The Lightbulb Wars: FAQ, Myths, and Facts

Test Lab: Week Two

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A 60-watt equivalent LED light bulb from EcoSmart

Last week we introduced you to the new mega Test Lab we're running over the next ten weeks. But before we get to the first round of light bulb results (coming in August), we think it's necessary to address some common misconceptions about CFLs, LEDs, and the upcoming federally-mandated standards for light bulbs. If you're one of those people loathe to lose your precious 100-watt light bulb because of negative experiences with energy-efficient bulbs in the past, then this FAQ post is for you:

Q&A

Is the government banning incandescent light bulbs?

No! As we wrote in last week's post, incandescent light bulbs are not being banned. All Congress has done is set a national standard for how much power it takes to produce a certain amount of light. In other words, the bulbs must produce the same amount of lumens (light output) for less wattage (energy)—at least 25-30% less energy. The law does not require Americans to buy compact fluorescent or any other type of light bulb.

So, incandescent bulbs are sticking around, but they need to be more efficient?

Right. And with good reason! About 90 percent of the energy used by traditional incandescent bulbs is given off as heat, not light. (There's a reason why incandescent bulbs are so hot to the touch.) After January 1, 2012, manufacturers will no longer be able to make and sell general-use 100-watt incandescent light bulbs. Rather, they will need to start making and selling bulbs that only use 72 watts while still producing exactly the same amount of light. This is key. Just because the wattage (energy) goes down does NOT mean the lumens (light output) goes down. You don't have to worry about getting a dimmer bulb. Bulbs affected include: 100-watt A-shape, decorative candles, globes, and post lights. Similar restrictions will eventually go into place for 75-, 60- and 40-watt bulbs in 2013 and 2014.

Which light bulbs are exempted from the new standards?

There are actually twenty-two categories of incandescent bulbs that are not included in the legislation, including candelabra-base and three-way incandescents. For a full list of exempted light bulbs, click here. (Scroll down the page for the full list.)

How are these standards a good thing for me? I liked the old light bulbs!

More efficient bulbs—with the same light output, mind you—won't change anything other than saving you money. As long as Congress upholds the standards, they will:

  • Save the average American household $100-$200 each year in lower electricity bills.
  • Save more than $10-12.5 billion nationally each year when fully implemented.
  • Eliminate the need for 30 new large power plants. (Several lighting companies are opening new factories and creating thousands of jobs to help meet the new demand for more efficient bulbs.)
  • Avoid approximately 100 million tons of CO2 pollution per year, the equivalent to the emissions of more than 17 million cars.

Researchers with the Appliance Standards Awareness Project (ASAP) and the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) calculated the potential savings for each state after taking into account statewide electricity prices, typical energy savings from more efficient bulbs, and state-level household energy usage data. While all states will likely see significant savings from the use of more efficient bulbs, New York and Texas could save more than $1 billion every year. See the full report here [PDF].

Isn't the light from CFLs pretty harsh, and don't they buzz and flicker?

The spiral-tube CFL has been around for years, and yes, early models did suffer from cold light, slow start-up times, dim light output, and the dreaded buzzing. But new technologies have made CFLs practically unrecognizable from their ill-reputed ancestors. The start-up time is practically instantaneous, the dimming levels for recent CFL designs now reach below 5%, and there are a variety of color temperatures available:

  • Soft white, or 2700K, which is warm and yellow, and most similar in light quality to a traditional 100W incandescent bulb.
  • Bright white, or 3500K, which is bright, crisp, and most similar in light quality to a halogen.
  • Daylight, or 5000K, which is bluer, great for revealing true colors, closest to a full spectrum bulb

Aren't CFL bulbs more dangerous because they contain mercury?

In order to make a CFL, you have to use mercury. The federal guidelines for mercury in CFLs mandate that they be 4 mg or less. (By comparison, older thermometers contained 500 milligrams of mercury, or the equivalent of 125 CFLs.) But thanks to recent advancements, the average mercury content in CFLs has dropped at least 20 percent or more in the past several years. Home Depot's EcoSmart bulbs, for example, contain 2.6 milligrams or less.

Despite the small amounts of mercury present, proper precautions should still be taken if a bulb breaks. Another option—and a great one for parents concerned about CFLs breaking in their kids' rooms— is to buy a shatter-resistant CFL, like this one from EcoSmart. These bulbs have a silicone coating which provides a protective shield to contain the glass (and mercury emissions) should the bulb ever break.

The spiral CFLs don't fit in dome style ceiling fixtures or lamps with harps. Why can't they make them in a traditional bulb shape?

Well, they do actually! You can now buy CFLs in both uncovered shapes (the spiral) or covered shapes (the traditional bulb) that are direct replacements for standard incandescents. Many manufacturers of spiral CFLs are also making them more compact, so they don't "stick out" like they used to.

What's the light quality of light produced by an LED bulb?

LEDs aren't just cold and blue anymore. Many LED manufacturers (Cree, Philips) have developed proprietary blends in their light bulbs using more red and yellow tones, which make the light quality warmer and closer to that of a standard incandescent (or a soft white). As the manufacturers of Cree told us, incandescents rate 100 on a lightbulb color accuracy chart, and their bulbs consistently rate 92.

Are there LED bulbs that can replace the 100-watt incandescent bulb?

There is currently not an LED on the market to replace a standard 100-watt bulb, but Philips (a leader in LED technology) just launched a 75-watt replacement bulb ($39.95) and plans to release a 100-watt replacement bulb next year.

Why are LEDs so expensive?

New LED designs are rugged, glass-free, instant-on, and fully dimmable. But it's understandable that when you're used to paying $1.08 for an incandescent bulb you might balk at paying upwards of $40 for one LED bulb. But consider this: LEDS, though considerably more expensive than both incandescents and CFLs, also last forever— well, 25-32 years on average, saving around 80% in electricity costs. So when you compare the cost of what it would cost you to buy 25-years worth of incandescents vs. just one LED, I think you can see that you'll end up saving a ton of money in the interim. In fact, as Philips told this reporter from The Washington Post, they estimate that replacing a traditional 75-watt incandescent bulb with one of their LED bulbs would save a household $160 in energy costs over its life.

Downloadable Resources

A Quick Rundown of Light Bulb Innovations from LIGHTFAIR 2011 | NRDC
Better Light Bulbs Equal Consumer Savings In Every State [PDF] | NRDC
A Visual Guide to Light Bulb Alternatives | Philips
The Facts About Light Bulbs and Mercury | NRDC
Oppose Efforts to Roll Back Light Bulb Efficiency Standards [PDF] | NRDC
Shedding New Light on the U.S. Energy Efficiency Standards [PDF] | NRDC
Your Guide to More Efficient and Money-Saving Light Bulbs [PDF] | NRDC

Light Bulb Wars Post Archive

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(Image: Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan)