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Cheap Light Bulbs Buying Guide

CFLs produce the same amount of light as the old incandescent bulbs at a lower wattage, which saves on electricity, and they last longer, which saves on the cost of replacements. They carry labels such as "60-watt equivalent" or "40-watt equivalent" for the sake of comparison to incandescents.

We focused our search on replacements for 60-watt incandescent bulbs, one of the most common and most recently phased-out varieties. The winning candidate: The Philips 13-Watt Energy Saver Mini Twister Soft White CFL (starting at $1.25, or $4.98 for a four-pack), which stands out for casting bright light quickly and for its compact size. Walmart's Great Value 14-Watt Soft White CFL (starting at $1.22, or $4.88 for a four-pack) has emerged from expert testing as a top recommendation among cheap light bulbs, with high marks for brightness and quality of light. GE Energy Smart 13-Watt CFL bulbs (starting at $1.45 each, or $12 for an eight-pack) also curry favor with consumers, giving off a pleasant glow that's similar to the light produced by an incandescent bulb. EcoSmart 14-Watt Soft White CFLs (starting at $1.24, or $5 for a four-pack) likewise cast a bright, warm, and inviting light. However, consumers may want to steer clear, because these light bulbs don't last as long as advertised, reviews say.

Light Bulb Reviews

These are all general-purpose CFL bulbs with medium bases and that distinctive spiral shape. Some CFLs look a lot like the old standards, with a dome cover that diffuses the light, giving it softer tone, and they also come in globe and candelabra shapes. Those are less common and tend to be a lot more expensive than the curlicue models, though. It's also possible to find CFLs that can be used with a dimmer switch or in a three-way socket, but again, they cost more.

What We Looked For in the Specs

Energy Star Certification.

The blue Energy Star label certifies that a light bulb saves energy while maintaining a high quality of light. Incandescent light bulbs are remarkably inefficient: 90 percent of the energy they consume turns into heat -- the light is almost an afterthought. (We read one review from a consumer who prefers incandescent bulbs for reading lamps specifically because they heat up a chilly bedroom.) The Energy Star website asserts that certified bulbs use 75 percent less energy than traditional incandescents. That's well above and beyond what's required under the new federal standards, which permit light bulbs that are only 25 percent more efficient. Factoring in the longer lifespan, each CFL bulb yields savings of $40 over its lifetime, according to Energy Star estimates, and quickly pays for itself. Look for rebates from Energy Star partners, the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency, and light bulb manufacturers to save even more.

At Least 800 Lumens.

Amid the switch away from incandescent bulbs, there are some changes afoot in light bulb labeling. Now that wattage no longer corresponds to light output (a 13- or 14-watt CFL is as bright as a 60-watt incandescent), the industry has moved toward lumens to measure a light bulb's brightness. A 100-watt incandescent light bulb produces about 1,600 lumens, a 75-watt bulb about 1,100 lumens, a 60-watt bulb about 800 lumens, and a 40-watt bulb about 450 lumens. Those are also the minimum levels required for Energy Star certification. To ensure that our choices for the best cheap light bulbs would be bright enough to stand in for 60-watt incandescents, we chose CFL bulbs that generate at least 800 lumens. The Great Value 14-Watt Soft White CFLs are especially bright, at 900 lumens.

Low Color Temperature.

Many people are concerned with the quality of light from CFLs, which have a reputation for appearing harsh compared with the soft, yellowy glow of an incandescent. Ironically, that warm glow is associated with a low color temperature in the range of 2,700 to 3,000 Kelvin. Light bulbs with higher color temperatures give off whiter or bluer light. A color temperature of 5,000K to 6,500K mimics daylight; you may see that indicated on the packaging.

We've chosen light bulbs designed to replicate the low-temperature light consumers are used to from years of incandescents, but color temperature is ultimately a matter of preference. The EcoSmart 14-watt light bulbs also come in a daylight version with a color temperature of 5,000K. They have a higher price tag than the soft white (starting at $2.24, or $8.97 for a four-pack) but earn much better reviews. You may favor different bulbs for different applications: higher color temperature for reading lights, lower for living room lamps, somewhere in the middle for a bathroom or a work space in the basement. Ask about return policies and save the receipt in case you don't like what you see when you install the light bulb.

CRI of at Least 80.

CRI stands for Color Rendering Index, which measures how accurately colors show up under the light -- another reputational weakness of CFL bulbs. The closer this number is to 100, the closer the light approximates the performance of an incandescent light bulb. Experts recommend a CRI of no less than 80 for indoor use. They also note that consumers should use CRI to compare bulbs with the same color temperature.

Light Bulb Reviews

What pleases people the most about using compact fluorescents, according to light bulb reviews, is the savings in energy costs. That alone isn't enough, though. Consumers expect a bulb that doesn't flicker, buzz, or hum and can be used anywhere a standard incandescent light bulb can go. It should emit a pleasing light that is as bright as the incandescent bulb it replaces. The package will tell you how long a CFL bulb is supposed to last -- usually at least 8,000 hours. We looked to light bulb reviews for assurance that the products we chose would actually last as long as advertised. After all, one advantage of a long-lasting CFL is avoiding the expense of replacement bulbs over time.

Bright, Pleasing Light.

For the most part, reviewers are happy with the light they get from the CFL bulbs on our list of top picks. It may take a while to get used to one quirk: CFLs don't fully brighten for up to a minute or two (the Energy Star website explains why). For minimal warm-up time, look to the Philips 13-Watt Energy Saver Mini Twister Soft White CFL (starting at $1.25), which took only 21 seconds in one expert test and is often cited in user reviews for lighting up fast. As far as the quality of the light is concerned, many reviewers say the CFL bulbs we chose are indistinguishable from 60-watt incandescent bulbs. In some light bulb reviews, consumers remark that they expected the light to be harsh and express surprise at the pleasant glow.


Energy Star-certified CFLs are supposed to last for years -- about 10 times longer than incandescent light bulbs. The advertised life of an EcoSmart 14-Watt Soft White CFL (starting at $1.24) is 10,000 hours -- a typical claim. However, light bulb reviews suggest that such numbers are not to be taken at face value. On the Home Depot website, many users warn that the EcoSmart light bubs lasted only a few months, weeks, or even days. Some reviewers conclude that they must have received defective bulbs and report trouble getting the manufacturer to honor the nine-year warranty. Our top pick, the Philips 13-Watt Energy Saver Mini Twister Soft White CFL, is backed by an 11-year warranty, assuming the light bulb is used as directed (three hours per day, seven days a week). Just be sure to hang onto your receipt.

In general, CFL light bulbs work best in situations where they remain on for a period of time, instead of being turned on and off frequently (as in a closet, for example). A consumer who posted a review of the 13-watt GE Energy Smart bulbs (starting at $1.45) on Amazon found out the hard way that not all CFL bulbs are designed for enclosed fixtures. Look for the packaging to specifically say so, or run the risk that the light bulb will overheat, severely shortening the expected lifespan.

Other Light Bulb Types.

As we've seen, CFLs have their drawbacks. They don't come to full brightness immediately, they get dim over time, and they don't perform well in cold temperatures. Light bulb reviews often point out that CFLs contain mercury, so they cannot be discarded in the regular trash. (See the EPA website for information on safe disposal.)

Another alternative to incandescent light bulbs is light-emitting-diode or LED bulbs, which are even more efficient and last even longer than CFLs -- about 25,000 hours, or more than 20 years with typical use. They also brighten immediately and can be thrown away without worry. The rub: They generally cost between $10 and $40 each. In general consumers should count themselves lucky to find a 60-watt-equivalent LED for less than $10. Walmart has started selling Great Value-branded LEDs starting at $8.88, but they're too new to properly evaluate, especially where longevity is concerned.

A $10 price tag is a lot less than manufacturers offered only a year ago and allows consumers to come out ahead over the lifetime of the bulb, thanks to the energy savings. The New York Times reports that prices will continue to drop and have already hit the $5 mark in states where utility providers are offering incentives. It should be only a matter of time before you can afford to light the whole house with ultra-efficient LEDs. For consumers who want to pick their spots for the pricey bulbs, experts particularly recommend LEDs for fixtures where bulbs are cumbersome to replace, outdoor lights, and places such as closets and stairways, where you need immediate illumination and/or don't leave the light on for long. As it turns out, a critical favorite in this category, the Cree 60-Watt Replacement Soft White LED, happens to fall on the low end pricewise (starting at $9.97 or less in many parts of the country).

Halogen bulbs are sometimes referred to as "energy-saving incandescent" or "eco-incandescent." They're efficient enough to clear the threshold set by the government in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, although not efficient enough to earn Energy Star certification. Like regular incandescents, they brighten right away, produce warm, familiar light, and contain no mercury. This makes them a popular intermediate step for consumers wary of trading in their incandescent light bulbs. The Philips EcoVantage 43-Watt Soft White Halogen (starting at $1.49, or $5.97 for a four-pack) makes an excellent substitute, according to reviews at Home Depot. Consumers like that it's mercury-free and has the added advantage of being dimmable. Still, a CFL costs about the same up front and saves money in the not-so-long run.

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In this review:
  1. Cheap Light Bulbs
  2. Discount Light Bulbs Features Comparison Table
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