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Top Three Lighting Sources Explained

14 June 2010

I’ve been getting more questions recently about the difference between the top available lighting sources.  So here’s a quick n’ dirty guide!

Incandescent Light Bulbs: These bulbs work the same way they did when they were first invented in the late 1800s – through the principal of incandescence (shocking).  What that means is that all bulbs marked as “incandescent” produce light through heat.  Incandescent light bulbs work when a filament – that little wire in the middle of the bulb – is heated to such a temperature that it produces visible light.  This explains why the bulbs get so insanely hot when you use them: HEAT is their purpose!  Which is what also makes them so inefficient.

  • Pros: Cheap to purchase, dimmable, use in any fixture
  • Cons: Burn out quickly, one light color, high operating cost
  • Perfect for: Closets and other infrequently used areas, Easy-Bake Ovens, outdoor lighting

Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs: CFLs are an entirely new lighting technology that bears no resemblance to the simple heat physics that incandescents take advantage of.  There are two parts to a CFL: the bulb, which is filled with mercury vapor, and the thick white base called the ballast.  The ballast contains electronic components which produce an electrical current, which flows through the mercury vapor, causing it to emit ultraviolet light.  This light excites a phosphor coating on the inside of the bulb that then produces the visible light that we see.  So it’s really a three step process – current, ultraviolet light, excitement.

  • Pros: Low operating cost, multiple colors and applications, longer life
  • Cons: Higher up-front cost, can’t be used in all fixtures, must be recycled (mercury)
  • Perfect for: High use areas like dining rooms and living rooms, hard to reach fixtures, reading lights (brighter daylight bulbs)

Light Emitting Diodes: LEDs are a “solid state” lighting technology, which just means that unlike CFLs, they don’t use gas to produce visible light.  Instead, they produce electroluminescence with a diode, which is a type of semiconductor where excited electrons release their energy as photons, or light…yeah.  LEDs are to incandescents like microwaves ovens are to open fires: basically the same result, but totally new level of complexity.  I think I do a pretty good job explaining how CFLs work, but I’m not even sure how to touch on LEDs.  Suffice to say, they are a funky technology.

  • Pros: Dimmable, very long life, low operating cost
  • Cons: VERY expensive up front, comparable operating cost to CFLs, still working out the kinks
  • Perfect for: Under counter lighting, nightlights, holiday lights
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