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Changing To Efficient Lighting

America’s favorite household choice, the easy-to-use incandescent light bulb, is on the way out. New laws limiting sales of certain kinds of the familiar round light bulbs are set to go into effect next January. The idea is to speed the shift toward energy efficiency.

But these new rules have puzzled many consumers. What’s wrong with the old incandescent bulb invented by Thomas Edison? Is the light from new bulbs as nice? Is changing a light bulb really that important?

Richard Hiatt, president of the Rural Electricity Resource Council in Wilmington, Ohio, is helping people understand the issues. Working with the Cooperative Research Network and drawing on a national network of electrical engineers, these industry pros set up practical demonstrations of new lighting technology and report on the results.

“The challenge for all of us,” Hiatt says, “is how to help consumers be smarter shoppers. The barrier is that we are all so conditioned to thinking in terms of the incandescent bulb.”

Traditional bulbs make more heat than light
Incandescent bulbs are a simple, time-tested technology, cheap to produce, easy to buy, with more than a billion shipped to stores every year. For decades, shopping for a new light bulb was simple. The only thing the consumer needed to know was how many watts.

But those bulbs have one big flaw: they waste a lot of energy. Only a small bit of the electricity they use makes light; the rest of the energy turns into heat. Incandescent bulbs are not energy efficient.

Long fluorescent tubes, introduced in the late 1930s, do a better job of converting electricity to light instead of heat. They quickly became an energy-efficient and money-saving choice for big spaces such as factories, office buildings, and schools. Resized over the decades, they’ve made their way into homes in a few places. Shorter versions are in use in special fixtures mounted under kitchen cabinets.

Since their limited introduction 25 years ago, many styles of energy-efficient curly compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), with standard bases that fit almost anywhere an incandescent bulb can go, are now easily available. With annual shipments of about 400 million bulbs, CFLs are popular in hotels and other businesses. But they still haven’t become a widespread choice for home lighting.

Incandescent bulbs remain the unspoken standard for home lighting. Not everyone likes how CFLs perform in the home. Recently, other energy-efficient options using light-emitting diode (LED) technology have started showing up in the marketplace. They’re not exactly like the old Edison bulbs, either. LEDs can seem more like moonlight than daylight, so not everyone likes them either.

Shoppers looking at new energy-efficient lights want to know:

• Is the light a pleasing color, resembling natural daylight?

• Can it be focused or directed over a wide area?

• Can it be controlled—made bright or dim?

Hiatt says, “Consumers might need to ask some other questions first, such as ‘How quickly do I need the light to reach its full output?’ and ‘How long will the light need to stay on?’”

Consumers will learn new words, new attitudes
“Today, and even more so in the future, choosing a light bulb will require a lot more thinking on the part of the consumer,” Hiatt says. “You’ve got to know where and how you’ll be using the light. Then to judge a light’s features you’ll need to understand new terms like ‘lumens,’ which measure light output, and ‘color accuracy’ that compares artificial light to natural daylight.”

Those words and the phrase “Lumens per Watt (Efficacy)” appear on a new light package label from the U.S. Department of Energy. The “Lighting Facts” included on an SSL Quality Advocate Label provide basic information that highlights key features in a quick glance.

But a quick glance may not be enough to make a decision. Shoppers will need to become familiar with a completely new concept. Hiatt says, “One style of light or one size doesn’t fit all situations.” Instead of watts, finding the right light for a particular purpose will require thinking about many features, including energy efficiency.

A new study by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association compared the purchase prices and operating costs of incandescents to CFLs and LEDs. It will be several years before the high price of LEDs will decline, making them a competitive choice. The low prices and proven technology of today’s CFLs make them the best budget choice for now.

CFL giveaways sponsored by electric co-ops are much more than a “try it, you’ll like it” strategy to introduce people to these new lighting ideas.

Bill Prather, CEO of Farmers Rural Electric Cooperative in Glasgow, says, “With the increasing costs of generation, transmission, and distribution of electricity, it’s imperative that we learn to utilize energy more efficiently. Using more efficient light bulbs now frees up capacity for other things and lessens the need” to build new power plants.


Homes and businesses of the future might not need bulbs for desk lamps and ceiling fixtures. The walls could contain energy-efficient, built-in light sources. Manufacturers today are experimenting with bigger versions of the OLED technology used in today’s cell phone and computer display screens. OLED stands for organic light-emitting diodes. They produce light as electricity moves through thin layers of special materials.


The freshly remodeled TV studios at Western Kentucky University’s WKYU public broadcasting station in Bowling Green feature state-of-the-art LED lights. Hot incandescent bulbs and other relics from 40-year-old technology are gone.

“We are leading the charge for energy efficiency in television production,” says David Brinkley, senior producer/director at WKYU. “Our studio is the only one of its kind on any university campus in the world.”

Jack Hanes, WKU’s director of public broadcasting, says, “A small module attached to each LED light allows us to communicate with it. This is a totally computerized system. We can turn individual lights on and off, adjust the intensity, adjust the color output, even the color itself, all wirelessly with the touch screen on an iPad.”

The new LED system should use between 90 and 95 percent less electricity than the old-style lighting because there’s less energy wasted as heat. The new lights really are cool—to the touch—and that’s lowering energy use for air conditioning, too.

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