Light It Up: An Updated Guide to Efficient Lighting

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Halogens are not much more efficient than standard incandescents.
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Today’s LED bulbs offer ambient light.

Little has changed in conventional incandescent lighting in the past 200 years or so, which is why today’s lighting innovators have developed a wealth of alternatives to the longtime standard. If you’re hoping to brighten up your home (and your mood when you get the energy bill), check out this guide for some illuminating ideas.

Incandescent: A Fading standard

Today’s tungsten-based bulb is little different than the original incandescent Thomas Edison invented in the 1800s. Thankfully, many more-efficient and longer-lasting options exist. Because it is the most recognizable standard, incandescent efficiency is generally the bar against which new bulbs’ efficiency is measured–efficiency is usually noted as the number of watts required to replace a similar incandescent. 

Halogen and Xenon: Dim options

Halogen bulbs are a type of incandescent, and “xenons” are a specific type of halogen bulb. In halogen bulbs, the glass surrounding the filament is filled with a gas from the halogen group, which helps extend the life of the filament. Though slightly more efficient and longer-lasting than conventional incandescents, halogens are still inefficient.

Compact Fluorescents: Seeing the light

In recent years, compact fluorescents (CFLs) have become the industry standard, as they only require about a third of the energy incandescents do–a 26-watt CFL can replace a typical 100-watt incandescent. Four issues have plagued CFL popularity: a history of producing unpleasing light; the “warm up” time required before bulbs turn on fully; the high expense of dimming models; and reliance on mercury, a toxic metal that must be disposed of as hazardous waste. However, newer models offer more light variation and almost instant light. Low-mercury and safer models without liquid mercury are also available.

LED: A Clearer vision

LEDs (light-emitting diodes) are about twice as efficient as CFLs, and they require no potentially dangerous mercury. Though LEDs have been the go-to solution for task lighting and in electronics for years, the inability of the targeted bulbs to provide ambient light restricted their use. Today, improved technology has yielded ambient LEDs. You can replace a standard, 60-watt incandescent with a 12.5-watt LED, and LEDs last about 50 times longer than incandescents. Their unique design allows them to dim easily and emit almost no heat.

OLEDs: A Bright future

OLEDs (organic light-emitting diodes) are materials that emit light when a current passes through them. At 56 lumens per watt, the thin, flexible lights are extremely efficient and require no mercury. Though they’re currently used almost exclusively in technological applications such as cell phone screens, developers have created OLED panels of ambient white light. Several companies have developed OLED lamps and panels, among them Philips, GE and Osram, but they are not yet practical or affordable for general use.

Daylight: True insight

By using daylight, you can illuminate spaces with zero energy. First, choose strategically placed windows and skylights, and open floor plans that allow light to flow through the house. Windows high on walls bring light deep indoors. Mirrored, tubular skylights known as “solar tubes” capture sunlight and beam it into your home.

Lighting Lingo

Understanding lighting terminology makes you a wise shopper.

Watt: The power needed for an application. For example, you need 100 watts to run a 100-watt light bulb. If you can replace the light of a 100-watt bulb with one that only requires 50 watts, you’re doubling your efficiency.

Lumens: The units used to measure the power of light. Your goal for enhanced efficiency is to achieve more lumens using fewer watts.

Kelvin: This unit indicates the color of light, and it’s somewhat counterintuitive: The lower the Kelvin temperature, the warmer the light color; the higher the temperature, the cooler the light.


ArmorLite Safety ECO CFL
liquid mercury-free CFL (relies on amalgam alloy instead)

C. Crane GeoBulb-3
several color varieties; 7 watts; 5-year warranty

Pharox LED
6 watts; lasts 25 years, according to manufacturer

Philips EnduraLED
available from 7 to 17 watts; 25,000 hours

OLED Association
OLED industry advocacy group

tubular daylighting system

tubular skylights

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