Disappointed by Equivalent Watts? Look at Lumens

Halogen, CFL, LED light bulbs

If you’ve been to a hardware store recently to replace a light bulb, you know that this simple act has grown exponentially more complex in the past few years. With 100 watt, 75 watt, and now 60 watt incandescent bulbs no longer being made in the US, the push is towards CFL and LED lighting.

While manufacturers have attempted to educate consumers on the “new rules of lighting,” it is very easy to get a replacement light bulb that is subpar. A CFL with an equivalent wattage of 60 watts may be disappointingly dim when it is installed, or an LED may be way too bright.

The problem is that manufacturers have no agreed-upon standard for equivalent wattage estimates. At best, they are a decent guide, and at worst, simply misleading. This is why lumens has become the new wattage, and why color temperature is now more important than ever.

We have a whole discussion on color temperature here, which you can read to discover what values like 2700k, 3000k, and 5000k mean in terms of light. Now, we’ll look at lumens.

If you’ve ever selected a bulb by equivalent watts (for example 9 watt LED equals 60 watt incandescent) and ended up disappointed when the product is turned on, it’s time to start thinking in terms of lumens. Watts is a unit of energy — not light output. According to EPA’s Energy Star program for lighting, “Brightness is a description of light output, which is measured in lumens (not watts).”

If you are replacing bulbs, the best way to make sure you get the same light output from the LED or CFL is to know the lumens of your existing bulb. Lumens are usually written on the box (which you may have already thrown away) and you’re unlikely to find lumens on the bulb, only watts. If the manufacturer and part number of the bulb are written on it, you may be in luck, but this is not often the case.

So, without the box the bulb came in, you are back to square one. The solution is to look for LED and CFL bulbs with: (1) equivalent watts to match the bulb you are replacing, and (2) are Energy Star Qualified. If both of these requirements are met, you have a very good chance of getting the light you expect from the LED or CFL bulb.

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Nick Heeringa

Nick is a writer, publisher and editor for the Topbulb blog. Check back often for more of his writing on lighting applications and announcements for the Topbulb website and blog!