Colour Temperature For Lighting - What is It, Why Does it Matter?

by Cathy Rust

If you've been to any hardware store lately you will notice such a variety of light bulbs that the choice may seem daunting. So daunting, in fact, that you may just resort to your usual, familiar warm white incandescent, with the resolve to learn more about the different light bulbs later. 

One of the areas of lighting with which you may just be becoming aware is that of colour temperature. Colour temperature refers to the colour the light casts. It is measured in degrees Kelvin (absolute degrees). In an incandescent bulb, when a piece of metal is heated the metal emits different colours depending on how hot it is. 

A lower temperature emits a warmer light (red, orange, yellow) and as the metal gets hotter, the light it emits changes to white through blue, which is a cooler light. Although LEDs (light emitting diodes) and CFLs (compact fluorescent lightbulbs) don't operate in the same way as incandescent bulbs, the colours they cast are equated to the same colour temperatures as incandescent bulbs for consistency.  

Light bulbs are generally available in colour temperatures ranging from 2700K to 6500K, where the lower the number, the warmer the light. To give you an idea of how light colour makes a different, daylight at noon is approximately 5600K. It is a very bright light that is excellent for task work, but generally not all that flattering for general lighting purposes. 

Warmer colours range in the lower K scale from 2700K to about 3500K, whereas cooler, bright white to blue lights are in the 4100K to 6500K range.

Note that colour temperature is different than a bulb's wattage which refers to the amount of electricity a bulb uses to emit light.
If you are looking for general, area lighting, stick to colour temperatures in the lower range. The softer yellower light is easier on the eyes and makes people and clothing look better.

For specific task lighting, however, a higher colour temperature (4100K-6500K) is better because the cooler, bluer light contrasts objects better.

Your interior decorating and colour temperature: The colour temperature of the light bulb can make or break your decorating scheme in a windowless room or at night. It's important to select the right colour temperature light bulb for your room, which generally speaking means bulbs that cast light in the lower temperature range.

If you're not sure which temperature works best bring home a few different bulbs from the hardware store to try out different colour temperatures. You will be surprised by the change in your wall and furniture colour a simple light bulb can make.

Cathy Rust writes a weekly column featuring new products from countertops to flooring, energy efficiency and green building products and services. http://www.homestars.com
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