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CFLs, LEDs and Incandescents Oh My! – A review of light bulbs

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Last week when I finally  said adios to the Hollywood style strip light, I was eager to put in some energy efficient light bulbs.

While purchasing the light fixture I also checked out the light bulb display. I found myself being drawn to the bulb comparison display at Home Depot. I looked at the different lights and their color effect in the “display room”. Confident with my new knowledge, I walked out with several Soft light CFLs in my bag. But, when I got home and installed them I was NOT happy! They were harsh, bluish and just made the bathroom feel cold and clinical. I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me. Those displays are so deceiving! They don’t REALLY show you what the bulbs will look like in your home. And don’t even get me started on the paint chip displays! Let’s just say you should NEVER EVER make a final decision on paint at the store!

One of my facebook fans mentioned that she really liked Ottlite bulbs, and that they were just like daylight. I promptly contacted the company and they shipped me out several bulbs to try.

It was at this point that I decided an unscientific test was in order. I started out systematically using just four bulbs, but then I bought a $30 (gulp!) LED lightbulb at the grocery store. And soon, all scientific conditions were thrown to the wind. So, I hope none of you yell at me for my lack of consistency. The test was more for myself , but I figured there might be a few inquiring minds.

One  more note on the unscientific-ness of my experiment. All the photographs were taken using the fluorescent setting on my camera (to try to give the best view of the CFLs. Which will explain why the incandescent bulbs look extra yellow. I kept the exact same shutter speed and aperture in each setting. Only the bulbs changed in each photo. These were the various bulbs I used in my test:

I hope you find this comparison as helpful as I did!

First up was an outdoor setting. This light fixture lights up our side door entrance. I was using the regular CFL in the fixture, but it was so cold in appearance and looked odd with the warm yellow light the lanterns by our front door emit.

I really liked the Philips Ambient LED in this fixture and was about to choose that one, but then read that it wasn’t recommended for outdoor or damp locations. Boo. Ultimately I decided on the the incandescent 60 watt bulb. In the meantime I will be on the lookout for a outdoor approved LED lightbulb.

The living room table lamp was the most forgiving light situation. The white shade and medium green walls made most of the light bulbs look good. But, ultimately I decided I liked the Sylvania CFL light bulb best in this fixture.

Our foyer is small, dark and has bright yellow walls. This is also the light we leave on all night to protect sleepwalkers who might otherwise tumble down the stairs. All the bulbs looked pretty good in this location except the Ottlite. It was too harsh, bright and cold feeling.

Ultimately I decided I liked the Philps LED light bulb here. This bulb was by far my favorite light bulb. But, with a hefty price tag of $30, I can’t be buying more than one or two of them!

Our master bedroom was the only location that I liked the Ottlite. The lamp shades have a beige color. This tones down the harsh white of the Ottlite. Plus, it was the only bulb that didn’t make my wall color look sickly brownish gray.

Finally, the room that started this whole pursuit of scientific knowledge: The kids’ bathroom, which has many requirements. The bulbs can’t be too dim that guests can’t see themselves in the mirror. And yet the room can’t be too bright to blind anyone who turns the light on in the wee hours of the night. The light couldn’t be too cold or bluish in cast. Basically I had a lot of requirements for this light fixture.

I also had our friend, Greg, model for me to show the lighting on skin tones.

I felt like Goldilocks in this room (too bright, too dark, too blue!)

1. The incandescents were not very eco-friendly.

2. The soft white CFLS were okay, but still a little harsh and bluish cast.

3. Regular CFL bulbs, these were pretty bad. They were darker and I really didn’t like the light color.

4. The Ottlite was way too bright and harsh for the blue and white bathroom. So, I finally figured out the perfect bulb formula.

That’s right, I’m a bulb mixer. We found that two soft white CFLs and one incandescent light bulb was the magic formula. The two soft white CFLs gives enough light and energy savings without being too clinical. But, the incandescent works to soften the bluish cast.

So although I can’t tell you that I found the PERFECT light bulb. And I still can’t embrace the CFLs, I work with them to try to go easy on my energy bill and lesson my carbon footprint. I mix bulbs in our multi-light (non-dimming) fixtures. I do have to warn you though, if you use CFLs in a closed fixture (like the one shown below with the dome removed.) They will not last as long as they are supposed to.

I also noticed a big difference between the “soft white” CFL bulbs I bought. The Sylvania ones were not nearly as warm as the Ecosmart ones, proving that all CFLs are not created equal.

I did find that I liked different bulbs in different locations. And ultimately I made a decision that allowed me to be eco-conscious but also be happy with our lighting.

But, I really hope that the Philips Ambient LED bulbs will come down in price. They use the least amount of energy, don’t get hot, and give off a light that is very close to an incandescent. So for those of us that still love incandescents, there is hope!




Disclosure: I was NOT paid by any companies to review the above mentioned light bulbs. Ottlite did send me bulbs for free, but I was not swayed to write a positive review. This post is my honest and unswayed opinion.

37 replies
  1. Baye
    Baye says:

    Interesting experiment. As a sewer, I know that Ott’s are supposed to show true color for fabrics. How odd that everything looks blue in the photos!

    As for Philips brand, I long ago stopped buying them because they lasted such a short time. I was replacing bulbs so often I started to pay serious attention. Once I stopped using the Philips that were so readily available at the grocery store, I was back to hardly ever having to buy them. It’s worth the trip to a big box store for the few times I need to replace the General Electric or Sylvania brands.

    I do like the ones that simulate daylight and the LED’s. I find CFL bulbs frustrating–just not bright enough. I swear they make my eyes hurt!

    • Brittany (aka Pretty Handy Girl)
      Brittany (aka Pretty Handy Girl) says:

      Baye, well it was because I had my camera set on fluorescent lighting. I guess they are very different in lighting than fluorescent bulbs.

      The Ottlite is supposed to simulate daylight. I just found it too bright and harsh for me except when filtered by a beige lamp shade.

  2. Jessica @ Decor Adventures
    Jessica @ Decor Adventures says:

    What an excellent summary, I will be bookmarking this page for sure. I liked the Ottlite in most of the pics, it jsut appeared the more non-yellow if you will but it may look different in person. I always feel like I’m removing yellow form my photos, maybe that’s why I like it.

    You are a rebel with your bulb mixing!

  3. Vonnie @ jpphotography
    Vonnie @ jpphotography says:

    This is definitely getting a bookmark. I always spend way too long in the light bulb aisle trying to guess which bulb is going to give me the color I like. I tend to pick out the Phillips Daylight bulbs because the white balance looks pretty normal. So – why are those LED’s so expensive, and will they really save you X amount of money over the long run?

  4. Diane@InMyOwnStyle
    [email protected] says:

    Hi Brittany-

    This is such an important post for anyone who wants to make their home more beautiful. Choosing the right lighting, placement, bulbs and wattage is so important in decorating, but most people only pay attention to the actual choice of the fixture. Lighting not only effects what you see, but the mood too which accounts for a lot in the way you feel in a space -it is so important. I cannot tell you how many homes I have helped decorate where the first thing I did was to change the lighting – simple – yet so effective.
    I hope you have a great weekend.
    My best- Diane

    • Brittany (aka Pretty Handy Girl)
      Brittany (aka Pretty Handy Girl) says:

      I am VERY effected by light. So much so that I’ve repainted almost every room in this house to a lighter color to bounce more light. And, I’m always trying to tweak the light bulbs in our fixtures to get the perfect amount and temperature of lighting. Must be the visual person in us, huh?!


  5. Jenny Scheidt @ Squawk
    Jenny Scheidt @ Squawk says:

    I’m a little upset the lack of information. First off, I’ll disclose that my hubby is a lighting guy working out at Cree in Durham. I know more about lighting than the average person wants to hear at the dinner table. I’m also an engineer, so I don’t mind hearing about the mechanics of light.

    Life span of the LED bulbs is the reason for the high price. LEDs last 16 to 20 years, do not contain toxic materials, and instead of blowing out LEDs get dimmer.

    What your test was checking is what color temperature you prefer in each room with the amount of light (candles) over wattage.

    Cool and bright bulbs are bluer, truer white (clinical?). Warm and soft bulbs yellower and warmer. The US prefers warm lighting – makes everyone look tanner/healthy. Asia prefers cool bulbs because cool lighting. The warm makes everything yellower, look sickly. My skin tone is from my pacific islander heritage, so we have cool lighting in my house. My youngest had lots of blood work in her first days of life because her coloring looked jaundiced, she was not. It all comes down to preference. The Ott lights are natural lights – in sunlight spectrum. Once the color temperature is decided, any option of lighting can be found in that color (not Ott as they only do natural).

    Also to note, bulbs like CFLs have to warm up to get to their steady color. A CFL’s actual color might not be what you see in the first 5-7 minutes of turning it on. CFLs are toxic and should be disposed as hazardous waste. If one breaks, leave the room immediately to avoid inhaling mercury. Come back and clean it up 15 minutes later.

    Check this chart out for life span and energy savings.
    http://www.designrecycleinc.com/led%20comp%20chart.html Looking at cost with LEDs one must consider energy savings on top of life span.

    • Brittany (aka Pretty Handy Girl)
      Brittany (aka Pretty Handy Girl) says:

      Jenny, this is great information! Thank you so much for sharing.

      I had no idea that we as a culture preferred different temperature based on our skin color. That is really interesting.

      I’m glad you commented about the CFLs being toxic and how to handle them when they break. I had also heard that you need to open the windows, then pick up the pieces and seal them in a plastic bag before throwing them away. That is a lot of work and rather scary for just a light bulb.


      • Jenny Scheidt @ Squawk
        Jenny Scheidt @ Squawk says:

        For our location, we take all our hazardous waste to the hazardous waste dump to be sealed in bins and transferred to Greenboro to be handled. CFLs are hazardous waste and putting them in the regular trash allows the toxins into the soils and water.

        As for loving your lighting it’s really not tricky. Check the color temperature of the bulb, cfl, or led. They all come in a range of colors, rated by a number. Much easier to get the lighting that way.

  6. nanci
    nanci says:

    I too struggle with being “green” and loving how my lighting looks. I hate that we have to feel guilty for loving incandescents. Oh well…soon we won’t have a choice so I hope the price comes down on the LED too. Thanks for this very interesting experiment and post. By the way, my sister asked an electrician about why the CFL’s don’t always last as long as they say they will, and he said if you don’t leave them on for at least 15 minutes after you turn them on, you will shorten their lifespan. Interesting huh?

  7. Nann
    Nann says:

    I think the statement about leaving CFLs on for at least 15 minutes may date from the early days of their production. It used to be that the starter was what tended to fail rather than the lighting parts of the bulb (I forget the exact terms so am just describing instead). Because of that it was recommended to only use them in lights that you leave on for longer periods. CFLs have improved greatly in recent years though and this is no longer so much of a problem. There are variations in brands though. Consumer Reports evaluates them periodically.

    As for the mercury issue, the recommendations are absolute best practice – and a broken CFL exposes you to far less mercury than the old thermometers did. We broke several of those thermometers when I was growing up but in over 15 years of using at least some CFLs in our house, including moving them in our 4 moves, I have never broken a one.

    From the Energy Star program “These steps are precautions and reflect best practices for cleaning up a broken CFL. If you are unable to follow them fully, don’t be alarmed. CFLs contain a very small amount of mercury — less than 1/100th of the amount in a mercury thermometer.”

    There’s a lot more information both on this page and through the links on the page.

  8. MoeWest
    MoeWest says:

    Very informative post and comments. Thanks. For the bathroom, I suggest a dimmer switch would help for the wee hours of the night. We have them in our bathrooms and I like them.

  9. Gloria
    Gloria says:

    I really wish you would take more pics using the regular setting on your camera, because I love the ottlite. I crochet and can see the details in my stiches with the ottlite. The colors come alive and TRUE with the ottlite. One time, I discovered that I was wearing a navy sock and a black sock. After that, I would take my dark socks to the window to see the real colors. Now, I have ottlite and all the colors show up as the true, real colors. I crochet under a fixture that has an ottlite and can crochet at night and see the details in my stiches and the true color of my yarn.

  10. Brittany (aka Pretty Handy Girl)
    Brittany (aka Pretty Handy Girl) says:

    Gloria, thanks for your comment. There really is no “regular” setting on my Canon. There is an auto white balance which would have made ALL the pictures look almost the same. I really was not very happy with the ottlites. It was WAY too bright for me. However, I definitely recognize that each person is different in their lighting preferences. So I complete respect that you love them 😉

    I did like the Ottlite bulbs in my bedroom lamps. The shade does a great job of cutting down the intensity for me.


  11. Katie @ Newcomb Home
    Katie @ Newcomb Home says:

    This is a great review, thank you! I also love Jenny’s comments about the lifespan of the LED bulbs. The cost is high because its a ‘new’ technology but mostly because of the lifespan. LEDs last over 30,000 hours. CFLs about 8,000 and incandescents are 1,000. If you take that into consideration of the cost, its a good deal to buy LEDs (esp. because of the environmental benefit). Anyway, I’m just rehashing, but maybe you’d consider doing an updated post about the relative cost? As an environmentally-conscious person, I’d hate for someone to turn away from LEDs because of the initial cost, not knowing they’ll last so much longer! Anyway, I love your summary of your favorite bulbs and especially like that you reviewed them in different rooms, thank you!

  12. Suzanne B
    Suzanne B says:

    My niece and her husband installed all LED lights in their new home last year. It cost a lot but their electric bill is under $100.00 a month. I know there are a lot of variables but my home is of similar size and mine is closer to $200. I am going to be replacing my bulbs this year with LEDs.

  13. Tim Lookingbill
    Tim Lookingbill says:

    This is a very organized and well designed article but as a photographer and digital imaging enthusiast, I have to say the images aren’t as accurate from my experience with several daylight CFL’s and 18″ T8 fluorescent tubes. The incandescent samples are pretty spot on. I have yet to find a household daylight balanced LED that renders colors reasonably accurate. I’ll consent to that. The posted image samples don’t take into account the human visual system’s ability to adapt to various color temperatures after viewing them for at least a couple of minutes or till they warm up.

    I’ve been studying this subject and taking pictures and having to post process them taking into account visual adaptation and most of these daylight fluorescent have problems reproducing two colors (yellow and orange) which can be used as tests for color accuracy. Cadmium yellow (a banana) will either look like it has a tint of cyan (Alzo, Ottlight HD and Walmart 5000K Daylight CFLs) or look normal (GE Sunshine 18″ T8 or Philips Natural Sunshine T8). Orange (a carrot) will look a vibrant slightly darker, richer red orange (CFL’s) or slightly lighter with pronounced yellow or how they look under an actual sunbeam excluding any bluish skylight (GE & Philips).

    Neutrals (white walls) after adaptation will have a low saturated buttery/egg nog tint but be far more neutral looking than the amber/yellow incandescent or their fluorescent equivalent.

  14. Gary Weiner
    Gary Weiner says:

    There are a lot of improvements coming from LED makers that are working specifically on color, which is considered warm and inviting for home use.

    I am not affiliated with any LED or bulb maker but like the promise the LED market presents all of us as an evolutionary offering. Our little company is in R&D for new type of LED bulbs, based on optical fiber filament, which emit the light, efficiently. This is not like mentioned rope light, which is side emitting over the length, our approach actually pushes the light out and evokes the aesthetic of a conventional incandescent filament bulb but leverages energy efficiency of LED bulbs and advanced driver/power control. The longer-term vision is to replace LED tube lights, today a span of a PC Board populated with LEDs. Our designs is to fire the light in from each end piece, from recyclable ‘light cartridges’ (like today’s ink jet cartridges) and are connected by a passive optical rod we design that efficiently (distributes) extracts the light uniformly over the desired length. My thinking is this eliminates landfills being filled with ‘dead LED tubes’ 10-15 years from now.

    Nice blog…if I can answer any questions, please write me….happy new year 2013!!

  15. Dawn
    Dawn says:

    My biggest issue with light bulb picking is that right now I have warm bulbs mixed with my real brown (like tree bark brown) cabinets and my marble yellow counter tops. The whole bathroom is extremely yellow! Too warm. Also not great for putting on make-up. lol. So I’m thinking the stark blue bulbs might do wonders for my bathrooms.

    These bathrooms are not my choice (apartment). lol. I’ll keep this science experiment in mind when I pick light bulbs 🙂

  16. Judy Webb
    Judy Webb says:

    I really appreciate you trying to sort through the light bulb situation!! I use white light in my craft room and like you, seeking the correct bulb for other rooms. Next, I’ll venture over to Consumer Reports and see if they have comparisons. Loved this post. 3/2013

  17. Gabrielle
    Gabrielle says:

    Reading this thread with great interest. It is now 2015 and this thread was started in 2011. Yes, there have been many changes to bulbs. I am re-doing my house and I learned that one has to have a Ph.D in lighting to understand what is available now. I think the best thing to do is to try to compare what we were used to in the old incandescents and if we liked them, try to emulate that same color in a newer, more eco-friendly version. Yes, we now have to pay attention to Kelvins for Color/Appearance and Lumens for brightness. An old 60 W incandescent bulb is equivalent in brightness to an 800 lumen bulb and about 2700K for the old warm white, standard color of incandescent bulbs. Buying bulbs you like for your own applications is at best trial and error. What you did, buying a bunch of different bulbs and trying them out, is unfortunately time consuming and expensive (at least see if you can return them), but it is the best way to see how the bulbs work in your specific settings. thanks for an interesting column. It would be fun for you to re-create your experiment today, 5 years later and see what happens.

  18. Andy Pugh
    Andy Pugh says:

    It doesn’t make any sense that you would say incandescents aren’t eco-friendly, when cfls are filled with mercury and you can get very sick if you break one and breath in the fumes.

  19. Tanya Pratt
    Tanya Pratt says:

    Do you know what the best light bulb choice would be to mimic daylight in a very poorly lit room? I have a traditional makeup vanity desk with one center mirror and two swivel side mirrors. I mounted two “Hollywood” vanity strips vertically on the left and right side mirrors and installed standard 40 watt globe bulbs. The light is a little lower than I would like, and the bulb itself gets so hot, I’m afraid I’m going to damage the wood directly next to it over time or, God forbid, start a fire if something is ever accidentally left near the hot bulbs. Any suggestions on a perfect globe bulb that would let off the perfect light on my face without blinding or burning me? Lol Thanks in advance for your suggestions!

  20. Charissa
    Charissa says:

    Great article. Being a new homeowner and overwhelmed with choices, this is such a huge help. I’m trying to keep my home cooler in tones and we’re planning to paint the living room a cool light gray of sorts. But the lighting is so key for grays. I’m glad I ran across your blog!


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