What to Know About Upgrading Your Light Fixtures

Updated: Nov. 30, 2022

Old light fixtures can be real eye-catchers, but their incandescent bulbs aren't energy efficient. Here's how to fix that.

Vintage light fixtures add character and stunning visuals to a house. But eventually the bulbs burn out and need to be replaced. Since incandescents aren’t efficient, you might wonder if it’s possible to have beautiful vintage fixtures while still saving money and energy.

Fortunately, you can. Swapping out old incandescent bulbs for energy efficient ones is one of the easiest options to preserve the beauty of your fixtures. We asked two experts how to do it safely.

Energy Efficient Light Bulb Compatibility

Are all old light fixtures compatible with newer bulbs? Yes, says John Williamson, a licensed master electrician with Williamson Consulting Services. “The medium or standard base has been around since Edison’s days,” he says. “Older-style incandescent light bulbs can readily be replaced with modern LED light bulbs.”

Veronica Rose, a master electrician and president and CEO of Aurora Electric, agrees, with one caveat.

“Many [fixtures] will let you transition to LED seamlessly, [but] it is only LED compatible if the LED lamp has the same base to screw into the old fixture,” she says. “Otherwise, you will need to hire an electrician. The sales representative at your local hardware store will know which ones work on old fixtures.”

Most fixtures feature this standard base, so swapping bulbs should be easy. But as Rose points out, it’s always wise to double check.

Light Fixture Safety

Our next question focused more on safety. Is it dangerous to simply replace old-style bulbs with newer ones without checking the electrical?

“Replacing incandescent or CFL [compact fluorescent lamp] light bulbs with modern LED light bulbs is a good thing,” Williamson says. “Modern LED light bulbs do not generate the kind of heat that came from incandescent light bulbs.

“Even CFL light bulbs generated heat, but not as much as incandescent light bulbs. Heat is a major problem because it breaks down the insulation on wiring, especially in ceilings.”

Williamson adds it’s essential to check the condition of the existing wiring when installing new fixtures, especially if they have medium bases and could still accept an incandescent bulb.

“It’s too common for people to ignore the warnings and install incandescent light bulbs that exceed the rating of the light fixture,” he says. “If the label says one 60-watt bulb maximum, it’s dangerous to install a 75-watt or 100-watt bulb.”

Ultimately, Rose says, safety comes down to wattage. “As long as the new lamps and bulbs are the same base and not of a greater wattage, you will be safe,” she says. “Avoid using larger wattage, as that becomes very dangerous.”

Best Way to Achieve Efficient Light Fixtures

Our final question: What’s the safest way to upgrade old light fixtures so they’re more eco-friendly while retaining their character?

That depends. If you’re looking for something you can easily do yourself, Williamson suggests replacing old incandescent or CFL light bulbs with modern LED bulbs.

If you’re looking to replace the whole fixture, or your electrical needs some work, Rose recommends leaving that to the pros. “The safest way is to hire a reputable licensed and insured electrician to do the work,” she says. “First, contact your local electric provider, as many have free programs for their clients with the easiest upgrades to lighting in your home.”