In the world of home improvement products, it used to be that one of the things you could count on for consistency year after year was the light bulb. Little changed since its invention, so it was a product that you didn’t really have to give much thought to.

No longer. Today, there’s a lot of confusion surrounding this simple staple of the American household. Are 100-watt bulbs banned? Are those twisty bulbs dangerous? Can you use these new bulbs with a dimmer? Aren’t the new bulbs really expensive? There are lots of questions and lots of confusing answers, so let’s try to clear up what we can.

Incandescent bulbs

Incandescent bulbs are the traditional household light bulb. They consume electricity, which is measured in watts, and give off light, which is measured in lumens. However, most of the electricity they consume is actually given off as heat, so these bulbs have never been particularly energy efficient.

Incandescent bulbs haven’t technically been "banned." What’s happened is that new energy efficiency standards have been put into place, which simply means that the bulbs now need to consume less electricity for same amount of lumens produced.

So the traditional 100-watt light bulb is, in essence, a thing of the past. It’s being replaced by a bulb that produces the same amount of light, but uses about 72 watts. Since that translates to money in your pocket in the form of energy savings, it’s not a bad thing. Similar wattage-to-lumen reductions are set to phase in for other bulbs over time, but given the ongoing mess in Washington, those dates are a congressional moving target.

Halogen bulbs

Halogen bulbs, also called energy-saving bulbs, are incandescent light bulbs that have a capsule inside that holds halogen gas around the filament, which increases the efficiency of the bulb. Halogen bulbs are a little more expensive to buy initially, but their energy efficiency increases by about 25 percent over a standard incandescent bulb, and they can last up to three times as long.

Another advantage to halogen bulbs is their color rendition, which is the ability of a light source to render the colors of an object similar to the way sunlight does. This makes them a great choice for many desk and task light applications. Halogen bulbs can also be used with dimmers.

Compact fluorescent bulbs

Compact fluorescent bulbs, or CFLs, are the increasingly familiar "curly tube" light bulb. Once again, they’re more expensive to purchase initially than a standard incandescent bulb, but their increasing popularity and availability is bringing prices down.

CFL bulbs uses about a quarter of the energy that a standard bulb uses to produce the same number of lumens, so that’s a pretty good savings. They’re estimated to last about 10 times as long, so that offsets the somewhat higher initial cost; in fact, the Department of Energy estimates that a typical CFL will pay for itself in less than nine months.

As CFLs have become more popular, they’ve become available in a range of colors that weren’t available when they were first introduced. You can now get CFLs with warm, yellow tones, as well as bulbs that are encased in an outer cover that help diffuse the light better — and which, coincidentally, also makes them look much more like a traditional light bulb. Some CFLs can also be used with a dimmer switch, but be sure that you verify that on the package when you buy it.

CFLs do contain a small amount of mercury, as do all fluorescent bulbs. When they burn out, they shouldn’t be disposed of with the regular trash. Instead, they need to be properly recycled, which is something that a growing number of retailers are doing at no charge.

LED bulbs

The final type of bulb you want to be aware of is the light-emitting diode, or LED. These bulbs are semiconductors that convert electricity into light. They’re actually in the early stages of development at this point, so they’re still pretty expensive. However, many people think that these bulbs have a tremendous amount of potential, and represent the wave of the future in residential and commercial lighting. As such, their prices should begin coming down.

LED bulbs use only about 25 percent of the energy that a conventional bulb does, but their real advantage is in their life span. An LED bulb is estimated to last about 25 times longer than a conventional bulb, so even with the high initial cost, their use may still make good economic sense for applications where bulbs are difficult to access for replacement.

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