As the nation prepares to phase out many traditional incandescent light bulbs—a technology that has changed little since Thomas Edison invented them in 1878—consumers are faced with a confusing array of new lighting products on store shelves.
Why are the changes happening? The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates we use 13.6 percent of our nation’s energy supply to keep the lights on, and a lot of that power is wasted, in part because 90 percent of an incandescent bulb’s energy is released as heat, not light.
In 2007, Congress passed a law requiring that by 2014 household light bulbs using between 40 and 100 watts will need to use at least 28 percent less energy than traditional incandescents, saving Americans an estimated $6 billion to $10 billion in lighting costs annually. Contrary to popular belief, the 2007 law does not ban all incandescent bulbs; it instead requires bulbs to use less energy.
First to go, starting January 1, 2012, are traditional 100-watt bulbs, but stores will not be required to remove them from shelves come New Year’s Day. Current inventory can still be sold until exhausted. And the efficiency requirements only apply to screw-based bulbs—exempted are specialty bulbs for appliances, heavy-duty bulbs, colored lights, and three-way bulbs.
Shedding light on light
Such a massive product change means consumers must switch from thinking about bulbs in terms of watts (amount of energy used) to lumens (amount of light produced). In other words, the more lumens a bulb produces, the brighter the light.
Beginning next year, package labels will emphasize a bulb’s brightness in lumens, annual energy cost, and expected lifespan.
As a rule of thumb, to replace a 100-watt incandescent bulb, look for an energy-saving bulb that gives you about 1,600 lumens. Replace a 60-watt bulb with one that produces about 800 lumens.
Shoppers will also want to think about a bulb’s light appearance. Warmer light looks more yellow, like light from a traditional incandescent bulb. Cooler light appears more blue. Package labels will include information on a light’s warmth or coolness.
Three major lighting options
Residential bulbs in the future will largely fit in three categories, each stacking up a bit differently:
• Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs): Use 75 percent less energy, last up to 10 times longer.
• Halogen Incandescents: Use 25 percent less energy, last three times longer than regular incandescent bulbs.
• Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs): Use between 75 percent and 80 percent less energy, last up to 25 times longer.
The most familiar options on the market today—and the most economical—are CFLs. The distinctive curly bulbs are now available in a variety of light colors and some can be dimmed. In addition, several manufacturers have developed three-way CFLs that perform much like traditional three-way incandescent lamps and operate in standard three-way sockets.
David Schuellerman, GE Lighting’s public relations manager, says CFLs are generally best used where lighting is left on for extended periods and full brightness is not immediately necessary, such as family rooms, bedrooms, and common areas. Each CFL contains a small amount of mercury (five times less than a watch battery) and should be recycled. (Visit www.epa.gov/cfl for details about recycling, and read more about CFL mercury recycling in next month’s Energy 101 column.)
Consumers who miss the look of their old incandescent bulbs may be attracted to halogen incandescents. Featuring a capsule of halogen gas around the bulb’s filament, they’re available in a variety of colors and can be dimmed.
“Halogen offers a big efficiency advantage over standard incandescent bulbs,” says John Strainic, GE Lighting’s global product general manager. “It consumes fewer watts while delivering a precise dim-ming capability and a bright, crisp light.”
The final choice is LEDs. Although the market for them is still developing, you can find LED lights, recessed fixtures, and some lower-wattage replacement bulbs for sale.
“LEDs are the up-and-coming solution,” Schuellerman predicts. “As they come down in price, homeowners will embrace them.” LEDs are more expensive than other options: a replacement for a 60-watt incandescent bulb costs between $30 and $60. But costs are expected to fall as consumer demand grows.
LEDs are not without problems—they have to stay cool to operate efficiently. Some LED bulbs feature a spine design to allow air to flow around the base; other models have fans built into the ballast.
Whatever type of bulbs consumers choose, the big difference they see will be on their monthly electric bill. The U.S. Department of Energy claims each household can save $50 a year by replacing 15 traditional incandescent bulbs.
—NRECA COOPERATIVE RESEARCH NETWORK