Monday, March 10, 2008

CFL’s a Bright Idea to Cutting Your Home Energy Costs

About year ago, I was standing in the aisle of a retail store trying to decide what would have been my second purchase of some Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs (CFLs) when a man and woman showed up and began to investigate the assortment of bulbs. Together, the couple held a package that contained one spiral-type light. Their heads nearly touched as they inspected the package turning it over and over, reading the label, and quieting commenting to each other on the bulb’s odd design. It was an intimate moment that looked more like they were purchasing an engagement ring than a light bulb. Obviously, it was the couple’s first venture into the realm of CFLs.

The man turned to me and ask if knew anything about the lights. I told him a little, and that I had been trying them out for about a month and now was buying more to replace some incandescent ones as a way to cut my electric bill. The woman nodded to affirm their like reason for being in the aisle. I related my experience with CFLs and what I felt were the pros and cons.

They bought two lights bulbs. As they began to walk away, I told them good luck.

The man turned and replied, “We have to…we gotta do it.”

How prophetic. “We gotta do it.”

With energy costs chomping into Americans’ wallets and pocketbooks, we have to find ways to become energy efficient, and the use of compact fluorescent light bulbs is an easy and painless way to begin.

Lighting accounts for 9 percent of the average home’s electric bill according to the Energy Information Administration.*

CFLs use up to 75 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs and last up to ten times longer. By using CFLs you could see short-term and long-term energy savings. CFLs were introduced in the 1970s, and for any of you jilted pioneers who tried them in the early years, let me say they have come a long way. Older attempts lacked consistency. They flickered and buzzed. Some had a green hue. Over the next twenty years, technological improvements fixed most of those problems, and the advent of electronic ballasts remedied the performance inconsistencies.

Unlike incandescent bulbs that use a filament, CFLs give off light when a mixture of three phosphors are exposed to ultraviolet light from mercury atoms. Though we call them "lights," traditional incandescent bulbs are actually small heaters where 90% of the energy goes into heating the wire, which produce a little light and a lot of heat. You know this if you've touched one that's been on for a while.

Primarily, CFLs outperform regular incandescent bulbs in three ways. One, they use less energy. Two, they have a much longer life. Three, they produce less heat, which helps keeping cooling costs down in the summer.

With soaring energy costs, the demand for CFLs is well on the way. The shelf space in the aisle where I met that couple a year ago has tripled in size with more bulbs and more styles such as decorative, globe, spiral, outdoor, and reflector to meet the consumers’ needs. There are some things you should know before you begin replacing your incandescent light bulbs with CFLs: • Start with one bulb.

There are lots of choices, so before switching all the bulbs in a room, try just one to make sure it gives the kind of light you want. Look for bulbs with a color temperature between 2650 and 2850 degrees Kelvin or labeled "warm white."

• CF bulbs cost more than incandescent types. Depending on type, bulbs costs could run between three to 16 dollars per bulb, but the upfront costs are recovered in the reduced energy usage and the long life of the bulb. Prices are dropping.

• CF bulbs use about one-quarter of the energy of an incandescent bulb to produce the same amount of light. To replace a traditional 60-watt bulb, look for a 15-watt CF bulb. The measure of light output, known as lumens, should also be considered when replacing a bulb. In other words, if you want your same amount of existing lighting, you should compare the CF bulb’s lumens with the one you are replacing.

• The start-up time of a CF bulb can be slower than an incandescent bulb, even though the color and brightness are similar. I have found that light fixtures with two bulbs such a ceiling lights or typical dual lights around a bathroom mirror have a delay when switched on, or one light comes on a split second after the first. Also, reflector lights (mini spot lights) in recessed fixtures start very dim and take a few seconds to reach full lighting. A new “instant on” spiral type CFL is now available and probably will set the standard for future development in other styles of lights.

• CF bulbs produce light that's more diffuse than incandescent bulbs, so they are very good for area lighting.

• To maximize the lifetime of a CF bulb, install it where it will stay on for a minimum of 15 minutes at a time or several hours per day. The more a CF bulb is turned on and off, the quicker it burns out, however, newer designs are eliminating the issue.

• Only use CF bulbs in timers or photocells that are specifically designed to be used in these devices (check the label).

• If a light fixture is connected to a dimmer, use a CFL that is specifically designed to work in such applications.

• It is not recommended that you use CFLs in a recessed ceiling fixture unless they are designed for that purpose. Because these fixtures don't have any airflow, the additional heat generated by the bulb affects the bulb’s electronics, and the life of the average CFL is shortened. However, there are CFLs specifically made for recessed ceilings fixtures and track lighting.

• As with recessed ceiling fixtures, enclosed fixtures have the same issue with heat buildup. Nevertheless, suppose the CFL is put in an enclosed fixture and it lasts only half the rated life of 10,000 hours, or 5,000 hours. At a conservative estimate of 2,000 hours of usage a year, the CFL would last 2.5 years. Using incandescent light bulbs for the same 5,000 hours, you’d have to change the bulbs at least 5 to 8 times. If the location is difficult to reach, it may be worth the shorter life. By using a CFL, even with a reduced life, that’s 5-8 times someone didn’t have to get on a nearby chair or pull out a ladder to change out blown light bulbs. Generally, the heat buildup issue does not apply to outdoor fixtures. The cooler outdoor conditions at night reduce the heat impact.

• Though rare, if your CF bulbs cause interference with devices such as radios and computers, move the lamp or the electronic devices away from each other.

• When purchasing a CF bulb for a lamp make sure the bulb fits within the lamp shade harp. That problem is disappearing as manufacturers produce smaller and more functional lights, but 3-way lights are still large.

• If your lamp has a clamp shade (which attaches to the bulb rather than the lamp), use the traditional, A-shaped bulb instead of the spiral type.

Don’t dismay if the previous information seems overwhelming. In most cases, the information written on the bulbs’ packaging does a fairly good job in helping consumers decide on which bulbs best suits their need, but there are a couple of things to be considered.

Manufacturers use “wattage replacement” to help guide consumers in replacing incandescent bulbs. The system works pretty well, but remember, light output is measured in lumens, which usually is stated on the package.

On your first purchase it is may be best to try the next wattage up from the one that you are replacing. Let’s say you want to replace a 60 watt light bulb. You can try a 75 watt equivalent CFL to see if the extra output of light meets your need. If it does not work out, find someplace else in the house where it could work.

The energy savings are also printed on the package. For example, one package states, "Saves $43.00 in energy costs**.” It is much like gas mileage on a car. There are a lot of factors in play when computing miles per gallon as there is in energy savings. Basically you could save more; you could save less, but whatever the case, you will save substantially over incandescent bulbs.

Furthermore, notice in the same statement, "Saves $43.00 in energy costs**.” ends with the two asterisks (**). On some packaging, the information that the asterisks reference is inside the package, and cannot be read it until you actually buy the light and removed it from the package. On other packages, the asterisks lead to some very small print that will state something like, “** Saves up to $43.00 in energy costs over the average rated life (6,000 hours) of lamp compared to a (1200 hours) incandescent bulb. Based on 10¢/kWh.”

The “based on 10¢/kWh” (Kilowatt hours) can be deceiving. I found other bulb packages that use 12¢/kWh in coming up with the savings amount.

To get a truer picture on savings, try the online calculator at Energy Star® to help you estimate your savings at Look under the heading “resources” and go to “savings calculator.” Just follow the directions on the calculator, and use the electricity rate ($/kWh) from your last electric bill.

Finally, when purchasing CF bulbs look for the blue, Energy Star® logo on the package. Such bulbs have qualified for the rigorous standards on the quality and life of the bulb set by the government’s environmental and energy program. Besides the personal benefit of saving money on your household energy, there is the bigger picture of the positive environmental impact made by the use of CFLs, and it is impressive.

If every home in the U.S. replaced just one incandescent light bulb with a CFL, in one year it would save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes and prevent greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those of more than 800,000 cars, and save more than $800 million on our national energy bill.

Such numbers make it easy to see that as individuals we can move towards a cleaner environment and energy independence by making small steps like changing a light bulb.

However, a downside of Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs needs to be addressed by consumers, manufacturers and governing agencies. CFLs contain a small amount of mercury for them to work, which is now between 2.5 mg to 5 mg per bulb. The amount of mercury in a bulb barely covers the head of a ballpoint pen. Put into perspective, old mercury fever thermometers have 100 times more mercury than a CF bulb, and the battery that is running the watch on your wrist contains about 25 mg of mercury. Nevertheless, how we handle millions upon millions broken and burned out bulbs, now and into the future, is going to be extremely important.

Bulbs are entirely safe as the mercury is sealed within the light. Basically a broken or spent bulb has to be handled like any other helpful but hazardous household product. All you need to do is check under your kitchen sink to see that we all too often take for granted what we have in our homes and how we should handle such products.

Not to downplay the mercury in a CFL bulb, but as a pollutant, most mercury comes from the emissions of coal-burning power plants. Mercury which exists in coal is released when burned and emitted into the air. Roughly, 40 percent of mercury emissions in the U.S. are a result of coal-burning plants.

In comparison, the average existing coal-fired power plant emits 13.6 milligrams of mercury to power a typical incandescent bulb, but only 3.3 milligrams for a CFL. The reduction in mercury emissions achieved by burning less coal exceeds the five milligrams of mercury inside a CFL.

Unlike coal-fired power plants, which emit mercury directly into the atmosphere (where it most affects our health); the mercury in CFLs can be contained as long as you dispose of them properly. (All fluorescent bulbs are considered hazardous waste and should be handled according to local regulations.)

For instructions on cleaning up a broken bulb and recycling, check out the EPA site,, which continually reviews its clean-up and disposal recommendations for CFLs.

Recycling is an issue as the bulbs are relatively new and many communities have yet to form their own policies. Interesting enough IKEA, the home furnishing chain, accepts bulbs for recycling. Sylvania, the bulb manufacturer, has a storage box and mailer that holds 15 bulbs with postage prepaid. It is available on their website for $15. **

If you have any concerns on disposal, there are some sites with recycling opportunities listed. The sites can be found in the, “What should I do with a CFL it burns out?” section in the adjoining article. Additionally, you can contact your local waste management organization and landfill.

The mercury issue should not discourage you from moving into CFLs. Eventually, you will have to use them either because of government regulations, Australia and Canada are phasing out incandescents; or the marketplace, the bulb manufacturer, Philips, is no longer selling incandescent bulbs in the United States. Though General Electric Co. says it is working on doubling the energy efficiency of incandescent lights and will eventually develop versions comparable with CFLs. The bulbs, which the company hopes to begin marketing in 2010, will cost less than fluorescents, but they won't last as long.

The world is changing. To be clear, CFLs are a better choice, since the inefficiency of incandescent light bulbs cause far greater environmental damage because of the increased emissions from coal-burning power plants used to energize the incandescent bulbs.

Whether to save money on our electric bills or saving the environment, Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs are generally the best option for lighting our homes.

As the man said, “We gotta do it.”

* The amount of electricity consumed by the average U.S. households and amount of electricity used for residential U.S. is confusing on the following site,, and actually other sites have numbers that vary greatly. I use 9%, though I think it could be more. Here is another site for more conversation on the subject.

** Since this writing, Home Depot is now a recycling site.