It’s human nature. We’re always eager to explore the newest product, especially the ones touted to improve our lives. At the same time, we can be skeptical about new product technologies, and it can be hard to decide what, and whether, to buy. This is certainly the case with energy-saving light bulbs. The Energy Independence and Security Act, passed in December of 2007, started the clock ticking on the end of the inexpensive and reliable incandescent light bulb. While it’s true that a few bulb manufacturers have flirted with the idea of nudging the energy efficiency of Mr. Edison’s classic up enough to meet the law’s requirements, it now appears likely that U.S. consumers will need to convert to 21st century green light bulbs for most uses starting in 2012.
The mainstream media has been full of news about the coming light bulb revolution. In the last week of May alone, both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times ran high profile articles addressing emerging trends on CFL (Compact Fluorescent Lamps) and LED (Light Emitting Diode) bulbs.
Since they cost more than traditional bulbs, most people buy energy-saving bulbs for two main reasons: they save money in the long run and they’re better for the environment. Specifically, because green light bulbs use much less energy to produce the same amount of light, they reduce harmful gas emissions from coal-fired power plants (which generate 50% of the electricity used in the United States).
So consumers should immediately replace all their incandescents with energy-saving light bulbs, right? Well, not so fast. With lighting, quality matters especially in our homes where we gather, read, cook, eat, celebrate and entertain. There’s a perception that green light bulbs require sacrificing light quality. Don’t believe it. Many eco-friendly light bulbs cast soft, beautiful light. And no one should feel guilty about not switching out every fixture containing a regular light bulb. Invest first in replacing the bulbs used most frequently. Savings will be bigger and pay back periods shorter with this approach. And truth be told, there are scenarios where the best bulb is the old-fashioned incandescent.
7 Keys to Choosing the Best Green Light Bulbs for Your Home or Office
Choosing from the many energy-saving light bulbs on the market today can be tricky. Gone are the days when all that mattered was bulb wattage and shape.
By keeping these seven simple guidelines in mind, you’ll be on a path to making smart decisions about what to buy to meet your needs for energy-saving light bulbs in this new green age:
1. Pay more, not less – to save money in the long run, your new green bulbs should be able to last for several thousand hours. If you buy the cheapest ones you can find, the odds are greater that they won’t.
2. Pick your spots – if a fixture is completely enclosed or is lit for less than 15 minutes at a time and less than two hours a day, CFLs are a poor investment. Low energy, mercury-free halogens are available that are worth a look in these situations. Wait until the existing bulb burns out (or hold onto it for later use – see #6).
3. Nobody likes the blues – the bluish light cast by many fluorescent tubes is not appealing to most homeowners. When buying CFLs and LEDs choose “warm white” or “soft white” labels for color that will look pleasingly familiar. Energy-saving light bulbs labeled “cool white,” “natural light,” or “daylight” are blue-hued and best for targeted applications like reading, task lighting and exterior fixtures, not for living areas, atmosphere or accent lighting.
4. Dimming – most CFL and LED bulbs can’t be used with dimmer switches. Look for green light bulbs that are boldly labeled “dimmable.” And while the industry has made great strides in recent years, most energy-saving light bulbs do not dim as well as traditional incandescent bulbs. However, the big energy savings are compelling for most homeowners. Making the switch to dimmable CFLs or LEDs in a busy family kitchen can be a real money saver, including reduced cooling costs because neither type generates as much heat as incandescents. Last point: the dimmer switch should be compatible with the green light bulbs you buy.
5. Let’s do the twist – spiral or “twister” CFLs are the least expensive type. If these green light bulbs are hidden behind a shade (though not totally enclosed), buying a spiral lamp will cut the payback period versus glass covered CFLs.
6. Stay out of the closet – most closets need short bursts of instantaneous light. This is usually true of powder rooms, basements, attics and garages. Among energy saving bulbs, CFLs in particular aren’t suited for this purpose. Traditional bulbs (or again, low energy halogens) are best in these scenarios until something better comes along.
7. Innovative, intriguing, expensive – mercury-free LED bulbs are the future of lighting, case closed. These green light bulbs use less electricity than even CFLs and they last 30,000 hours or more. However, current prices per bulb are as high as $100, which means the payback period for most home-based uses is too long to justify the price. If you are curious about this new technology and live in an area with high retail electricity costs, you might consider LED replacement bulbs for one or two fixtures that get a lot of use (6+ hours per day). Re-read Key #1 before you invest in these types of energy-saving light bulbs.
Ignore the Naysayers – Green Light Bulbs Are Here to Stay
One last point: mercury makes CFLs (and fluorescent tubes for that matter) work. Some serious people, including syndicated columnist George Will, say we should avoid energy-saving bulbs for this reason. We disagree. Coal-fired electricity generation is the largest contributor of mercury to the environment. Through reduced electricity consumption, a single CFL will keep a lot more mercury out of the environment over its lifetime than it contains. Still, releasing any mercury into the environment is a bad idea, so it’s important to recycle CFLs when they stop working. Recycling your used bulbs is getting easier all the time.