Breaking a 123-year tradition is never easy. Clearly, we have enjoyed the benefits of an 1879 technology so long that we are blinded by the fact that the incandescent bulb is simply an inefficient heat source that happens to cast a pleasing light. Why else would smart consumers resist the opportunity to save money and energy? It’s time to really change a light bulb — to one that uses 75 percent less energy and lasts up to 10 times longer than the incandescent: the compact fluorescent lamp (CFL).
For more than a decade, utility companies and government agencies have waged a massive campaign to educate the public and encourage a change to CFLs. They have offered deep discounts, rebates and even free samples. You won’t be surprised to hear that their primary motivation is not your personal cash savings but rather the environmental and political impact. (Reduced energy consumption would mean less pollution and waste, as well as less dependence on foreign oil.) While the big picture certainly warrants attention, we want to address the more immediate world of your home, budget, comfort and convenience.
Reasons for resistance
Since the introduction of CFLs, many negative notions about fluorescent lamps have been resolved. A look at the current state of this new technology may banish even more concerns:
Initial cost (ouch) — Yes, it is painful to fork over $10 when you can get an incandescent bulb for less than $1. But think of a CFL as an investment that earns dividends. For one thing, that $1 incandescent lamp will need as many as nine replacements to outlast a $10 CFL; so you nearly break even on the materials cost. In addition, during its 10,000-hour life the 20-watt CFL costs only about $13 to operate, compared with $49 to operate the “cheaper” 75-watt incandescent. (This is according to the Minnesota Department of Commerce Energy Center. Exact savings will vary depending upon local electric rates.) In any case, the dollar gain can almost beat today’s stock market returns, not to mention the savings in your time and in trips up the ladder.
Fit and design (ugly) — Early CFLs did not make a great impression in terms of aesthetics. Nor did they suit most standard applications, especially in fixtures where the bulb is visible. But manufacturers have since developed a variety of CFLs for better adaptability and style.
Cold, institutional glare (brrr) — The 4-ft. fluorescent tubes in your workshop may have cast a bad light on your impression of CFLs. But today’s bulbs are manufactured in a range of color temperatures (see Take a Closer Look drawing), producing a light as warm as 2,700 degrees Kelvin (K) on the color temperature scale, which is similar to the 2,800K of incandescents. The other visual measure is called the Color Rendering Index (CRI), which rates the ability of light to portray colors accurately. With natural daylight having the highest score of 100, the new CFLs are rated at 80 or above — a level considered suitable even for art studios.
Miscellaneous irritations — Delayed starts, annoying buzzing and flickering and heavy ballasts are other problems formerly associated with fluorescents. All have been essentially eliminated, thanks to electronic ballasts. The newer CFLs provide quiet, even light and weigh less than earlier models. While they start almost immediately, CFLs look dimmer than their incandescent equals at first but in a moment produce their full brightness (measured in lumens).
Availability and variety — You may be surprised at the range of applications for a compact fluorescent. For fixtures with dimming switches, you can purchase dimmable models. CFLs also come in three-way and floodlight styles. Granted, the selection of CFLs that might be considered decorative is limited compared with incandescent and halogen offerings. Manufacturers are changing that by developing more options, and retailers are gradually increasing their inventories (yet most stock only a fraction of what’s available). As consumers request more choices in CFLs, we will see even more options on the shelves. For now, Internet retailers (see SOURCES) provide a greater selection.
You don’t have to do a thorough study of the financial or environmental impacts of CFLs to understand some of their practical benefits. Consider the hard-to-reach garage-door-opener light with the fragile filament that often fails because of the vibrations of the door. A CFL in its place may last longer than the door opener itself. In fact, for convenience and safety, it makes sense to use CFLs in all of your home’s hard-to-reach fixtures.
Besides needing fewer replacements, CFLs produce less heat than incandescent or halogen lights, which can reach up to 1,000 degrees F — a potential fire hazard. To keep heat away from combustibles, use CFLs in torchier lamps and in closets that have exposed bulbs near shelves. In addition to promoting fire safety, cool bulbs can lighten the load on your air conditioner.
In some cases incandescents are still the better choice. For example, you would not see a significant savings in changing lights that are used for less than two hours a day or are frequently turned on and off. You can estimate savings with a calculator at the Energy Star Web site. For a real impact on your energy budget (and the planet), approach changing bulbs as you would any home improvement project — with a plan:
1. Inventory existing lighting in your home and note any fixture requirements, such as dimmers or three-way operation, exposure to weather, maximum length and base diameter.
2. Estimate the hours of use per day for each bulb. Start by immediately replacing any bulbs used more than four hours a day.
3. Visit local retailers, browse the Internet and contact your local utility company to find suitable CFL substitutes.
Be proactive. Don’t wait for existing incandescent bulbs to burn out. (You can save the working bulbs you remove for future use in fixtures that are low on the CFL-priority list.) The sooner you begin, the more money and energy you will save.
Our test project
We followed the above procedure in a 1,700-sf home in Connecticut occupied by a family of six. After calculating potential savings, we replaced every incandescent with a CFL wherever it fit and provided about the same light output, control options (dimming, three-way) and style (bug, globe, etc.). We did not change lamps unless the 10-year payback covered at least the cost of the bulb, as might be the case for rarely used lights. We found:
• There were suitable replacements for 33 of the 96 bulbs.
• Lighting kilowatt-hours (kWh) were reduced by 40 percent.
• Even with the higher bulb costs, actual dollar savings were a substantial 27 percent ($295).
Bugs to work out
We also learned a few lessons. For instance, we noticed significant quality differences between products claiming to be 2,700K and 82 CRI. Two R-30 CFLs that we tested produced a much more yellow light than an incandescent bulb, and one turned a white wall an unpleasant green-yellow color.
Some reflector CFLs are too long and project beyond the opening of recessed fixtures. Compare dimensions of replacement lights as you shop. Lumatech offers a kit that will retrofit recessed 6-in. white can fixtures to accept CFLs.
We needed to readjust settings on dimmable lights after they had a few minutes to come to full power. The inconvenience can be eliminated if you choose a control that allows you to preset a desired level and operate the light with a separate on/off switch. Some dimmable CFLs we tried either didn’t dim well or buzzed at low settings until the bulbs reached full power.
Most CFLs start in temperatures well below zero but typically must be protected from the weather. That’s not a problem except when it comes to popular spot/flood lights. We found two manufacturers, American Power Products and Lumatech, that make CFL floodlights for wet locations.
The industry is fast improving CFL design and technology — and choices are increasing as prices decline. If the cost still bothers you, try to view CFLs as an almost permanent component of a light fixture that will last for eight to 10 years (longer than you’ll want to keep some lamps — or houses). This is one of those rare occasions where the altruistic choice happens to be practical, simple and personally advantageous as well.
American Power Products
Lights of America
Minnesota Department of Commerce Energy Center
Technical Consumer Products Inc.