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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.

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.

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