How To: Choose a Bulb

Disclaimer-Captain DIY and highly recommend exercising extreme caution when attempting DIY projects. Not everybody can do everything, and some things should only be done by professionals. Keep your digits attached, and keep the insurance company off of your back. Do it right or call the right people!

You just finished installing some awesome new recessed light cans in your kitchen remodel project, now to choose the bulbs. You know you don’t want compact fluorescents (CFLs) because of the infamous harsh blue light, but that’s about it. It can be awful hard to choose something when you only know what you don’t want. Plus the light bulb isle at those big box stores is enormous and intimidating, and the analysis paralysis you experience with all the choices has made this a painful experience so far. What is a DIYer to do?

Captain DIY has had quite a bit of experience in this field, especially since Mrs. DIY has such particular taste in lighting. So let’s get down into the dirt of light.

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Ohm’s Wheel of Confusion

The terminology used can be confusing, so let’s start there. You’ve heard of watts, and you know that higher watts means more light, right? Well, not exactly. Higher watts means more energy used to create the light (Ohm’s Law tells us that Amps* x Volts**=Watts.) but that doesn’t always add up to more usable light. It’s still an important factor, as most light fixtures will have a Maximum Wattage rating. This is to protect the internal components of the fixture from overheating due to excessive amperage.

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Nobody reads these things anyway


How about Lumens? That is a word most people don’t really pay much attention to on the bulb package. It is referring to the amount of light (measured in foot-candles***) the bulb puts out. Higher Lumens = more actual light.

Kelvin is the “color temperature” of the light that is coming out of the bulb. The higher the Kelvin rating, the bluer the light. If it’s a lower number, the light will be more yellow. You may see this expressed in terms like “daylight” (higher Kelvin) or “warm” (lower Kelvin). Higher Kelvin ratings, such as 5000K, are more useful for task lighting, where you really need to be able to see what you’re doing. Think kitchen counters. Lower Kelvin ratings, like 3000K or even 2700K, are great for mood lighting in the living room, where you want to create a warm, inviting environment.

Ok, there’s more, but we got through the terms we really need to know to effectively choose what we want for our house. Now we can approach that monstrosity of a lighting aisle with a power and confidence that is sure to impress the octogenarian employee we saw on the way in.

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They will be that impressed

But wait, didn’t we want to put that on a dimmer? Can you even put this bulb on a dimmer? Crap, where’s Captain DIY when you need him?

Never fear, simply check the packaging to make sure it says “dimmable” and you are good to go! Most, if not all, of the LED bulbs you will find on the shelf will be dimmable, as long as the dimmer you have installed (that’ll be another post) is made for LEDs. These days, with the prevalence of CFLs and LEDs, almost all dimmers will work, but it never hurts to check closely before you buy. Less trips to the store = less gas burned = more money working hard to help you retire early!

We’ve talked about LEDs and how we can get them the way we want, and I mentioned earlier about the harsh light given out by CFLs. I need to back up a little bit here, and make sure we don’t gloss over their potential use. Using our newfound knowledge of lighting terminology, we can picket a CFL if we don’t want to throw down the cash for an LED and check the Kelvin rating to see if it’ll make our house feel like a cubicle. Under 3500K? Boom, nice lighting for a nice price!

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Time to Impress Your Friends

Now that your house is starting to look like a Better Homes and Gardens showpiece, invite your friends over and impress them with big words like Lumens and Kelvin! You can tell them all about Captain DIY and his incredible advice and entertaining writing style! You can charge them big bucks to buy light bulbs for them! Although, maybe don’t do that last one if you want them to still be your friends. Remember kids, friends don’t let friends spend too much money on stupid things!

*Amps (or Amperes) refers to the flow of electrons through the conductor, or wire. The larger the conductor, the higher potential flow, the more amps can safely go through the conductor

**Volts refers to the potential energy available to flow through the conductor. Basically, think of volts as the size of the garden hose and amps as the water. The larger the hose, the more water can travel through it. Higher voltage = larger hose, higher amperage = more water being pushed through.

***Foot-candles refers to a measurement of light output. One foot-candle is equivalent to the light output of one candle at one foot away.

I see the light!

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