Thursday, December 10, 2009

HOME ENERGY: Shedding Light on Bulbs: New Label Helps Consumers Determine if Brightest is Best

Selecting the right bulb for your lighting needs soon may be a lot like picking the frozen dinner with the least calories. Federal trade regulators are proposing new labeling that would allow consumers to easily compare light bulbs’ energy costs, life span, and brightness. The grids, which will be printed on the back of packaging, deliberately were designed to resemble those on food packages that list calories and nutritional values.

“Several [organizations] suggested we go with something consumers are familiar with,” said Hampton Newsome, an attorney with the Federal Trade Commission. “It helps people make trade-offs between cost and brightness, and to understand what they are getting.”

Newsome said an explosion in new lighting technologies accelerated the need for updated labeling, as some consumers are bewildered by unfamiliar choices. The move also comes as the federal government is encouraging manufacturers and the buying public to move away from traditional incandescent bulbs to more energy-efficient models, like the spiral-shaped compact fluorescent lights.

Incandescent lights already have been banned in Australia and parts of Europe. A federal law requires the United States to begin phasing out these bulbs in 2012. About 20 percent of the average residential household’s electrical bill goes to lighting.

A comparison between three prototype labels for a standard residential bulb shows switching from traditional lighting can save money as well as electricity. FTC calculations estimated a 60 watt incandescent bulb would cost $7.49 a year to operate, as compared to $1.62 for a 13-watt compact fluorescent and 87 cents for a seven-watt light-emitting diode (LED) bulb.

Other facts on the proposed label: Color appearance, on a scale from warm to cool, and if the product contains mercury, as fluorescents do. The least expensive bulb may not necessarily be the best. Gus Fabian, president of Light Bulbs Unlimited in South Florida, said some newer model products have drawbacks that make them poor choices for certain situations. 

LED lights, for example, tend to be very directional and not good for illuminating large areas, Fabian said. Some compact fluorescent styles can’t be dimmed, and those that can cost up to five times as much. His advice: Think of what the bulb will be lighting and about the fixture it will be installed in. A bright fluorescent light that might be perfect in a large conference room could make your bedroom look like a hospital corridor.

Fabian said his customers increasingly are interested in smart energy options and thinks the label will give them valuable information. He particularly likes the FTC’s emphasis on lumens, or light output, versus the traditional watts, or power.

FTC studies showed consumers thought light output was the most important bulb attribute but many connected it with watts, not lumens. The proposed guidelines also would require a mini-label on packaging fronts, showing lumens and annual energy cost.

Current federal labeling guidelines, in place since the 1990s, require bulb packages to state the products lumens, watts, and life. But they emphasize low wattage as the way to save energy—a standard not applicable to new technologies.

Terry McGowan, director of engineering for the American Lighting Association, has some problems with the labeling language: Watts should be referred to in terms of power, not energy, and lumens should be connected to light output, not brightness, he said. He thinks misusing the terms will confuse consumers. “But otherwise, [the label] tells you what you need to know and there is a lot to be said for that,” he said.

The FTC is collecting public comments on the proposal through Dec. 28 and has until June to make a decision. The Natural Resources Defense Council said several months ago that a five-star efficiency rating system would have been easier to understand. But Newsome said the FTC found, when testing stared ratings, consumers did not find them any more comprehensible and, in some cases, though they were overall quality rather than energy ratings.

By Diane C. Lade, Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. December 3, 2009

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