Soapbox Monday: Out with the incandescents, in with CFLs, LEDs

An array of new bulbs. (U.S. Department of Energy photo)

The efficiency upgrade for America's light bulbs continues.

When the calendar turned to January, 75-watt bulbs joined 100-watters in having to meet new energy efficiency standards. 

Some have referred to the legislation, signed by President Bush, as a "ban" on incandesents. But that's not true.  It's just that, so far, manufacturers haven't figured out how to get incandescents to meet the new standards. Nor are they likely to. There are just too many other wonderful choices.

I think they all work great, and I wish people would quit whining about leftist plots to take away their bulbs.

And what's not to like about saving money in the long run? Depending on where you live and how much your electricity costs, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that you can save $50 a year by upgrading to more efficient bulbs.

If you don't have the money outright, maybe sub out the bulb in the lighting fixture that you use most often. Calculate how long it will take you to recoup the investment, then buy another one.

Cathy Choi, chair of the American Lighting Association Education Foundation Board and president of Bulbrite, a bulb manufacturer, said that when the law first went into effect last year, consumers went into somewhat of a “panic mode” and began stockpiling. Sales of incandescents actually increaesed.

But then consumers became more comfortable with new energy efficient options, and incandescent bulb sales decreased by approximately 10 percent, she said.

You might still find a few 75-watters on shelves. Stores can wait until they run out. But after that, new choices will take over.

The problem with incandescents is that about 90 percent or more of the energy used just went to making heat. Only 10 percent or less actually produced the light.

The closest bulb to the incandescent is a halogen. By replacing the argon in an old incandescent with halogen, and making a few other tweaks, the bulb looks and acts the same but uses a quarter less energy.

The lighting association reports that halogen continues to be the most popular alternative to incandescent bulbs because the price point is low (approximately $2.50 per bulb) and they generate the same warm light consumers are accustomed to. Sales of halogen light bulbs increased by 20 percent over the course of 2012.

CFLs and LEDs are about 75 percent more efficient than incandescents. CFLs have been fine for me. Last year, sales of these bulbs increased 25 percent.

But I've been experimenting with LEDs, and they're great. Of course, they're an investment -- $20 or more per bulb. They're no longer something you buy, expecting to throw away in a year. These things will last as long as your roof.

Perhaps not surprisingly, sales of those bulbs increased only six percent last year. That could also be becauseLED technology is still developing, and there just weren't as many options in the LED category as for other types of bulbs.

Here are a few more tips:

What color? You'll find all kinds of options, from "warm white" to progressively bluer "bright white" and "daylight." Many stores have displays showing tiny rooms lit with each kind of light, but these can be deceiving. Unless you're sure, stick with "warm white," which is like the old incandescents.

Want a dimmable bulb? They are available in CFLs and LEDs, but until those improve, halogens are the preferred option for many.

Buy only Energy Star bulbs. These have had to pass more rigorous tests. Also, it means they have a warranty. Yes, this is cumbersome, but if you're worried about getting a lemon, save the box and follow the directions if your bulb blows out early.

Also, packaging for Energy Star bulbs includes "color rendering" or "color accuracy" on the label. This is a number that refers to how things look in the light. At 80, skin tones might look a tad sallow; 90 is better; 100 is best.

About mercury in CFLs. It's now in tiny amounts - less than the mercury in traditional tubular fluorescent lights, and about 100 times less than the mercury in old thermometers. Environmental groups say that CFLs result in less mercury entering the environment; since they use less energy, power plants burn less coal and emit less mercury.

If you break one, you don't need a hazmat team. Just follow the EPA guidelines for cleaning it up. And when the bulb burns out, recycle it. Most big-box home improvement stores take them.

Fancy bulbs? Don't fret. They're likely exempt. The law applies only to standard-shaped bulbs.

Bulbrite has developed a return on investment calculator on a lighting website:

Click here for a U.S. Department of Energy site about the lighting standards.

Meanwhile, the Alliance to Save Energy and experts from Energy Star, the American Lighting Association and Phillips are having a Twitterchat on Jan. 30 to help folks choose the right lighting. Here's the information.