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How to Buy a Light Bulb

by on September 03, 2015
in Health and Home, Lighting, Tips & How-Tos, Money Savers, Green Tech :: 41 comments

light bulbs -- ShutterstockYou may have heard by now: the classic incandescent light bulbs are no longer in production. Because incandescent light bulbs are some of the least efficient on the market, wasting up to 90% of electricity as heat instead of light.

The changes are due to the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which requires new light bulbs to be more energy efficient than the bulbs we are used to buying. 100-watt and 75-watt traditional incandescent bulbs were retired in 2012 and 2013, respectively, and, in 2014, 60-watt bulbs and 40-watt bulbs were also retired to meet new efficiency standards.

To be clear, only it's only "standard" bulbs that need to meet the new requirements. Plenty of bulbs are exempt from the new standards—including appliance lamps, rough service bulbs, 3-way bulbs, colored lamps, stage lighting, plant lights, candelabra lights under 60 watts, and outdoor post lights less than 100 watts.

What that means, though, is that now when you're looking for a new light bulb, your options on store shelves are going to be a little different.

What are my light bulb options?

Instead of going to the store and grabbing an incandescent off the shelf, you now have several options when shopping for light bulbs: 

  • Energy-saving incandescents (halogen): These lower wattage incandescent bulbs have a tungsten filament like standard bulbs, but are surrounded by a halogen gas, rather than argon or nitrogen, to provide bright light with better efficiency. These are 25% more efficient than traditional incandescent bulbs and will last three times as long. Prices start at just under $2 per bulb (60 watt equivalent) on Amazon
  • Compact fluorescents (CFLs): You've probably seen these curly, bulb-sized fluorescents on sale. Though early versions tended to offer harsh light, new bulbs have more color options and are even styled to look like traditional incandescent bulbs. These bulbs offer 75% energy savings over an incandescent and last ten times as long. Prices start at just under $2 per bulb (60 watt equivalent) on Amazon
  • LEDs: The most efficient option, LED bulbs are 75-80% more efficient than traditional incandescents and last 25 times longer. Prices start around $4.50 per bulb (60 watt equivalent) on Amazon.

How much will I save with the new light bulbs?

light bulb labels

Label on the back of a CFL bulb (left) and standard incandescent bulb (right)

All of these bulbs will cost more than a traditional incandescent bulb—halogen incandescents being the least expensive and LEDs being the most expensive—but the energy savings will add up over time. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates you'll save $6 a year for each incandescent you upgrade to a CFL—and the savings only grow over time, since these bulbs all last significantly longer and won't require replacing as often as a standard incandescent. If you replace 15 bulbs in your house, expect to save $50 in energy costs every year—and on top of that, you won't have to buy light bulbs nearly as often.

So long as you buy Energy Star certified light bulbs, which are tested to meet specific efficiency standards, you're guaranteed savings with these bulbs—even though you'll spend more up front. Want to know exactly how much a bulb is going to cost you? Check out the label, which should tell you how much it will cost to use for a year as well as how long it will last.

What about the light quality of these bulbs?

If you're looking to replace specific bulbs in your household, you're probably used to picking up a bulb that's 60-watt, 75-watt, or the like—but these measurements, based on how much energy the bulb used, are not an accurate way to tell how much light bulbs produce.

Instead look at the "lumens" which is a measure of how much light a bulb produces before you buy it. Here's a cheat sheet:

  • If you used to buy 100 watt bulbs, look for a bulb with 1600 lumens. 
  • If you used to buy 75 watt bulbs, look for a bulb with 1100 lumens. 
  • If you used to buy 60 watt bulbs, look for a bulb with 800 lumens. 
  • If you used to buy 40 watt bulbs, look for a bulb with 450 lumens. 

Another new option you'll see is color temperature. Because few people are fond of the harshness of fluorescent lights, most CFLs now come in colors designed to mimic the warmth of an incandescent bulb. Color is measured in Kelvins, ranging from 2,700 K (the warm light of typical incadescents) up to around 5,500 K (proving a daylight or natural tone). Though all of these bulbs produce white light, warmer lights will have a more yellow tint—better for bedrooms and other soft lighting conditions—while cooler lights will have a blue tint—better for reading. Check the packaging to see what kind of light a bulb produces before you buy—and if you're not sure what colors you want, go to your local hardware store to see different lights on display.

Are new bulbs safe? 

It's true: compact fluorescent lights have a small amount of mercury inside. In standard use, the mercury stays inside the bulb and there's no risk. However, if you break a bulb, you'll want to take care to clean it up following these instructions from the EPA. But don't be too alarmed, according to the EPA, CFLs contain a very small amount of mercury—less than 1/100th of the amount in a mercury thermometer.

When your bulb has burned out, you should recycle it to prevent that mercury from winding up in a landfill. Your city or waste collection provider may offer recycling services, but many major retailers also accept CFLs for recycling. Home Depot, Lowes, IKEA, Ace Hardware, and TrueValue will all recycle bulbs—just check with your retailer when you buy your bulb to see what to do.

Updated on 9/3/2015

[light bulb image via Shutterstock]


Discussion loading

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3-way?

From Ellen on January 17, 2014 :: 11:25 am

I can’t find three-way bulbs in the new styles. Will these be available?

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3-Way Bulbs

From Larry on January 17, 2014 :: 11:31 am

I’ve purchased 3-way bulbs CFL and LED bulbs at Lowes.

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3-way bulbs

From Ellen on January 17, 2014 :: 11:32 am

Thank you, Larry!

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Light Bulb Confusion Solved!

From Marilyn on January 17, 2014 :: 11:48 am

Thanks so much for a concise and informative Article!

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Front porch LED Benefit

From Gary on January 17, 2014 :: 12:38 pm

My front porch fixture attracts bugs in the summer.  I’ve tried all kinds of lights with little relief until replacing the bulb with an LED light.  It is rated at 800 lumens at 2700K and looks like an incandescent bulb in operation.  The big plus is a 99% reduction in bugs flying around it.  It’s the best “bug” light I’ve ever used, well worth the price!  I pent $14 for a 20 year life, based on 3 hours a day.  I expect the bulb to last at least 5 years since it’s duty cycle is much higher than that.

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thanks, bug light

From Marilyn on January 17, 2014 :: 1:25 pm

Ooooh cool, thanks for info on reducing bugs in evenings.

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THANK YOU!

From yoshi on January 19, 2014 :: 10:58 am

Yes, thank you very much for that tip on the porch lamp.

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New Bulbs Aren't as Advertised

From Debbie Coker on January 17, 2014 :: 2:30 pm

Although these sound great on the surface, I have a lot of complaints.  When I turn a light on, I want it ON.  I don’t want to have to wait 5-10 minutes for it to slowly decide to light up.  When one burns out, I don’t want to have to go to a bunch of extra effort to have to recycle it at some special place.  And worst yet, I’ve had one of those expensive LED bulbs burn out in just a few weeks!  We have energy efficient bulbs all through our house, and we’re constantly having to replace them.  I’m all for saving energy, but I want better options before they ban the inexpensive option that works.

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I agree with you about CFLs

From Josh Kirschner on January 17, 2014 :: 4:15 pm

The newer CFLs offer instant on and some are dimmable, but the extra recylcing effort can be a pain, depending what your community requires.

But you don’t have to go the CFL or LED route, even though they’re getting much better. Halogen incadescents offer all the benefits of regular incadescents, are inexpensive and are a technology that has been around for a very long time. They qualify under the new energy guidelines, though they won’t save you as much as a CFL or LED.

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drawbacks

From LISA on January 17, 2014 :: 4:27 pm

I agree with everything Debbie says. Also, the $50 savings per year does not make up for how expensive these new bulbs are. I’m still going to have to pay more and have already noticed the pain in my pocketbook when I do use the new ones, especially since they don’t last as long as promised. I have incandescents that last longer. I won’t call them “options,” because it’s not like we have a choice about using the incandescent ones. Another issue is that many the new bulbs don’t fit in certain light fixtures. I don’t have money to just throw away certain lamps and light fixtures, so I tried to buy some of the incandescents ones that fit them at a couple different stores recently to stock up, but the stores immediately jacked up the prices on those, because there’s a demand for them.

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The cost works out

From Josh Kirschner on January 17, 2014 :: 5:01 pm

I think we’re over-romanticizing the old bulbs here. I’ve had PLENTY of standard incadescents burn out in the course of a few week or months. If you work the math, the cost more than works out in favor of the new bulbs.

And the new halogen bulbs are the exact same size as a standard bulb and only costs a buck or two more. See: http://www.amazon.com/s/?_encoding=UTF8&bbn=328864011&camp=1789&creative=390957&linkCode=ur2&qid=1389995955&rh=n:228013,n:!468240,n:495266,n:322525011,n:328864011,p_n_feature_four_browse-bin:3594361011&rnid=3594355011&tag=techlicious-20

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Enclosures

From Tom on January 17, 2014 :: 2:43 pm

I have heard that these are not to be used in enclosed fixtures.  What’s the story?

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Yes, they can

From Josh Kirschner on January 17, 2014 :: 5:23 pm

I contacted GE Lighting and according to a GE representative all their CFL replacements can be used in enclosed fixtures. For LEDs, the lower wattage replacements (replacing 40W and 25W incadescents) can be used in enclosed fixtures, the higher wattage replacements cannot be.

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Choice

From G Collier on January 17, 2014 :: 4:14 pm

As an adult why can’t I be allowed to choose the bulb I want. And I don’t know where your living but I can use all the sources of heat I can get with this ” Global Warming” that I’ve been experiencing.

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Why??

From Sandi on January 17, 2014 :: 11:43 pm

Thermometers that had mercury were ceased due to the “danger” of mercury.  Now they want us to use bulbs with it in them!  Does not make sense to me.  Don’t break any!!

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More saving options

From james milcarek on January 18, 2014 :: 1:20 am

In Northern Indiana, our power company (NIPSCO), partners with Energizing Indiana, to provide a free energy assessment of your home, replacing up to 20 incandescents,with cfls (always look for the energy star symbol when buying replacements, so you don’t get low grade junk), shower and faucet ends with low flow ones and makes recomendations for other energy savings, such as old windows, doors, and leaky caulking.  They do this FREE, it just takes them a couple hours.  Many power companies provide free or low cost quality cfl replacements or partner with local hardware stores to supply them at reduced cost, ask them about these programs. Yes, it is a small inconvenience to recycle these, but most of the bigger places that sell them also recycle them free.  I wrap them in newspaper and put them in a bag in my trunk.  The next time I go to one of the stores that recycles them, I drop them off, eliminating the need to remember to bring them along. Thanks for an informative article.

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I have trouble with CFL

From AEP on January 18, 2014 :: 7:57 pm

I have trouble with CFL “bulbs” (that’s the wrong word for their shape!) turning yellow and then brown within a few weeks of purchase. This is especially noticeable in fixtures using two bulbs that were replaced at different times. They do NOT put out the light they are advertised as putting out—I have had to resort to using a flashlight to navigate my apartment even when all overhead lights are on, fitted with bulbs that supposedly put out 2440 lumens. These bulbs are so dim that they don’t even cast shadows.

What’s the problem? Is there some brand that is better than another? Is it the wiring in my building? Something else?

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CFLs ... not A19s

From Steve on January 20, 2014 :: 8:59 am

AEP, just for clarification, CFLs are indeed “bulbs”—the bulb is just what lights up, and there are many shapes to bulbs. A19 is the traditional incandescent bulb shape that most people are familiar with. CFLs are not A19s ... unless they are. (Some have the spiral shape enclosed so they take on the traditional shape.)

The bulb turning brown could come from improper usage and may be a fire hazard. Check out this article and see if it relates to your situation:

http://www.montgomerynews.com/articles/2012/10/13/springford_reporter_valley_item/news/doc5075ce95acf4f692783257.txt

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made in USA?

From anastasi on January 20, 2014 :: 12:56 pm

Too bad I can’t find any energy efficient bulbs made in the US.  I wonder how much energy is really saved when they’re being made in the biggest polluter in the world, China, then being shipped thousands of miles here.

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Well, the old bulbs were

From Josh Kirschner on January 20, 2014 :: 1:48 pm

Well, the old bulbs were probably made in China, too…

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Not really...

From anastasi on January 20, 2014 :: 6:00 pm

I found plenty of incandescents made in the USA, or at least Canada.  Why are we supporting a dictatorship?

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Made in USA

From Larry on February 14, 2014 :: 4:45 am

Cree LED bulbs are made in the USA.

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made in USA?

From anastasi on February 17, 2014 :: 1:43 pm

Thanks!  I’ll look for Cree!

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Made in USA

From Larry on February 14, 2014 :: 4:48 am

P.S. I bought my Cree LED bulbs at Home Depot.

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Cost Savings

From blankho on March 13, 2014 :: 9:23 am

About a year ago I replaced my most heavily used incandescent bulbs with LED bulbs.  I bought most on sale on the Internet and saved quite a bit.  However, they still cost me about $560 for 55-60 bulbs.  I work at home and I have a significant amount of exterior decorative lighting, so I figured my savings would pay for the bulbs in roughly 1-2 years.  That was using the average cost for kWH found on most of the light bulbs.  When I compared my bills for each of the last 12 months with the 12 months before, I was more than disappointed.  It was true that the bulbs worked well and cut my energy usage about 18-20%, but my bill did not go down 18-20%.  It actually only went down to the tune of $70 for the entire 12 months.  Since I burn gas, I know it wasn’t the cold winter that caused the problem and because my bill went down each month about the same, I know it wasn’t the hot summer. So what happened.  Well the biggest thing I noticed was that instead of using 11 cents per watt advertised on the light bulbs, I should have been using 4 cents per watt.  That is because energy is cheaper the more you use because the first 300 kWhs cover the overhead.  The second thing I noticed were the taxes went up.  Finally, the cost of electricity went up.  Now you can argue that the latter two would have went up anyways, but I think the green agenda is eating up the savings that would entice people to be green on their own by forcing higher taxes and energy costs.  The jury is still out as to how long these bulbs will last, but don’t expect the payoff to be so soon.  The bulk of your bill is overhead, infrastructure costs, profit, and taxes.  It’s not energy costs.  That is why the electric costs drop to 38% after 1000 kWh vs the first 300 kWh in my State.

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Business

From Dev on April 06, 2014 :: 12:09 am

hiii i am Dev . and i want to start manufacturing company of LED bulbs . before that i need to buy raw material or need to buy technology behind the circuit so that i can run my business in future . is any body help me out for my business contact to me .+91-9023680227

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What about halogen incandescents in closed fixtures?

From Melissa on May 07, 2014 :: 10:40 pm

Up above you talk about the LED and CFLs in closed fixtures—but what about the new halogen bulbs that look just like the old argon incandescents, and are actually halogen?

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LED bulbs

From Mark Loween on September 11, 2015 :: 11:59 am

I buy led bulbs from Lowe’s, and are really reasonable. I can get up to 60led for 2.98each. My whole house has led.

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But be careful on those cheap LEDs

From Steve on September 11, 2015 :: 12:14 pm

The big box stores sometimes sell subsidized LEDs so you can get some good deals, but be careful when paying too little for LEDs, as the unknown brands can vary in color temperature (even when listed as the same) and may not be as reliable. Also notice that sometimes the big box stores will sell LEDs with shorter rated lives to give you those “deals,” but that just means you’ll be buying again sooner. Maybe not a big deal with LEDs, because they’ll still last a long time, but be aware of this.

I also ran into “buzzing” problems with some cheap bulbs from HD, even though they were from a known brand. The quality was obviously cut back for the price.

Also, the cheap ones on the Lowes website (unknown brand and slightly shorter rated life) is 3000K—this is whiter than an incandescent (2700K). Pay attention to the Kelvin temp if you’re looking for the warm glow of an incandescent.

Speaking of Warm Glow ... Philips now has an LED with that name, where it gets “warmer” (in look) when you dim it, just like an incandescent. The company I work for carries these and overall sticks with trusted brands, because we’d rather people be happy with their results rather than just focusing on initial purchase price. As with anything ... price is important, but value is what most of us really want.

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Yes, price isn't everything when

From Suzanne Kantra on September 11, 2015 :: 12:55 pm

Yes, price isn’t everything when it comes to LED bulbs. You’ll also find that’s true with compact fluorescent bulbs. The really cheap ones are often plagued with buzzing and slow start up times.

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How do I select the right bulbs for lamps that have a max wattage specified?

From Karen C. on September 12, 2015 :: 9:55 am

I am particularly interested in 3-way lamps, but same question applies to all.

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What options are there for

From Fonda Rush on September 13, 2015 :: 6:22 pm

What options are there for the Easy-Bake Oven? I haven’t had one for awhile, but I know they used the light of the bulb to bake those cakes. Never mind…it looks like there is a heating element now. Those things cost about $45-$50 now! Wow!

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Easy Bake

From Steve on September 15, 2015 :: 6:38 am

Yep, they used to use 100 watt light bulbs in Easy Bake ovens, which goes to show how much electricity was wasted over the years because of lighting that produced so much heat rather than dedicating that energy to light!

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Lighting

From Vivek narain on September 30, 2015 :: 1:30 pm

Here in India,Electricity distribution companies are selling the subsidized 7 watt Led for one and a half dollar equivalent.One question is bothering me,whereas incandescent and cfl bulbs have clear glass and the source of light is transperent,in case of Led the actual LEDs are covered with frosted or milky plastic dome,won’t that effect clarity of light ?

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Not really

From Josh Kirschner on September 30, 2015 :: 1:58 pm

The reason some incandescents are clear while others are frosted has mostly to do with aesthetics. Frosted bulbs produce a more diffuse light, which is easier to look at when you want a softer glow versus clear which provides more of a point of light.Frosting also allows manufacturers to control the color of the lighting via tinting. There may be some level of light lost with frosting, but it shouldn’t be significant.

Manufacturers frost LED bulbs for the same reason, to diffuse the light. Though clear LEDs are also now available. There are no clear CFL bulbs. The coating on the inside of the tube (phosphor) is necessary to make the light glow.

Regardless of which aesthetic look is better for a particular use, when buying bulbs, focus on the rated output in lumens and the color temperature to find the bulb that best meets your needs.

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Frosted LEDs

From Steve on September 30, 2015 :: 1:43 pm

Hi Vivek,

As far as I understand it, the coating of the LED helps to give its color temperature, so it needs to be there. It may also help to diffuse the lighting, giving a more even glow. In any case, if you’re able to get a quality LED, I don’t think you’ll have any issues with “clarity” of the light. But try to go for quality, as these will last you a long time and you don’t want lights that buzz, change in color temperature over time, etc.

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Clarity

From Vivek narain on September 30, 2015 :: 10:22 pm

Hi Steve, The dome in LED is actually called diffuser,I may have to give more details to get my point thru.We have had frosted and milky incandescents but they were used in very select locations,mostly,clear bulbs were used(95 % ),in essential work areas like kitchen clarity is important,in any case nowadays we are mainly using cfls.A question to Josh,isn’t the phosphor coating itself a source of light like the tungsten is ? or the filaments of LED,so how does it equalises with coating on incandescents or covering on LEDs.Even in the windows people mostly prefer clear glass along with curtains.I would be happy to use LEDs in corridors or porch or lawn,but for indoors I am doubtful about the clarity issue.

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Clarity on clarity?

From Josh Kirschner on October 01, 2015 :: 8:27 am

Hi Vivek,

I could perhaps answer you question better if I understood what you meant by “clarity”. Light has two properties: brightness (measured in lumens) and color (measured in Kelvin). There is no “clarity” aspect to light. Generally, in work spaces like a kitchen, you would be looking for a brighter, cooler light. In a bedroom or living room, a warmer color light is preferable. But at the end of the day, these are personal choices.

Whether a bulb is frosted or not has less to do with the quality of light than it does the distribution of the light. Clear bulbs will be harsher to look at directly because you’re staring right at a glowing filament (at least for clear incandescents), frosted bulbs will be less harsh.

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Hi Josh, Though I'm not

From Vivek narain on October 01, 2015 :: 10:15 am

Hi Josh, Though I’m not sure about the clarity aspect,are you sure there is no such aspect ?.As I understand there is luminosity and kelvin temp.,is that all there is to it.Suppose I am not looking at the tungsten,and the bulb is recessed,then you mean to say there won’t be a difference at my end of the light,taking cue it implies that sunlight coming thru a frosted glass will not be intrinsically different from a clear glass,only thing will be that I won’t see thru it,nor be seen thru it.A real brain stormer,and I suppose lots of people will be illumined.

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Check out this page

From Josh Kirschner on October 01, 2015 :: 11:08 am

Light bulb manufacturer Sylvania has a very helpful education section on the science of light and the various bulb technologies. You can check it out here: https://www.sylvania.com/en-us/innovation/education/light-and-color/Pages/understanding-light.aspx

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For millenniums we have been

From Vivek narain on October 01, 2015 :: 11:28 pm

For millenniums we have been using the light source(sun,fire,tungsten,phosphor) through a transparent medium(air ,glass mainly),and this is the first time we will be using diffused lighting on a massive scale.So I suppose my question is not an unreasonable one,thanks any way for the conversation.

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