It’s a dark time for fans of the incandescent light bulb: Starting this month, retailers are no longer allowed to sell the old-fashioned globes, thanks to regulations implemented by the Biden administration. According to the new guidelines, “general service lamps”—a.k.a. household light bulbs—must now emit a minimum of 45 lumens per watt. Since incandescent bulbs provide only about a third of that, they’re effectively banned in the US.
Patented by Thomas Edison in the 1880s, the incandescent light bulb provides illumination by warming a tungsten filament until it glows. It’s highly inefficient, since most of the energy it produces comes from heat, not light.
Moving to energy-efficient light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs will save consumers nearly $3 billion on their electricity bills, according to the Department of Energy. The changeover is also projected to trim carbon emissions by 222 million metric tons over the next three decades. (That’s equivalent to the annual output generated by 28 million homes or 48 million vehicles.)
“The lighting industry is already embracing more energy efficient products, and this measure will accelerate progress to deliver the best products to American consumers and build a better and brighter future,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a statement last year. The rule change, which also impacts halogen lights, was initiated in April 2022. But imports were allowed through January of this year and stores could sell their remaining stock through the end of July.
Not every kind of incandescent is affected: Christmas lights, chandelier bulbs, grow lights, and other specialty bulbs are exempt. But what about compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs? Well, their days are numbered too: At the end of 2024, minimum efficiency levels for light bulbs will jump to over 120 lumens per watt. Since CFLs generate just 50 to 70 lumens per watt, they’ll be taken off the market. That leaves us with LED lights, which can be twice as expensive as incandescents but last 25 to 50 times longer. In an LED bulb, an electric current is passed through a semiconducting material (the diode) to produce light.
Since going mainstream over the last 10 or 15 years, LEDs have gotten a bad rap: Early iterations gave off a bluish tinge and didn’t work with most dimmers. Some also had a tendency to flicker. But lighting designers say LED technology has come a long way since then.
Lighting master Hervé Descottes founded his company, L’Observatoire International, in 1993 and has illuminated the High Line, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Louvre Pyramid. “We have made a lot of progress in terms of quality and variety—especially color and control,” says Descottes. “And the way we control them in terms of dimming and switching is much better than it used to be.” They’re also available in more shapes, including round, square, and linear formats.
There’s a warmth you get with an incandescent light bulb that’s hard to replicate, but the move to LEDs is pushing manufacturers to come up with new dynamic solutions, according to lighting designer Nathan Orsman. “Now that we’re moving away from the constraints we had with incandescents, I’m excited to see what will come next.” says Orsman, whose clients have included Tommy Hilfiger, Stephen Colbert, and Oprah Winfrey.