For those who haven't heard, the classic incandescent light bulb -- a staple for more than a century -- has officially been phased out. It fails to meet new efficiency standards put in place over the past couple of years, first for 100-watt bulbs and culminating with 40- and 60-watt bulbs at the start of 2014. Now U.S. companies cannot manufacture or import any traditional incandescent light bulbs. Consumers are left with a choice of energy-efficient alternatives, all of which cost more up front. In some corners, this has engendered outrage (and an impulse to stockpile remaining inventory). Others have cheered the move as a small step toward reducing the country's energy consumption.
There are some exceptions to the new rules, such as three-way bulbs. Modernized halogen incandescents meet the requirements but have higher price tags than their predecessors. Meanwhile, two more efficient types of light bulbs are taking the place of incandescents: compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and light emitting diodes (LEDs). Although some consumers object to the prices -- a single 60-watt LED generally costs at least $10 -- these light bulbs use less energy and last much longer, so they eventually pay for themselves.
A CFL bulb has about 10 times the lifespan of an incandescent and an LED lasts about 25 times longer. As for efficiency, CFLs and LEDs trounce traditional bulbs, which transform only 10 percent of the energy they consume into light and emit the rest as heat. A 19-watt LED generates roughly the same amount of light as a greedy 100-watt incandescent. As a result, wattage no longer serves as a proxy for brightness. Instead the industry has adopted lumens as a measure of light emitted and a way to compare equivalent types of bulbs.
The cheapest CFLs cost less than $2, and each bulb saves $40 or more on electricity over its lifetime, according to government estimates. LEDs save even more energy and can go more than two decades without replacement, but again, they cost far more up front. Cheapism.com has taken a shine to four energy-efficient light bulbs -- three CFLs and one LED -- that keep the initial outlay to a minimum. Each one can capably replace a 60-watt incandescent.
The Philips 13-Watt Energy Saver Mini Twister Soft White CFL (starting at $1.25, or $4.98 for a four-pack) promises a "soft white" color temperature of 2,700 Kelvin. Reviewers describe a warm, almost yellow glow that mirrors the cozy light of an incandescent, as opposed to the harsh bluish light many expected from a fluorescent bulb. This CFL nullifies another common complaint by providing a good amount of light right away. It took only 21 seconds to fully brighten in one test. Philips advertises an expected lifetime of 12,000 hours and backs up the claim with an 11-year warranty.
Walmart's Great Value 14-Watt Soft White CFL (starting at $1.22, or $4.88 for a four-pack) is a magnet for consumers seeking affordable light bulbs. This 14-watt bulb emits 900 lumens, whereas an incandescent bulb requires 60 watts to produce about 800 lumens. Although some consumers question the quality, consumer-product experts have tested these light bulbs and awarded them top marks. Even if the bulbs don't last the promised nine years or 10,000 hours, the four-pack is a good value and has gone on sale for as little as 88 cents.
The GE Energy Smart 13-Watt CFL (starting at $1.45, or $12 for an eight-pack) has a very short warm-up time. The light reaches 825 lumens and measures 2,700K on the color temperature scale, similar to an incandescent and the same as the other bulbs recommended here. The expected lifespan is 8,000 hours and testing has revealed one way to maximize it: Try not to use these light bulbs (and CFLs generally) in places where you'll turn the light on and off in quick succession, such as a closet, attic, or laundry room.
The Cree 60-Watt Replacement Soft White LED (starting at $9.97) is among the cheapest LEDs and a smart buy over the long term. It draws just 9.5 watts of electricity and shouldn't need replacing for more than 20 years (25,000 hours). Reviewers laud this bulb's approximation of incandescent light. It takes the familiar shape of a traditional bulb and works in dimmable fixtures. LEDs also don't contain mercury, a primary critique of CFLs. Discounts at Home Depot, Cree's retail partner, and rebates from local utilities allay the initial cost.