Incandescent Light Bulb Ban: What You Need to Know
By Dan Avery
It’s a dark time for fans of the incandescent light bulb: Starting this month, retailers are no longer allowed to sell the old-fashioned globes, thanks to regulations implemented by the Biden administration. According to the new guidelines, “general service lamps”—a.k.a. household light bulbs—must now emit a minimum of 45 lumens per watt. Since incandescent bulbs provide only about a third of that, they’re effectively banned in the US.
Patented by Thomas Edison in the 1880s, the incandescent light bulb provides illumination by warming a tungsten filament until it glows. It’s highly inefficient, since most of the energy it produces comes from heat, not light.
Moving to energy-efficient light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs will save consumers nearly $3 billion on their electricity bills, according to the Department of Energy. The changeover is also projected to trim carbon emissions by 222 million metric tons over the next three decades. (That’s equivalent to the annual output generated by 28 million homes or 48 million vehicles.)
“The lighting industry is already embracing more energy efficient products, and this measure will accelerate progress to deliver the best products to American consumers and build a better and brighter future,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a statement last year. The rule change, which also impacts halogen lights, was initiated in April 2022. But imports were allowed through January of this year and stores could sell their remaining stock through the end of July.
Not every kind of incandescent is affected: Christmas lights, chandelier bulbs, grow lights, and other specialty bulbs are exempt. But what about compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs? Well, their days are numbered too: At the end of 2024, minimum efficiency levels for light bulbs will jump to over 120 lumens per watt. Since CFLs generate just 50 to 70 lumens per watt, they’ll be taken off the market. That leaves us with LED lights, which can be twice as expensive as incandescents but last 25 to 50 times longer. In an LED bulb, an electric current is passed through a semiconducting material (the diode) to produce light.
Since going mainstream over the last 10 or 15 years, LEDs have gotten a bad rap: Early iterations gave off a bluish tinge and didn’t work with most dimmers. Some also had a tendency to flicker. But lighting designers say LED technology has come a long way since then.
Lighting master Hervé Descottes founded his company, L’Observatoire International, in 1993 and has illuminated the High Line, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Louvre. “We have made a lot of progress in terms of quality and variety—especially color and control,” says Descottes. “And the way we control them in terms of dimming and switching is much better than it used to be.” They’re also available in more shapes, including round, square, and linear formats.
There’s a warmth you get with an incandescent light bulb that’s hard to replicate, but the move to LEDs is pushing manufacturers to come up with new dynamic solutions, according to lighting designer Nathan Orsman. “Now that we’re moving away from the constraints we had with incandescents, I’m excited to see what will come next.” says Orsman, whose clients have included Tommy Hilfiger, Stephen Colbert, and Oprah Winfrey.
New York lighting designer Lindsey Adelman, whose work lights up Gwyneth Paltrow’s living room, agrees that consumers are benefiting from the shift to LEDs. “We’re freed up from the formula of what a lamp looks like,” she says. “In the past, the socket was chunky and we were stuck with an Edison-shaped lamp. Now it’s decentralized—you can have tiny points of light diffused around the room that provide the same amount of illumination.”
There’s still going to be a learning curve, of course. Most of us who grew up with incandescent bulbs used wattage as our guide—the more watts, the brighter the bulb. For LEDs, brightness is determined by the number of lumens, which measure brightness. (Some of the most efficient LED bulbs can already reach more than 120 lumens.)
LEDs also have a variety of color temperatures, as measured by their color rendering index, or CRI. The higher the CRI, the truer colors will appear. With a higher CRI bulb, for example, you’ll be able to tell if your socks are navy blue or black. According to Descottes, you generally want a LED bulb with a CRI above 80.
Orsman and Adelman both recommend LED bulbs from UK brand Tala, praising their warm, soft tones and high color rendering. (Tala bulbs all have a CRI of at least 95, practically identical to natural light.) They’re also made from recyclable materials and have a lifespan of between five and ten years.
But don’t rush out and replace all your bulbs in one fell swoop, Orsman cautions. Do your research and decide which LED is right for your needs. “There isn’t uniformity in color temperatures with LEDs, the way there was with incandescents,” he said. “My recommendation is to buy one, take it home and see how it works. Don’t buy 30 bulbs in bulk.”