March 04—How many tips does it take to change a light bulb? A few more, apparently.
Despite avid media coverage and education campaigns by the government and environmental groups, consumers still aren’t flocking to newer, energy-efficient light bulbs.
Even in states with long-running and well-funded programs to promote compact fluorescent lamps, only 1 in 5 household sockets contain those bulbs, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Energy. Sales of CFLs peaked in 2007 and have declined since, the report says.
But a switch could be good for your wallet. And besides, you won’t have much choice soon.
A federal law passed in 2007 requires manufacturers to make light bulbs that emit the same brightness using less energy. Traditional incandescent bulbs can’t do that, so they’ll effectively be dropped from production over the next few years. As a consumer, you can continue using incandescents, but eventually you won’t be able to buy any more unless it’s a specialty bulb.
A phase-in of the new rules starts next January with 100-watt bulbs. That’s news to a lot of people. Just two in 10 people know about the 100-watt bulb’s impending extinction, according to a recent survey by lighting manufacturer Osram Sylvania.
Some consumers aware of the coming change—13%—plan to stock up on incandescent 100-watt bulbs while they can get them, the survey found. A Consumer Reports blog referred to them as “Lightbulb Luddites.”
That’s probably because consumers have a better alternative to hoarding inefficient 100-watters. That is, switching to new energy-efficient bulbs, probably CFLs and perhaps halogen incandescents or light emitting diodes (LEDs), experts say.
“People don’t like change, even when it’s good for you,” said Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy. “This is a change that can do good for your pocketbook and not do harm to quality of your life or the quality of your light.”
Here are questions and answers about energy-efficient lighting.
What’s changing? The demise of traditional 100-watt incandescent bulbs will be followed by 75-watt bulbs in 2013 and 60- and 40-watt bulbs in 2014. The new regulations actually don’t ban or promote any particular lighting technology. They require bulbs to be about 25% more efficient. Traditional incandescent bulbs can’t meet the new standard.
What about specialty fixtures? You’ll still be able to buy the same incandescent versions of decorative, appliance, and other specialty bulbs.
What should I buy instead? The most popular and affordable replacement is the CFL, many of which have a swirl design.
“CFLs are a pretty good technology, and they’re getting better,” said Maria Vargas, spokeswoman with the federal Energy Star program. “But it’s not an exact replacement for incandescents, because it is a different technology.”
Today’s versions are far superior and come in sizes that fit most standard light fixtures.
“CFL manufacturers have responded favorably to all the historical consumer complaints,” said Terry Drew, director of energy efficiency and sustainability for CSA International, which tests and certifies light bulbs. More than 85% of consumers report they are satisfied with the performance of CFLs, according to the report by the Energy Department.
But halogen and LED lights are available, too, and have advantages. For example, LEDs and halogen bulbs are fully dimmable, come to full brightness instantly and contain no mercury. But they cost more.
How much money can I save? Anything that uses energy has two costs: the initial cost and the energy cost over its lifetime. CFLs win on both counts. The initial-cost advantage might not be obvious because a CFL bulb will cost more than an incandescent, maybe $1.50 per bulb compared with 50 cents. But the CFL will last up to 10 times longer, making it far cheaper over the long run on initial price alone.
“In the time you would replace one CFL, you’d have 10 spent incandescents sitting in your trash can,” said Chad Bulman, program manager for the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance.
Then you have the energy savings. A CFL uses 75% less energy than an incandescent bulb. Each CFL can save you about $40 over its lifetime, according to Energy Star. Those living in regions with high electricity costs save more. The range is $30 to $60 in savings per bulb. More broadly, the new standards will save an American family of four an average of about $200 per year, estimates the Alliance to Save Energy.
A minor benefit to CFLs are they don’t burn hot. So, in the summer, you will potentially use a little less air conditioning.
What about the quality of CFLs? CFLs have gone through growing pains. They once were pretty lousy: expensive and with poor-quality light. But today they are cheaper and are more similar to regular light bulbs. Those who were disappointed by CFLs in the past might give them another try.
Are there drawbacks? CFLs still don’t work well in most dimmable switches. And while you’ll get most of the light right away, it might take a minute or so to achieve full brightness. They also have mixed effectiveness in outdoor fixtures, especially in cold weather.
Consumers have complained about the brightness of CFLs. But that might be due to the bad advice of buying a CFL equal to one-quarter the wattage of an incandescent.
“I think that’s a mistake; it’s more like one-third,” Vargas said.
CFLs also have trace amounts of mercury, which is a potential health problem only if the bulb breaks, and you’d have to break several CFLs in a confined space to be in significant danger.
“The threat of CFL mercury is a bit overblown,” Bulman said. And environmentalists prefer you recycle burned-out CFLs, rather than throwing them in the trash. You can drop off spent, unbroken bulbs at any Home Depot. You can also visit lamprecycle.org.
How about other technologies? LED is the other major type of energy-efficient lighting. LED bulbs don’t suffer from many of the drawbacks of CFLs. They are fully dimmable and great for using outdoors. They are more energy efficient than CFLs and can last 25 years. But they are very expensive. An LED bulb might cost $40.
Another alternative is a halogen bulb. They are not that energy efficient, comparatively. So, they will save more money than traditional incandescents but less than CFLs. But they don’t suffer some of the CFL shortcomings. They, too, are fully dimmable and give good light. They might cost $4 to $5 a bulb.
Neither LEDs nor halogens contain mercury.
Bottom line: If you want to start easing your way into energy-efficient bulbs, replace your five most-used, nondimmable lights with Energy Star-certified CFLs. For best prices and variety, buy multipacks at big-box stores, such as home centers, mass discounters, and warehouse clubs.
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