Raise your hand if you feel intimidated by the light bulb aisle. Personally, I think there are way too many choices, and I never know what bulb to pick—there are just so many variations in size, strength, and warmth. Because I get overwhelmed by the options, I usually just stick with the exact same light bulb I was using before—or pick blindly. Otherwise, I’d be standing in the home improvement store for an hour comparing lumens and wondering how that’s even different from watts.
However, the right light can make or break a room, and having experienced a room with several different kinds of bulbs (which is what you’re left with when you blind-pick), I know it’s far from ideal. Besides, like many things in life, they’re not so hard to understand if you take the time to figure out what, exactly, a lumen is.
We enlisted the help of Seattle-based interior designer Sherri Monte of Elegant Simplicity to give us a primer on how to choose the right light bulb for every room.
In my opinion, one of the most confusing aspects of light bulbs is lumens. To keep it simple, a lumen is a measurement of brightness—bulbs with higher lumens give off more light. It’s important to note that lumens are not the same as watts, which measure how much energy a light bulb uses.
When thinking about the ideal light for a room, you’ll want to consider the function of the space: “When you're considering brightness or strength of a light, what you first need to decide is what you'll want to do with that light,” says Monte. “Are you looking for an overall ambient, task, or accent lighting?”
When it comes to strength, Monte suggests thinking about it by lumens per room. Here's the breakdown that she recommends:
A single light bulb can give off anywhere from 300 to 1,600 lumens (and sometimes more), so you’ll need to do a little math (I know, this isn’t what you signed up for, but I promise it’s really simple) to figure out your ideal lumen-per-light ratio. “You'll want to consider how many light sources there are for each room,” says Monte. “In a living room, you might have two to four light sources, while in a bedroom you may simply have bedside table lamps.” Use the formula of [total lumens per room] ÷ [number of lights] to figure out how many lumens you need per bulb. For instance, if you want 2,000 lumens in your living room and there are four light sources, you’ll want to aim for 500 lumens per light.
Once you’ve figured out how many lumens you need, it’s time to think about the warmth of the bulbs, which is measured in Kelvin (K). Color warmth ranges from around 1,000 to 10,000, and the lower the Kelvin rating, the warmer the light. To give you some context, a candle gives off approximately 1,900K light, while a blue sky is 10,000K.
Here, you’ll want to think about the overall aesthetic of the room, as warm light tends to be cozier, and cool light bulbs are usually better at task lighting. The warmth of a light bulb is also important for tasks such as putting on make-up, where you want the light to closely mimic daylight. Luckily, there are “daylight” light bulbs for this exact purpose.
When choosing light bulbs for her clients, Monte recommends the following warmths in each room:
As you can see, she uses warmer bulbs in bedrooms and living rooms, where you want a more laid back, relaxing vibe: “A warm light will make a clean and modern home feel cozier by softening the overall look and feel of the space,” she explains.
Armed with the ideal lumen and Kelvin rating, you head to the light bulb aisle—only to be greeted by a dozen products that suit your needs. You’ll probably have a choice between LED and incandescent bulbs, and while incandescents are typically less expensive, Monte says to go for the LEDs, which last 25 times longer and use 75 percent less energy, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
“LEDs are the present and in the future in our book,” she explains. “They not only last longer, but they can offer that gorgeous warm glow to a room. Not to mention, they don't run as hot. While they're more of an investment upfront, their life expectancy and energy savings are worth it in the long haul.”
Finally, just make sure the bulb’s wattage doesn’t exceed the maximum recommendation for the lighting source. This is another reason to go with LEDs, as they typically have lower wattage than equivalent incandescent options.
“We've settled on Philips as our go-to brand for light bulbs,” says Monte. “They knock it out of the park when it comes to LEDs with a soft, warm glow that's great for nearly every room while also being modern.”
If you’re not sure whether you want warm or cool light for your room, you can get the best of both worlds with a smart bulb, like the Philips Hue.
Not only can these bulbs be controlled from your phone, but they also offer 50,000 shades of white light, letting you find the perfect color for your space. They’re more expensive than standard bulbs, but smart bulbs are Energy Star-certified and last for 25,000 lifetime hours.
Have we missed anything? Let us know in the comments below!