Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Changing Your Way of Light

One very easy way to make your carbon footprint smaller is to swap out your incandescent lightbulbs for compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs). For now, it is still your choice to pick incandescents over CFLs. But before too long, what we have all come to know as “the light bulb” will disappear from the store shelves.

The incandescent lightbulb has remained pretty much unchanged since it was made commercially viable by Thomas Edison in 1879. This is the light bulb with which we all grew up — the one used in all the cartoons to indicate “I have an idea.”  

The incandescent light bulb works by first producing heat. A mild electrical current is used to heat up a thin wire filament inside the bulb until it glows and makes light. Unfortunately, this is not an energy-efficient process. And the incandescent’s days are now numbered.

In December 2007 Congress passed an energy bill that will phase out the incandescent light bulb by 2014. The phase-out begins with the 100-watt bulb in 2012 and ends with the 40-watt in 2014.

The US is late to this party. Australia became the first country to announce an outright ban by 2010 on incandescent bulbs, and a number of other countries will lose the incandescent bulb far ahead of us. 

Some manufacturers are ending production earlier than the law mandates. IKEA recently began phasing out the bulbs in its North American stores with the intention of eliminating them entirely by January 1, 2011. 

What is a CFL and Why Switch?
According to the EnergyStar site, “In a CFL, an electric current is driven through a tube containing argon and a small amount of mercury vapor. This generates invisible ultraviolet light that excites a fluorescent coating on the inside of the tube… which then emits visible light.” Although a CFL takes a little more energy when it is first turned on, it is much more efficient than an incandescent bulb once the electricity starts flowing.

A CFL uses about 75% less energy and lasts about 10 times longer than an equivalent incandescent bulb. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, “If every American home replaced just one light with an EnergyStar light, we would save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes for a year, about $700 million in annual energy costs, and prevent 9 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions per year, equivalent to the emissions of about 800,000 cars.”

The current cost of a CFL is some 3 times higher than that of an incandescent bulb, but a CFL’s long life and its savings on energy more than make up the difference. HINT 1: You’ll maximize the lifetime savings and effectiveness of your CFLs by keeping them on for 15 minutes or more at a time. HINT 2: EnergyStar qualified CFls will turn on in less than 1 second, and reach at least 80% of their full light output within 3 minutes. Some CFLs are labeled “Instant On.” These turn on quicker but do not last as long.

Shop Around
CFLs come in various shapes and sizes. They have different K (Kelvin numbers) and watt ranges. This all a bit beyond the scope of this blog post, but I have found a link that gives some good pointers for choosing a bulb that will make you happy. Probably he best tip in here is the one about matching the lumens of an incandescent you like to the lumens of the CFL you intend to use to replace it. This information should be found on the bulb packaging. You may want to test drive a few different CFLs before buying a large quantity.

This link also predicts that the reign of the CFL will be short and touts the LED (light-emitting diode) as the bulb of the future. While the LED might be an economical choice for tree lights or to focus light while doing a close task, for most of us the current price tag of LEDs is too high to be a ubiquitous home lighting solution. Test out this link as an example.

Exchange for Change
If you live in New Haven, there is an opportunity for you to try CFLs for FREE! The New Haven Office of Sustainability has partnered with the Connecticut Energy Efficiency Fund to bring a program dubbed “Exchange for Change” to the Elm City. Through Exchange for Change, residents can trade-in 5 incandescents for 5 CFLs at a number of venues around New Haven over the next few weeks. The give-away CFLs are EnergyStar rated, 60 Watt replacements, 900 lumens, with an average life of 10,000 hours. The box claims that you will save $47.00 in energy costs over the life of the bulb. What’s to lose?

When their long life is over, please dispose of your CFLs at a hazardous waste collection center because they do contain mercury. IKEA and Home Depot both have collection boxes inside the store near the entrance. If you live in the New Haven area, and your town is part of the Regional Water Authority, you can bring your defunct CFLs to HazWaste Central on Sargent Drive most Saturday mornings from late May through mid-October.

Centennial Lightbulb
This is a segue I just can’t resist. In the course of my research I learned of “The Longest Burning Lightbulb in History,” installed in the main firehouse in Livermore, California in 1901. It is small, and serves as a nightlight, but one has to wonder how much juice it has used during its 109 years of light. 


  1. Yes! We replaced every light in our home with CFL several years ago. Cuts our energy consumption a lot! Good for the Earth and good for the budget!