The light bulb is arguably one of the most important inventions to date, and this development had a huge impact on the Industrial Revolution because it allowed for safer travel conditions after dark, longer working hours, and social order after the sun set. Today, there are many different types of light bulbs available, and you can have several different types in your home, garage, shed, or workshop.
If you’re looking for information on the different types of light bulbs, this quick guide is the perfect resource. Once we go over a brief history of the light bulb in general, we’ll dive in-depth about each of the four main types of light bulbs available on the current market. Thai way, you’ll get a good idea of exactly which one you need for your space.
Think about it. You have light bulbs virtually everywhere in your house, and you most likely don’t give a second thought to them. However, some are much better than others to have. Looking close… on Friday – Bokeh in B&W by Tanja-Milfoil / CC BY-SA 2.0
A Brief History of the Light Bulb
Many people mistakenly believe that Thomas Edison first invented the light bulb in 1879. However, the truth is that the invention process for different types of light bulbs actually spanned 150 years and several different inventors. The first artificial light source actually predates Thomas Edison back in the 1700s.
Sir Humphrey Davy of England created the original electric light back in 1802. This type of light bulb wasn’t practical for commercial use, but it began the invention process. Below, you’ll find a few more notable names involved in the invention process.
1841 – Frederick de Moleyns
Frederick de Moylens was the first person to get a patent for a glass bulb in an incandescent lamp in 1841 in England. However, this lamp had several flaws. The bulb design itself was poor, and it included only a partial vacuum casing. In turn, it heated up far too quickly. This heated air was trapped inside and it caused blackened burn marks on the glass bulb. Additionally, these bulbs experienced rapid burnout due to the design flaws.
1865 – Hermann Sprengel
Nearly 24 years later, a German chemist named Hermann Sprengel made an important discovery. He pulled the air pocket out of the interior of the electric light bulbs, and this eliminated the blackening issue while preserving the filament. He also included a mercury vacuum pump system that still carries his name today due to the immense success it had. You know it as the Sprengel Pump.
1874 – Henry Woodward and Mathew Evans
Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans were two men that filed a patent in Canada and in the United States for incandescent light bulbs that contained carbon filaments in 1874. The light bulbs did work, but there wasn’t a huge market for them. Five years later, these two men gave up trying to sell the bulbs and they sold the patent to Thomas Edison.
1879 to 1911 – Thomas Edison and the Muckers Versus Sir Joseph Wilson Swan
Edison’s original dream was to replace gas lights by inventing a reliable, inexpensive, and safe incandescent type of light bulb in a short six-weeks. He had a team of 14 men he called the muckers to help him realize this dream. However, there was direct competition to create this type of bulb.
Sir Joseph Wilson Swan was also trying to create an incandescent type of light bulb in England, and he also had an individual UK-based patent. In 1879 on New Year’s Eve, Thomas Edison presented the team’s work in the form of a light bulb. Once midnight came and went, Sir Joseph Swan presented a working lamp. Both Swan and Edison’s inventions were functional, but neither one of them were meant for commercial use.
Both kept working with the goal of improving their inventions. Edison got two patents in the United States for his newly created commercially-viable type of light bulb, and he then went on to establish the Edison Electric Company. Swan’s type of light bulbs also continued to develop, and he founded The Swan Electric Light Company in 1881, just one year after Edison founded his company.
Even though many people think that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb on his own, you can now see that there were several people involved. Original Edison Electric Light Sign by David / CC BY-SA 2.0
Thomas Edison ended up suing Swan after they both accused one another of copyright infringement, and Edison lost. So, in 1883, the companies merged to create the Edison and Swan United Electric Light Company, Ltd. Several years later, Thomas Edison bought Swan out of the company known as Ediswan.
It was here that Edison’s type of light bulb took off, and he adapted it to make it suitable for daily use. It caught on, and there were no significant changes until 1911. This is the year that William D. Coolidge switched the carbon filaments to tungsten. This allowed for brighter and longer-lasting bulbs.
So, now you know that Thomas Edison wasn’t the sole inventor of the light bulb. However, he had a hugely critical role in the commercial and practical development of the incandescente type of light bulb. Also, screw-based bulbs are also called Edison light bulbs, and you can sometimes see an “E” on the packaging with a number to show you the size. For example, if you pick out an E12 bulb, it signifies that you have a screw-based light bulb and the bulb base diameter is 12-inches.
Four Main Types of Light Bulbs
Even though the light bulb can hold the title as being one of the most valuable creations in recent history, it certainly didn’t stop in 1911. The bulbs in this time had a lot of room for adaptation and improvement. It shouldn’t surprise you to know that there are innovative and new types of light bulbs being created to this day, and we’re going to outline the four most popular types below.
1. Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs)
The quirky design combined with the energy-saving potential made these types of light bulbs immensely popular, despite the higher price tag. CFL Bulb by Adam / CC BY-SA 2.0
The first type of light bulb on the list is a compact fluorescent lamp. These lamps first became a big thing in the 1930s for industrial or commercial lighting. However, it wasn’t until an engineer named Edward E. Hammer took the traditional fluorescent tube and bent it into a spiral shape in 1976 to create the first compact fluorescent bulb. The mid-1980s saw it become commercialized.
The first of this type of bulb to come to the market had a subpar quality, were very expensive, and they were too big to fit in most light fixtures. However, they’re currently one of the most energy-efficient options available today thanks to more improvements. They use between 25% and 35% of the energy that the standard incandescent bulbs use while still creating a very similar amount of light. They can last up to 15x longer at 6,000 to 15,000 hours.
Best Uses for the CFL Light Bulbs
For many people the unique spiral shape of this type of bulb isn’t exactly appealing. They also take time to warm up once you switch them on. Because of these reasons, a lot of people won’t use this bulb in a statement light fixture. They also don’t usually work if you have them on dimmer switches like many recessed lighting setups have. However, these types of light bulbs are suitable to use in spaces where you spend a lot of time doing projects or reading, and this makes them popular for use in the following spaces:
- Concealed fixtures where you keep the lights on for hours at a time
- Offices or hallways where you have recessed lighting setups installed
- Outdoor floodlights
- Reading or table lamps
- Spaces that need a big area of light, like a bathroom or kitchen
The linear fluorescent bulbs are a second type of light bulb that falls into the fluorescent classification. As the name suggests, they have a tubular design and you can choose from several diameters, color temperatures, wattages, and lengths. This bulb is very commonly installed in task lighting fixtures, like what you’d find in under-cabinet fixtures or in garages.
How to Properly Dispose of CFL and Other Fluorescent Bulbs?
Unfortunately, these types of light bulbs emit tiny amounts of mercury vapors. This means that you have to recycle all of these types of light bulbs properly to keep everything safe. A lot of your local hardware and retail stores will recycle them for you. You can also get in touch with your local service provider and ask what their policies are. Some companies do offer a mail-back service too when the bulbs burn out. You can also do a quick search on Earth911 to find out which options are available to you. You want to prevent mercury leaks from getting into the environment to keep everything and everyone safe.
The EPA also has a complete guide available that details the correct cleanup measures for these types of lights should you break them. A few of the most important tips include keeping your pets and kids away, not vacuuming to avoid spreading the mercury vapor, and opening windows.
It’s also important to note that many people have questioned whether or not these types of light bulbs cause cancer. The answer isn’t 100% clear, and the EPA currently reports that there are zero ties to cancer and human mercury exposure. Some mice and rats have formed tumors after they were exposed to extremely high mercury levels. However, this same study concluded that the tiny inorganic mercury exposure you get from these bulbs is unlikely to cause cancer in humans.
2. Halogen Bulbs
These bulbs offered a lifespan that was far longer than the current bulbs on the market when they were introduced, and this made them popular or outdoor lighting elements. Halogen Lamp by russellstreet / CC BY-SA 2.0
The halogen bulbs were first introduced in 1959, and it was a direct adaptation of the incandescent light bulb. However, this was widely considered to be the first steps toward creating a truly energy-efficient type of light bulb. The bulbs got filled with halogen gas instead of an inert gas. This increased the light bulb’s lifespan by two or three times the standard lifespan of an incandescent bulb.
Best Uses for the Halogen Light Bulbs
This type of light bulb is capable of producing a much bright white color while using much less energy. They can be very small, but they do tend to heat up very quickly. A few common uses for this bulb include:
- Car headlights
- Outdoor or indoor floodlights
- Pendant lights
- Track lighting
You can also see halogen lights used as a heating element in halogen ovens. They’re also almost exclusively found in ellipsoidal reflector spotlights or other studio-style lighting fixtures in television or theater productions.
How to Properly Dispose of Halogen Bulbs
These bulbs use halogen to hold the filament, and this makes them a non-toxic type of light bulb. You should be able to find a recycling program for them. However, if you can’t, you can safely throw them into your trash to get rid of them, just like you can incandescent bulbs. You should put them in something padded to shield them in case the glass breaks.
3. Incandescent Bulbs
These bulbs aren’t energy-efficient at all, but they have a lower upfront cost that keeps them a popular option, even if you have to replace them more often. The Light Fantastic by Darren Cowley / CC0 1.0
Traditional types of light bulbs in this category are still very popular, but their lack of efficiency makes them more controversial. They waste an average of 90% of the energy they use as heat. So, they really are only capable of converting 10% of that power into light. This massive amount of wasted energy will lead to greenhouse gas emissions, and this has a negative impact on the environment.
There are newer designs on this type of light bulb that use between 25% and 80% less energy than traditional ones. This means that if every single household in the United States replaced one of these bulbs with a CFL bulb with an Energy Star label, we’d save enough energy to be able to light over three million homes in a single year. Also, this amount of energy is also the same as preventing 800,000 cars worth of greenhouse gas emissions from being released.
These bulbs do have another shortcoming though. The average lifespan of these bulbs is usually around a year before they burn out and you have to replace them. This is much lower than other types of bulbs. However, they come in a range of sizes, are dimmable, and they come in several wattages and voltages.
Best Uses for the Incandescent Light Bulbs
Even though this type of light bulb isn’t energy-efficient, they have a low upfront cost that makes them popular. If you look at the big picture, they can end up costing more in the long run when you constantly replace them. Here’s a few common uses for this type of light bulb:
- Chandeliers and candelabras in dining rooms
- Decorative light fixtures in living rooms or table lamps
- Traditional table lamps or nightlights in your bedrooms
How to Properly Dispose of Incandescent Bulbs
Since these light bulbs are made out of non-toxic materials, you can easily dispose of them in your garbage can without any issues. Some areas won’t accept them for recycling, but some do. Always try to check on the recycling status before you throw them. If you do throw them away, try to put them in something padded so they don’t accidentally break and cut anyone.
4. Light-Emitting Diode (LED)
The LED bulb is very popular due to its energy-efficiency and the long lifespan. Also, the price has dropped an incredible amount since they were first introduced. LED Bulb by PSNH / CC BY-ND 2.0
LED light bulbs first came to the market in 2008. Philips Lighting North America perfected the design for the 60-watt LED type of light bulb in 2011, and the bulbs had a 27-year lifespan while selling for $40.00 each. Since they first hit the market, the bulbs have seen a massive price drop of over 85%. They’re now a very affordable pick that uses up to 80% less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs. Also, these types of light bulbs can last an impressive 25 times longer than other bulbs.
Best Uses for the LEDs
When you talk about uses for these light bulbs, you can use them for virtually any lighting needs. However, there are a few areas where this type of light bulb excels. Any room where you have your lights on a dimmer switch or you would like to be able to control the brightness should be your number one priority, especially in bedrooms or dining rooms. Also, they do well in:
- Garages and outdoor lighting, especially in cold climates
- Night lights
- Recessed lighting or in downlight applications
- Under cabinet fixtures
How to Properly Dispose of LED Bulbs
Since these light bulbs contain no dangerous chemicals, you can follow the same disposal guidelines as we outlined for incandescent or halogen bulbs. However, it’s important to note that most of these types of light bulbs feature recyclable materials. You’ll most likely be able to add them to your recyclable materials. You do want to call the recycling company first to double-check that you’re in the clear before you do so. You can also look online for LED light bulb recycling centers or options.
Understanding Light Bulb Color Temperature
A lot of people only think about how bright their light bulbs are, and this was originally measured in watts. However, energy-efficient types of light bulbs can produce the exact same light level with less wattage. So, companies switched from measuring the brightness in watts to lumens. Lumens refer to how much light radiates from the bulb, and brighter bulbs have higher lumens.
Additionally, along with checking the lumens, you’ll want to look at the bulb’s color temperature and Kelvin rating. The Kelvin rating starts at 2,700 and goes up to 6,500, and they get described further with color temperature names.
- 2,700 to 3,000 Kelvins (Soft White) – The color you’ll get with this type of bulb is yellow and warm. They give off a very cozy feel that works well in dens, bedrooms, and living rooms.
- 3,000 to 4,000 Kelvins (Warm White) – The color temperature you’ll get if you pick out this bulb is a warm, yellowish-white. This particular color temperature works very well in your kitchen or bedroom.
- 4,000 to 5,000 Kelvins (Bright White) – This color temperature is somewhere between whtie and blue. It allows for a very energetic feel that works well in offices, kitchens, or workspaces.
- 5,000 to 6,500 Kelvines (Daylight) – Finally, you have a bright color temperature that gives off a harsher blue tone. The best place to install this bulb is areas where you work and read or in your vanity.
10 Light Bulb Base Types
You want to make sure that you have the correct base size for your light bulb or it won’t fit correctly into your socket. Incandescent Light Bulb by Tyler Nienhouse / CC BY 2.0
There are different light bulb base types available, and knowing what they are can help you make the correct decision when you shop to ensure you get something that fits.
E10 Mini Screw
This smaller type of light bulb has a base that measures 10mm, and it works great for flashlights, lanterns, and decorative optical fiber lights. The lifespan of this bulb will vary, but most of them will last for upwards of 1,000 hours.
E11 Mini Candelabra
This smaller screw base is very similar to that of the traditional candelabra, as the name would suggest.
This type of light bulb has a diameter of 12mm, and these bulbs are generally considered to be on the smaller side. You’ll typically only use them in night lights, but you can also find them used for decorative lights over your mirror on your vanity or in your bathroom.
There are several types of lightbulbs that you can purchase with this base, but it’s nowhere near as popular as the E26 base. If you require this bulb but you’re having a hard time finding it at your local retailer, you can either purchase an adapter that will allow you to use a different bulb or go shopping online.
This is a second base for a light bulb that is more uncommon, and you’ll find it on smaller bulbs. It is commonly used on the T6, R12, or S11 bulbs, and you’ll have to really search to find them since they’re not available in most retail stores. Desk lamps or appliances commonly use them.
This is the single most common type of light bulb base available, and you can find it used in incandescent, halogen, CFL, HID, and CCFL types of light bulbs. Almost all of the bulbs you buy in the store will have this base.
This base is slightly larger than the E26 medium, but you can still use this bulb for almost any lighting fixture. It’s almost identical to the E26 medium model.
If you’re a residential customer, you most likely won’t ever need to locate this base. The reasoning being they’re usually installed in street lamps or in high-wattage lamps.
You’ll typically use this base in spotlights or in larger outdoor bulbs. They’re much bigger than most other bulb bases, and this limits how you can use them. They’re too big to fit into regular lights and lamps, so you’ll most likely have to purchase an adapter if you want to use it.
Frequently Asked Questions About Light Bulbs
Untitled by N O E L | F E A N S / CC BY 2.0 Even though this guide has gone over a lot of information regarding different types of light bulbs, it’s still common for people to have questions. We picked out a few more helpful pieces of information for you below.
1. What Are Smart Bulbs?
Smart bulbs are a type of light bulb that have Wi-Fi enabled that allows you to control them remotely. The technology packed into these light bulbs lets you save energy and lower your utility bills by giving you control over your lighting. They come loaded with fun features, including:
- Location-based controls call geo-fencing that can automatically switch your lights on or off based on the smart device’s location
- Pair your smart bulbs with any other smart devices in the home like thermostats and security systems to minimize your energy usage by coordinating modes
- Remotely operate the lights while you’re away to increase your security
- Remote operated and allow you to use your smart device to turn them on and off whether or not you’re home
- Some bulbs have color changing capabilities
2. Can you recycle light bulbs? If you can, where?
You’re not able to recycle the older model incandescent light bulbs. Most energy-efficient bulbs are a fluorescent light type that you should recycle at your local recycling center. Some stores will offer recycling areas for these bulbs. LED bulbs have zero hazardous waste, and you can put them in your trash. However, you can also recycle them as they’re made up of green materials. You can dispose of halogen bulbs in your trash, and it’s possible to recycle them too, but they need a specialized process. Fluorescent and CFL bulbs have mercury, so you should take them to an accepting recycling center.
3. Why do some light bulbs buzz?
If a light bulb buzzes, it can mean that the current was interrupted. This interruption makes the bulb’s filament vibrate, and this causes the buzzing noise. Incandescent bulbs are the type of light bulb that usually have this issue because they contain a filament. Replacing this bulb with one with no filament will remedy this issue.
4. Can light bulbs expire?
There is no expiration date on incandescent bulbs. As long as they keep their filament intact, they should work. CFL bulbs don’t have a shelf life unless they break. If they do, they contain mercury, so they’ll need a hazardous waste method of disposal. LED bulbs also have no expiration date and should work as long as they don’t break. You should store all of your light bulbs in a dry, cool place. Maintaining your light bulb’s structural integrity is key to keeping them working.
5. How long do incandescent bulbs last?
Typically speaking, most incandescent bulbs will last between 750 and 2,000 hours. Keep in mind that these estimates come from tests under perfect conditions, so it may be longer or shorter in your household. Under normal circumstances, the filaments will wear out and the bulb will quit working. A few things that can shorten this type of bulb’s lifespan include power outages, heat, the number of times you switch it on and off, and electrical surges. The quality of the filament is the single most important factor. A thin and cheap filament won’t last as long as a sturdier one.
Now you know the four most popular types of light bulbs, a brief history, base types, and the answers to a few frequently asked questions. You can take this information and see which bulb works best for your needs.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.