Myth: Switching Out Incandescents Isn’t Worth the Effort

The Bright Stuff: Keeping Your Cool in the Lightbulb Aisle

These days, walking into the lightbulb section at a home goods store is like entering an alternate reality, one filled with strange futuristic shapes and a head-reeling supply of options. How do you navigate the extreme selection without mental overload? Allow us to light the way to bulb decision-making 101, so you can choose lightbulbs that’ll save you money and help you protect mama earth while you’re at it.

First…a little intel from the U.S. Energy Information Administration site, which states that the U.S. uses about 20 percent of the world’s energy. And of that, 40 percent goes to lighting, heating, and cooling our buildings. Seems a tad much for staying lit, right? One clear culprit is the incandescent lightbulb.

Back in Thomas Edison’s day, the incandescent shtick was pretty great. But now, 130-plus years later, it’s frankly no wonder these guys are showing their age. When you consider how frequently we update our other technologies (iPhones are on what version now?), it does seem safe to assume that by now better technologies might exist. Ones that don’t use 90 percent of the electricity they consume to produce heat (which is why they’re hot when you touch them) and only ten percent to do what they’re supposed to do: light up.

And indeed we have. Let the swap-outs begin.

Meet the Modern Players

Today’s shopper does have a few choices to consider as they replace their incandescents. Here’s the quick and dirty glossary of basic bulbs, including stats from ComEd and Energy Savers:

  • Halogen Incandescent: Structurally still an incandescent, but automatically more efficient as the halogen gas helps protect the filament from wearing out. Halogens are about 25 percent more energy efficient than typical incandescents and, on average, can last up to three times longer.
  • Compact Fluorescent Lightbulb (CFL): The electricity current moves through a tube containing argon and a tiny amount of mercury vapor (more on that below) to generate ultraviolet light, which excites the phosphor, a fluorescent coating inside the tube to emit light. CFLs are about 75 percent more energy efficient and, on average, can last up to 10 times longer than typical incandescents.
  • Light Emitting Diode (LED): Electric voltage causes small semiconductors within the bulb to emit any color light. Today’s LEDs are at least 75 percent more energy efficient and, on average, last at least 15-25 times longer than conventional incandescents.

According to Energy Star, replacing just one inefficient light bulb with an energy-efficient one in every American home would save at least enough energy to light three million homes for a year and prevent nine billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions per year, equivalent to taking 800,000 cars off the road per year.

So…that’s great for the country but what about you? Nonprofit group LUMEN has found that lighting accounts for 12 percent of the average household energy bill, and that the average family can save between $50 and $100 a year on the bill just by changing their bulbs.

A Changing Field

Those kinds of numbers are just why the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 bill stipulated changes to our lightbulb policy. For those of us not up on the exciting world of lightbulb legislation, here’s the deal: the law caps the energy consumption for an approximately 1,600 lumen bulb (about 100 standard incandescent watts) at 72 watts—requiring about 30 percent more efficiency. Contrary to rumor, it won’t actually phase out incandescents. It also requires lightbulb packages to include performance specs on hours, energy used, etc., sorta like food labels.

Are we crazy to think we can phase out something we’ve all relied on for so long? Well, a quick peek around the world says no, as the European Union and Australia each began phasing out inefficient incandescents in 2009. China (the biggest producer of said enviro-villains), the Philippines, and Russia have also passed legislation to phase them out.

In December, Congress decided to delay that portion of the bill until October 2012. But it’s still got manufacturers working on their game. As nonprofit Environment Illinois program director Max Muller says, the law “is a great example of how regulations can drive innovation. In response, manufacturers have already started making much more efficient lightbulbs.”

Narrowing the Search…or Not

As the manufacturers adapt to changing legislation and consumer demand, even more versatile eco-friendly options will become available…but we shouldn’t let that scare us. ComEd Senior Program Manager Alicia Forrester breaks it down neatly: halogens are more efficient options than traditional incandescents, but they’re still less efficient than CFLs and LEDs. While LEDs outlast all the others, she explains, they can also be prohibitively pricey and aren’t currently available for all the needs of a typical home.

So for people like us who are looking for a simpler answer, CFLs remain the bulb recommendation of choice—at least while we’re awaiting an expanded offering of LEDs. “For the average customer, CFLs are currently the best energy-saving option with good quality light at a reasonable cost. Each CFL could save you up to $71 in energy costs over its lifetime,” explains Forrester.

Facing the Opponents

You probably know someone who’s passionately pro-incandescent. Maybe you agree. The fact is, both CFL and LED developers have faced their fair share of obstacles on the quest for the perfect bulb. We’re going to go through some common consumer complaints one by one to soothe any frazzled nerves out there.

  • Less functional/weird light quality issues with CFLs and LEDs: It’s true that in their early days, CFLs produced a very bright white light, which caused a backlash amongst warm-light lovers. But technology has since caught up and warm light options now exist. Meanwhile, LEDs go beyond incandescent bulbs in their versatility, and can produce any color light on the spectrum. Dimmers are also available on some—but not all—CFLs, so check the label first. And though current offerings are slim for regular interior purposes, leave room in your heart for LEDs. Scientific American reports that LED replacements for 100-watters are expected to hit the market this summer.
  • Early replacement woes: Some people worry that tossing out functional, nonrecyclable incandescent lightbulbs before their time is up is unnecessarily wasteful. But Muller says the environmental benefits of replacing them early outweigh the costs of letting them live out their energy-wasting lives. Same goes for consumer savings, says Forrester. “Replace [inefficient incandescents] with an energy-efficient bulb and start saving money on your electricity bill today. The savings to be gained by installing an efficient bulb like a CFL is immediate,” says Forrester.
  • CFLs contain mercury: Yes, it’s true. But Muller, whose organization worked for years to ban mercury in thermostats, explains that although it seems counterintuitive, using CFLs actually results in less toxic mercury in the environment. Yep, turns out, coal-burning power plants are the big culprits in mercury spewing these days. He explains: “When coal is burned it releases mercury into air, which precipitates into water, then fish, then the people who eat it. With CFLs, you’re actually saving mercury going into the environment, because of the energy of the bulbs we’re saving.” The EPA backs this up.
  • CFLs are unsafe: In terms of personal safety, use of these bulbs takes just a little attention, and that’s only if a bulb breaks. Forrester says, “No mercury is released when the bulbs are intact or in use. While the amount of mercury inside the glass tubing is only about four milligrams (roughly the size of the tip on a ballpoint pen) it is still essential to handle and recycle CFLs responsibly.” By “responsibly,” Forrester doesn’t mean you need to call the fire department and move to a hotel for a week. But you should follow the EPA’s protocol for safe cleanup as a precautionary measure to prevent the uber-tiny dose of mercury vapor (we’re talking 1/100 of what’s in a mercury thermometer) from spreading through your home. And as far as recycling goes, it’s pretty easy to do: Earth911 has a complete listing of Chicagoland retailers that recycle CFLs for free here.

EcoMyth Outcome

Myth busted. Swapping out incandescents for energy-efficient lightbulbs saves energy in the long run. It’s true that there’s plenty to think about when buying a lightbulb. But with increasing quality in the energy-efficient offerings, and lots of resources that detail the pros and cons, it is becoming easier to make decisions that work best for our home, wallet, and planet.

One Green Thing You Can Do

In short, replace inefficient incandescents with more efficient options. “The increase in efficiency and cost savings made possible by not using incandescent bulbs is so huge that it doesn’t make any sense to still be using them. Swapping it out is one of the simplest ways to cut pollution,” says Muller.

We recommend using CFLs for now because of their efficiency and versatility, and because the safety concerns are spurious. LEDs may end up being better at some point but the current high price points and lack of selection for indoor residential needs make them less practical options at this time.