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What’s in Your Socket?

by Mary Ellen Polson on October 22, 2014

in Lighting & Hardware

Finally, technology is catching up with aesthetics. You can stop stockpiling energy-gobbling incandescent light bulbs.

Use a reproduction hairpin filament bulb in the Menlo Park sconce from House of Antique Hardware.

Use a reproduction hairpin filament bulb in the Menlo Park sconce from House of Antique Hardware.

Light bulbs that fail to meet minimum standards for energy efficiency can no longer be produced in the United States. Happily, there has been real progress in the quest for a better light bulb. You’ll find more to like, especially when it comes to bulbs illuminated by LEDs (light emitting diodes). Good news: there’s a bulb to fit almost every electric fixture and lamp—even antiques—without any need for a conversion fitter.

Designs for the most widely used bulb types are approximating or in some cases copying the appearance of familiar shapes. You can easily find LED and halogen A-shaped (or standard) bulbs in opalescent, clear, and tinted glass. There are clear designs reminiscent of original Edison bulbs, as well as LED candelabra bulbs in holiday colors.

As for energy consumption, there’s no comparison between the old and the new. Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), halogens, and LEDs blast past the federally mandated minimum standards for efficiency, offering lifespans measured in years rather than hours. LEDs are far and away the most efficient, using 80 percent less power than halogens and 50 percent less than CFLs. Prices are coming down, too: Bulbs that used to cost $40 two years ago are available from big-box stores for as little as $5.

Two of the conveniences most looked for in lighting—dimming technology and three-way switching—are finally available, too, if not yet perfect. Some dimmable LEDs are not compatible with traditional dimmers, requiring a wait time before the bulb is fully adjusted. If this bothers you, look for LEDs that are compatible with older dimmers, or swap out your dimming system for a leading-edge dimmer. If you want three-way convenience, you’ll probably have to settle for a CFL—for now. The pace of technological breakthrough is so quick that little more than a year ago, there were no dimmable LEDs. Now almost all of them are.

So far, so good. But most folks without a degree in lighting science face a steep learning curve, beginning with how to convert the old lighting nomenclature to the new. Since the days of Edison, we’ve identified bulbs by wattage—40 watts, 75 watts, etc.—a measure of power consumption. The new bulbs are still identified by the watts they consume (usually a tiny percentage of the comparable incandescent). On store shelves, though, they are typically identified by the lumens (or brightness) they generate.

No reason not to use an energy-efficient LED bulb in Craftsman Copper’s bullet lamp; it’s impossible for the eye to detect a difference through the mica shade, and bulbs look identical from beneath.

No reason not to use an energy-efficient LED bulb in Craftsman Copper’s bullet lamp; it’s impossible for the eye to detect a difference through the mica shade, and bulbs look identical from beneath.

In many cases, the information on the package isn’t much help. At least one startup lighting manufacturer, Finally, makes easy work of it, though: Its “Acandescent” bulbs come in a box that clearly states the replacement size, the amount of lumens, and the estimated annual energy cost. The trend should catch on.

The biggest challenge for most people is finding bulbs that closely approach the warmth and color of the traditional incandescent. Try bulbs rated 2700 to 3000 Kelvin (closest to the warm part of the spectrum), information that’s often listed on packaging or in online descriptions. In theory, these bulbs produce light akin to incandescent, though many people perceive them to be visually cooler. Or perhaps they’ve mistakenly bought bulbs listed as “daylight”—a rating that checks in at a much cooler 2400 Kelvin. Or they’ve bought bulbs rated 4000 Kelvin, a very bright look closer to true sunlight that may be garish indoors.

Schoolhouse fixtures with enclosed shades like Old California’s Woodland Valley (left) are incandescent- and CFL-compatible—but any LEDs you install should be approved for enclosed use.

Schoolhouse fixtures with enclosed shades like Old California’s Woodland Valley (left) are incandescent- and CFL-compatible—but any LEDs you install should be approved for enclosed use.

LEDs that produce cooler light might not be noticeable in fixtures with art glass or mica shades. (Avoid halogens in lamps with fragile glass or mica—these bulbs notoriously produce a lot of heat.) LEDs may be slightly larger or longer than incandescents, so fit is sometimes problematic. When my husband swapped out the incandescent in a reproduction copper bracket lantern for an LED, for example, he was unable to replace the piece of frosted glass at the bottom of the light. (Just as well: LEDs need a way to vent the small amount of heat they produce.) On the other hand, he can now turn the bulbs in the 1920s mica lamp on and off with his smartphone. C’est la vie.

Count Lumens, not Watts
The watt is a measure of power consumption, while lumens express how much light a bulb produces. Lumens are usually listed on light-bulb packaging, so use this quick conversion chart from New York State Energy Research & Development Authority.

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