Defending the Underdog: The Bright Side of Energy-Saving CFL Bulbs

Market dynamics often demonstrate that subsidies create unsustainable demand for the products to which they apply. Witness the auto sales acceleration in July and August of this year while the federal "Cash for Clunkers" program was in effect. Since the program ended, domestic auto sales have fallen back to pre-program levels.

According to a post on the Green Inc. blog in late September, sales of CFL bulbs are also declining as sponsors of rebate programs across the country report trouble in maintaining their funding. Especially concerned about this development is Richard Karney, the Department of Energy's Energy Star products manager, who wrote to CFL industry stakeholders to share the bleak sales outlook on energy-saving light bulbs and to urge their cooperation with the DOE to restore and expand these programs.

Given that these long-standing promotional incentives (including flat-out giveaways of energy-saving light bulbs) have resulted in CFL bulbs in only 10% of the residential light sockets in the U.S, we can't help but wonder why Mr. Karney thinks this time will be different.

The Art of Shopping for Energy-Saving Light Bulbs

Maybe we're missing something, but we're pretty careful shoppers, and in the last 10 months, we've purchased four Energy Star major appliances for our home. Yes, we bought them all on sale. But not one had any public utility-sanctioned rebate or discount. Did we spend more for our energy efficient Energy Star units? You bet. Did we consider anything else? Not for a moment.

So, why do so many consumers, when replacing a spent light bulb in their home, reach for electricity-sucking incandescents?  

1. Old habits die hard. And since these lamps have been around for over 100 years, the incandescent bulb habit is really hard-wired. 

2. They're cheap...dirt cheap compared to quality CFL bulbs.

3. CFL bulbs have (cue spooky Halloween music) MERCURY! (about the same amount as a six ounce can of albacore tuna (1)).

These factors matter in terms of buying behavior for energy-saving light bulbs. 

On the other side of the coin, it's demonstrably true that premium CFL bulbs, installed and used properly (2), will save many times their purchase price in electricity over their lifetime. As for the good of the planet, the reduced CO2 output from using a single 100 watt equivalent CFL until spent is equivalent to parking an average size passenger car for 39 days (3).

It's the Light, Stupid

We believe that light quality matters - a lot. Great, artificial light helps create lasting positive impressions of people, places, gatherings, events and things. And in the winter months when natural light is in shorter supply, it can even lift your spirits. Poor light detracts and diminishes.

Unfortunately, the reputation of CFL bulbs was tarnished by the industry itself through shortsightedness and a drive for profits. For years, the light color of CFL bulbs was blue-hued and wan. The hue cast by energy-saving light bulbs also made the warmer colors (red, orange, yellow, brown) look washed out. Who wants to view themselves, their family, their friends or their interior surroundings in such light?

But there's good news. The industry has worked diligently to put this issue to rest. Today's energy-saving light bulbs come in a  wide array of color temperatures, ranging from warm white (2700 degrees Kelvin) to virtual daylight (6500 degrees Kelvin) giving consumers choices akin to those they can find among incandescent bulbs.

Another important property of artificial light is color rendering index ("CRI"). This is a measure of the ability of a light source to accurately display the color of an item. Have you ever tried to make out colors under a yellow streetlight? These are typically high pressure sodium lamps with a CRI in the 30s (on a scale of 1-100, with 100 the highest score). Colors look awful, but that's not the point of these lights. They're relatively inexpensive and last a long time. If you're a taxpayer, those are probably the characteristics you want your city or town to value the most in these fixtures.

The CRI of most modern CFL bulbs is 82. B minus. In college, a B minus grade can be a superb result for some students and a disaster for others. So it is with CFL bulbs: perfectly acceptable for some uses, inferior for others.

While we see signs that this is changing, government and the industry have pushed CFL bulbs as the ideal replacement for incandescent lamps because of their extremely high efficiency and long life. And surely there are people for whom efficiency is the most important criterion when buying energy-saving light bulbs. But for the larger percentage of the population who can afford to spend $5, $10 or $15 on a light bulb to realize energy efficiency gains, CFL bulbs aren't the first choice for buyers whose top priority is ultra-flattering light in their homes or businesses. And all the incentives and subsidies the market can offer won't make a difference.

High Efficiency Halogen Lamps - A Bright Idea

Halogen lamps have been around a long time. Commonly, they have a CRI of 100 and a warm white color. This doesn't make them perfect, but for accent and ambience lighting (paired with a dimming control), they're a solid choice. They're not very efficient however (much of the electricity they use creates heat rather than light). 

Here's where the story takes an interesting twist. Recently, top lamp manufacturers have developed technology that transforms invisible infrared light emissions into visible light. The result is greater "efficacy" (measured in lumens of light output per watt of electricity).

Compared to a traditional, 60-watt halogen lamp with an 840 lumen output, a high-efficiency, 40-watt halogen lamp with an 800 lumen output offers a noticeable difference in efficacy, equating to a 43% gain in efficiency.
43% greater efficiency than the old style but without any tradeoffs: same great light, same long lamp life, instant-on, superior dimming ability (a bonus: dimming extends lamp life dramatically), reliability (unlike typical CFL bulbs, these lamps don't contain electronic components), and no mercury content requiring recycling when spent. Bottom line: electricity savings without sacrifice.

The Skinny on Energy-Saving Light Bulbs

If you're looking to save money and reduce your impact on the only planet we'll ever call home, a switch to energy-saving light bulbs is a smart and easy place to start. Incentives or not, for maximum efficiency, color choice and light output, premium quality CFL bulbs are still worth considering. Where superb light quality and high performance dimming capabilities are called for, high efficiency halogen lamps are a very bright idea. And since both types of energy-saving light bulbs have much longer lives than the traditional options, you'll spend less time and money changing bulbs. 

Works Cited

1. "Dangerous Mercury in CFLs? One Big Fish Story";  LD+A, August, 2009;
2. Avoid using CFLs in fully enclosed fixtures as the heat buildup will reduce lamp life. In fixtures which are turned on and off frequently or left on for less than 15 minutes at a time, CFLs should generally not be used.
3. Enter quantity 1 in "Calculate Your Savings."

About the Author

Peter Ellinwood is the founder and owner of GreenPoma, an online retailer of hard-to-find, best-in-breed, environmentally-friendly lighting options. During the 25 years he spent in the insurance industry in Boston, Baltimore, and Annapolis, he acquired an extensive background in product management and marketing, but decided to use this knowledge for a greater purpose - selling energy-efficient light bulb, LED, halogen, and CFL products along with great advice. To make a purchase or learn more about going green, please visit
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