Friday, November 11, 2011

As Easy as Screwing In A Lightbulb

Traditional incandescent light bulbs waste 90% of their energy as heat instead of light. If you've ever burned your fingers, you've experienced it for yourself. We turn on light bulbs when we want light, but when we do it Edison-style, most of the energy is wasted. Its an upside-down system. In order to get light, we get stuck paying for really inefficient heat, even when it is all hot and we don't want any.

Luckily American, Asian, and European lighting manufacturers have responded to the challenge with an unprecedented wave of innovation and new products. We can light our homes, offices, factories, and streets better than ever. And we will save money and energy while doing it. The US Dept of Energy says that people who swap 15 inefficient incandescent bulbs for new energy-savers will save, on average, $50 a year in energy bills. My personal electricity use fell by 15% after replacing the busiest bulbs in my house.

Today you can buy bulbs that last really long for hard to reach spaces, bulbs with a romantic or functional mood, bulbs with accurate color rendering (artists and fashionistas, rejoice!), bulbs good for reading, bulbs for ambient light or spotlights for showcasing merchandise or art, bulbs for retrofits or for new fixtures, bulbs that dim, and bulb shapes designed for lamps, recessed cans, bathroom fixtures, chandeliers, and the great outdoors.

Beginning in 2011, the Federal Trade Commission required new Lighting Facts Labels to help us navigate the new choices. In the past light labels made us choose based on the wattage, which is a measure of how much energy the bulb uses. By way of contrast, the new labels look a lot like the familiar nutrition labels on packaged food. They tell us things that are way more relevant to the purchasing decision. Now everyone can easily see and compare:
  • Brightness, shown in lumens. 800 lumens is about the same as a 60W incandescent. 1,100 lumens is about equal to a 75W.
  • Estimated annual energy cost
  • Life expectancy, in years
  • Whether the bulb meets ENERGY STAR standards (generally required to qualify for utility incentive programs)
  • The appearance or "color temperature "of the light. This is measured in degrees Kelvin, where something in the 5,000 - 6,000K range is considered cool and 2,500 - 3,200K is warm. The range of color temperatures goes beyond soft white or regular. Choices are amazing. You can completely change the aesthetics of a room with different color temps, without necessarily changing the amount of actual light. If you always hated the blue-ish nonfat milk look of the early CFLs, you may be pleasantly surprised by the warmth and beauty of a 2,900K lamp. Buy several as samples to take home and compare the effect. Then pick your favorite.
  • How many watts it uses. Same as the familiar energy-use measurement from the old style labels.
  • Whether it contains mercury (CFLs contain small amounts of mercury, far less than in the past. If it's in there, return it for free to Lowe's or Home Depot or a community household hazardous waste facility.
Posted here are some sample labels for bulbs that put out a little over 800 lumens. Can you tell which one gives you more light for your energy money?

One super-easy trick to help you pick is to choose ENERGY STAR bulbs. An ENERGY STAR qualified light bulb:
  • Saves money, about $6 a year in electricity costs and can save more than $40 over its lifetime
  • Certified by a third party to meet strict performance requirements
  • Uses about 75% less energy than a traditional incandescent bulb and lasts at least 6 times longer
  • Produces about 75% less heat, so it's safer to operate and can cut energy costs associated with home cooling


  1. Tamara, I think it's great that you are sharing the new "nutrition-style" light bulb labels. This is definitely a great step forward in assisting consumers understand the impacts of their purchase, while providing the information in a familiar format. I hope that this trend allows consumers to see the value in spending more for a lightbulb today, knowing that you'll save $X/year in the future.

  2. Thanks Ryan. My hope is that designers like you will be able to use the color temperature ratings to create the look and feel they want, and that everyone will appreciate the new useful info without feeling overwhelmed by it.

  3. Amazing how much interesting information can be written about light bulbs, Tamara! I have a couple of questions for you:

    Why haven't CFL manufacturers created some sexy marketing language as boilerplate text to put on their packaging and help consumers figure out, on the spot, what they should buy? Reading labels is something that very few people take the time to do, and even then, as you outline above, you have to know how to interpret the label info. Listing corn syrup as an ingredient in a food product doesn't help most consumers if it doesn't articulate the health-threatening and weight-gaining risks associated with its consumption, so food manufacturers have an incentive to NOT add detail related to unhealthy ingredients. But manufacturers of CFLs have every incentive to provide comparisons and details in easy-to-skim, compelling lay language, because it will increase their sales.

    I have wrestled with light quality comparisons and am loathe to spend $6 or $8 per light bulb of differing "moods" to find the right one. Invariably, you have to buy a dozen to find the one right for you and then you're out $70+. I, personally, am very accustomed to and enjoy the warmth of a 60-watt incandescent -- with a warmer-colored shade for just hanging out, and an opaque shade that really focuses the light for reading. In my experience, an equivalent CFL can be unbearably harsh, or so warm as to not shed light adequate for reading w/o eye strain. Assuming there are lots of people like me who have happily used 60-watt incandescents for decades, is there a CFL bulb that sheds a nearly identical light to its comparable incandescent and if so, why aren't they marketing the heck out of that feature? (Or maybe they are and I'm "blind"?)

    Thanks for any light that you might shed on these questions, Tamara.