the temperature scale between 2,700 and 6,500 Kelvin, bulb makers attempt to convey whether the lights will be warm and yellowish (on the lower end of the scale) or bright and whiter (the higher numbers). Incandescents would register at the bottom, with the light “cooling” at the top. The higher the Kelvin number, the more a daylight- or natural-light bulb might be better for reading, while some may prefer a warmer light throughout parts of their home, like dens. But that’s only part of the equation; CRI (color rendering index) is the other. The number, out of 100, indicates how well the LED reproduces colors by averaging its score for several different hues. Incandescents get 100, and there are a number of LEDs that score in the 90s. Unfortunately, this information isn’t always found on the package, and not all LEDs score as well.

One thing LEDs can do that incandescents can’t is change color. It’s not a universal feature, but Philips, Misfit, and Lifx all make bulbs that transition from blue to green to purple and back again.

Dim some

Watt-the-heck-

Whatever happened to dimmability, you may ask when looking for LEDs. That’s because unlike incandescents, which all dim, LEDs have to be specially made to perform that trick. You’ll also need an LED-compatible (leading-edge) dimmer switch, which may require an electrician.

Show me the savings

Show-me-the-savings

Remember how a 60-watt bulb uses 60 watts of energy? If you look at the label on an LED bulb, you can see that it uses significantly less. A $10 60-watt-equivalent Cree light bulb (800 lumens) uses 9.5 watts of energy and will cost $1.14 a year to run, if you have it on three hours a day and pay 11 cents per kilowatt hour. A GE 60-watt incandescent (840 lumens) will cost around $7.23 a year — but you can get a four-back four around $6. The Cree costs more upfront, but it should last you you around 22 years or 25,000 hours; the incandescent has a lifespan of 1,000 hours. Not only does the Cree cost less per year, it lasts 25 times as long.

Though the price of LEDs has dropped, the price can still be a sticker shock to some. There could be rebates that make switching more attractive, though. “Make a point to call your energy provider and ask if you are eligible for promotions or discounts for energy efficiency every six months or so,” Alexander Goldstein, CEO of Eligo Energy, tells Digital Trends. Energy Star also has a rebate-finding tool you can use.

Put it there

Put-it-there

Many, though not all (see Philips Hue) LEDs look similar to the traditional light bulb shape. They’ll screw in most places your incandescents did. They also come in spotlight and floodlight shapes. If you’re dipping your toe in the LED pond, you might want to consider starting with a hard-to-reach but out-of-the-way spot. You can get a feel for the brightness and temperature, but you’ll also be glad you won’t have to change the bulb for the next couple of decades.