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

Jenny McGrath
how to pick led light bulbs quick guide leds

Spend some time in the lightbulb aisle of your local hardware store, and you’ll become familiar with the Federal Trade Commission’s lighting facts label. It sort of resembles a nutrition label and is meant to help you compare bulbs. All lightbulbs 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).

More: Light up your life with the best LED lighting solutions on the market

As LEDs (light-emitting diodes) replace incandescents on store shelves, these labels and other information on bulb packaging are supposed to help you find the right 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 walk you through some of the big questions.

Watt the heck?


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 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


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


Brightness is one thing, but 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).Warm, yellow incandescents would register at the bottom, with bluish, early-morning daylight representing the “cooler” top of the scale. The higher the Kelvin number, the better a daylight or natural-light bulb might be 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 is the other. It might sound like a procedural your parents watch, but CRI actually means color-rendering index. 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. Cree touts its 60-watt equivalent as having an 85+ CRI score, while Philips Hue’s white and color ambience bulbs don’t have an exact value listed but it’s less than 80.

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. For those worried about the blue light of LEDs affecting sleep, Soraa is due to come out with its Helia lights this year. The company says it replaces the blue with violet, so the lights don’t look yellowish the way your iPhone screen does when it’s in Night Shift mode.

Dim some


You may wonder what happened to dimmability 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


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. An $8, 60-watt-equivalent Cree lightbulb (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 12-pack for less than $12. The Cree costs more upfront, but it should last 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.

Get smart?

Having smart lightbulbs is not all it’s cracked up to be. Sometimes Alexa or Google Home won’t understand your request to turn on the light, and you’ll be left in the dark. Yet smart bulbs are an easy way to schedule your lamps to turn on every day at sundown. They are pricier than regular LEDs, however. Some bulbs also work via Bluetooth, while others require a hub to connect. Lifx makes color-changing bulbs that are hubless and Wi-Fi-enabled. It may not seem worth it to you to get connected bulbs at this point, but remember that these bulbs are made to last decades, and there are lots of ways to make color-changing, smart bulbs useful — like setting up an IFTTT command to have them flash red if your smoke alarm is going off.

Put it there


Many, though not all — see Philips Hue — LEDs look similar to the traditional lightbulb 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.