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Lighting the Way with Compact Fluorescent Lighting

April 28, 2009 - 5:00am


There is a major push today to get homeowners to adopt compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) light bulbs. They have been on the market for nearly three decades, and many homeowners still do not use them widely. But the tide is definitely turning. Their availability and the percentage of homeowners familiar with the technology and purchasing them for their homes have been steadily rising. The products have improved considerably compared to early products, and their prices have plummeted.

The ENERGY STAR® Change a Light, Change the World Campaign has been running now for more than half a dozen years. This campaign is designed to bring individuals and organizations together in a nationwide effort to save energy and help fight global warming, starting by encouraging a switch to lighting that has earned the government's ENERGY STAR label for energy efficiency. Up until recently, that typically meant switching to energy-efficient CFLs.

Why change? Lighting consumes almost 15% of a household's electricity use. In these times of economic uncertainty, swapping out inefficient incandescent light bulbs for energy-efficient CFLs can help lighten your electric bills, keeping more money in your pocket. ENERGY STAR-qualified lighting uses about 75% less energy than incandescent bulbs. You can save more than $65 per year in energy costs just by replacing your home's five most frequently used light fixtures with ENERGY STAR models. ENERGY STAR-qualified lighting also produces about 75% less heat, so they also save on air conditioning costs during the hot months.

If the savings are so great, why doesn't everyone use ENERGY STAR compact fluorescent light bulbs? Consumers have a lot more choices when buying these lights than when buying incandescents. Decisions need to be made in a number of areas, and this can be daunting for consumers.

CFLs come in all shapes and sizes—it's not a one-size-fits-all situation like for most incandescents; this means you have to be careful that they fit the intended fixtures. The color temperature and Color Rendition Index (CRI) differ from bulb to bulb a lot more than for incandescents. Many people—including my wife—prefer warm white bulbs (which confusingly have lower color temperatures: 2700–3000 K), while I think cool white bulbs (with higher color temperatures: 3600–5500 K) are "cool." And since our eyesight is not as it once was, we really like the full-spectrum CFL bulbs in our reading lamp for reading. CFLs cost more than incandescents but in most circumstances last 5–10 times as long. That saves on maintenance costs (or the aggravation of nagging your spouse to replace the burnt out bulb).

NOTE: CFLs can burn out quickly, especially if you use them in a way they are not designed to be used, such as switching them on and off constantly. Thus, they are not a good choice for all applications.

When selecting energy-efficient lighting, it's a good idea to understand basic lighting terms and principles, and the different types of lighting.

CFLs have a reputation for not reaching their maximum illumination instantly, but happily most new bulbs turn on almost instantly. Still, some bulbs are more sluggish than others. Very few CFLs can be used in dimmable fixtures; placing CFLs not designed for dimming into a dimming fixture creates a fire hazard. Having said that, dimmable CFLs, as well as 3-way CFL bulbs, are available. EPA has an online guide to help consumers choose the "right light for the right place!" Set your browser to Buyers Guide and click on The ENERGY STAR Choose A Light Guide icon. Or see the text version.

CFLs contain a small amount of toxic mercury, so they require some special precautions if they break. Also, don't throw burned out bulbs into the garbage—recycle them properly or take them to one of the growing number of retailers who accept used bulbs. You can find more information about these collection and/or recycling programs at Where You Live or at

Consumer Reports magazine tested CFLs and reported on them in their October 2007 issue, and then issued an update in their October 2008 issue, dispelling many common myths surrounding these bulbs. Consumer Reports found that replacing your regular bulbs with compact fluorescents can save you at least $30 per bulb over the CFL's life.

The ENERGY STAR branding is widely recognized, so you probably know that it's beneficial to select ENERGY STAR-rated bulbs. But are you aware that manufacturers producing ENERGY STAR-qualified CFLs are required to offer at least a 2-year limited warranty (covering manufacturer defects) for residential applications? That in itself is a terrific reason to purchase CFLs that are ENERGY STAR-qualified. Visit the ENERGY STAR site to find out this and other important consumer information on CFLs. Moreover, beginning on July 1, 2009, all CFL products carrying the ENERGY STAR logo must meet stricter Version 4.0 requirements. All remaining products that do not meet these criteria will not be allowed to carry the ENERGY STAR label after July 1, 2009. Higher efficiency—Hooray!

Special offers and incentives may be available to help make CFLs more affordable.

But wait—this just in. As mentioned in an earlier blog, some ENERGY STAR products outperform others. The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization established to use the power of public information to protect public health and the environment, has helped pinpoint those superior CFLs. An Environmental Working Group (EWG) investigation called "Lighten Up in 2009" identified seven CFL bulb lines that surpass the others in having much longer life spans of up to 18,000 hours and much lower levels of the toxic chemical mercury.

Disclosure: You won't find many incandescent light bulbs in my house. Yes, there are still a few: in the refrigerator, microwave, oven, oven hood light, and one ceiling fan (with halogen bulbs). Most are energy-efficient linear fluorescent and compact fluorescent lights. And I've already purchased a few of the new light emitting diode (LED) solid-state lighting lights—but that's the topic of a future blog. Stay tuned.