|Don't worry. It's not candles. We've come a long way.|
The days of screwing in incandescent light bulbs are coming to a close.
The federal government plans to phase out incandescent light bulbs starting in 2014.
There are two major options to replace the venerable incandescent: Compact Fluorescents (CFLs) and Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs). The CFLs are the curly ones.
Both of these options provide such a major benefit over incandescent bulbs that you will do fine with either choice.
If you want to look a little deeper, LEDs tend to last longer, use less power, and cost more. They also avoid mercury, which can cause trouble if the CFL breaks.
LEDs tend to be more robust than than CFLs, which are really just tiny fluorescent tubes.
Both can be made dimmable with circuitry in the bulb, though those variants tend to cost more than the simpler, non-dimmable versions.
LEDs are newer on the market, and provide the possibility of a lifetime lightbulb, something you'd replace as often as you'd replace the furnace in your house. We could start to see lights as permeant equipment rather than the consumable commodity we treat it as today. Your grandchildren might never change light bulbs, because they'll last so long.
With a 20 year warranty, you can count on LEDs to last. LEDs also excel in directional applications, while CFLs tend to be more omnidirectional by nature.
If you've got the curly light bulbs, you already have CFLs, and if you have relatively new christmas lights they're probably LED.
The CFLs have one major thing going for them. They're about an order of magnitude cheaper than the LED bulbs. They don't last as long as the LEDs, but they will still last much longer than the incandescents we're used to. (ed. note: This was originally published in Feb 2012 - The price on the LEDs has come down a lot since then.)
Get off the incandescents as soon as you reasonably can. The power usage for those is very high compared to what you can get with CFLs or LEDs.
If you want to be ahead of the curve in adopting the best lighting tech out there, the LEDs are the way to go. If your wallet can't handle that kind of impact right now, the CFLs are a great second choice. You could switch over to the LEDs when it comes time to replace the CFLs. By then the cost on the LEDs will probably have come down.
By then, light bulbs that truly last a lifetime will be a lot closer to reality, and the jokes about how many columnists it takes to screw in a light bulb will be replaced by questions like "What do you mean by screw in a light bulb?"
Of course, for all this talk of light bulbs you can't beat the sun for affordability and endurance. Light tubes, light shelves, windows, and simply going outside all provide great ways to get light without any electricity use at all. Sometimes the simple solutions are the best ones.