Photometry (optics) - Photometric Quantities - Watts Versus Lumens

Watts Versus Lumens

Watts are units of radiant flux while lumens are units of luminous flux. A comparison of the watt and the lumen illustrates the distinction between radiometric and photometric units.

The watt is a unit of power. We are accustomed to thinking of light bulbs in terms of power in watts. This power is not a measure of the amount of light output, but rather indicates how much energy the bulb will use. Because incandescent bulbs sold for "general service" all have fairly similar characteristics (same spectral power distribution), power consumption provides a rough guide to the light output of incandescent bulbs.

Watts can also be a direct measure of output. In a radiometric sense, an incandescent light bulb is about 80% efficient: 20% of the energy is lost (e.g. by conduction through the lamp base). The remainder is emitted as radiation, mostly in the infrared. Thus, a 60 watt light bulb emits a total radiant flux of about 45 watts. Incandescent bulbs are, in fact, sometimes used as heat sources (as in a chick incubator), but usually they are used for the purpose of providing light. As such, they are very inefficient, because most of the radiant energy they emit is invisible infrared. A compact fluorescent lamp can provide light comparable to a 60 watt incandescent while consuming as little as 15 watts of electricity.

The lumen is the photometric unit of light output. Although most consumers still think of light in terms of power consumed by the bulb, in the U.S. it has been a trade requirement for several decades that light bulb packaging give the output in lumens. The package of a 60 watt incandescent bulb indicates that it provides about 900 lumens, as does the package of the 15 watt compact fluorescent.

The lumen is defined as amount of light given into one steradian by a point source of one candela strength; while the candela, a base SI unit, is defined as the luminous intensity of a source of monochromatic radiation, of frequency 540 terahertz, and a radiant intensity of 1/683 watts per steradian. (540 THz corresponds to about 555 nanometres, the wavelength, in the green, to which the human eye is most sensitive. The number 1/683 was chosen to make the candela about equal to the standard candle, the unit which it superseded).

Combining these definitions, we see that 1/683 watt of 555 nanometre green light provides one lumen.

The relation between watts and lumens is not just a simple scaling factor. We know this already, because the 60 watt incandescent bulb and the 15 watt compact fluorescent can both provide 900 lumens.

The definition tells us that 1 watt of pure green 555 nm light is "worth" 683 lumens. It does not say anything about other wavelengths. Because lumens are photometric units, their relationship to watts depends on the wavelength according to how visible the wavelength is. Infrared and ultraviolet radiation, for example, are invisible and do not count. One watt of infrared radiation (which is where most of the radiation from an incandescent bulb falls) is worth zero lumens. Within the visible spectrum, wavelengths of light are weighted according to a function called the "photopic spectral luminous efficiency." According to this function, 700 nm red light is only about 0.4% as efficient as 555 nm green light. Thus, one watt of 700 nm red light is "worth" only 2.7 lumens.

Because of the summation over the visual portion of the EM spectrum that is part of this weighting, the unit of "lumen" is color-blind: there is no way to tell what color a lumen will appear. This is equivalent to evaluating groceries by number of bags: there is no information about the specific content, just a number that refers to the total weighted quantity.

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