In 2007, Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act, which promoted many forms of renewable energy and energy conservation. Its provisions include changes to the minimum standards for light bulb efficiency. Although the new standards haven’t officially gone into effect yet, you many already have seen changes in the kinds of light bulbs on sale in your local hardware store.
According to the law, starting in 2012, most standard general-purpose bulbs must be 30% more energy efficient than current incandescent bulbs. The new requirements will be phased in gradually, but the net result will be that by 2014, most of today’s incandescent bulbs will no longer be available for sale, and will be replaced by compact florescent light bulbs, or CFLs.
Of course, higher-efficiency bulbs are good for the environment. Moving to more efficient lighting is one of the easiest, lowest-cost ways for the U.S. to reduce electricity use and carbon emissions. But the changes will also benefit consumers – some estimates suggest that the average household’s utility bill will be reduced by as much as 12%. Even though CFLs cost more to buy ($3 compared to 50 cents for an incandescent), they use about 75% less energy and last five years instead of a few months. Depending on the cost of electricity, a homeowner that invests $90 to change 30 bulbs to CFLs will save between $440 and $1500 over the five-year life of the bulbs.
CFLs do have their detractors. Many claim that they don’t last anywhere near as long as the five years claimed by manufacturers – and this can in fact be the case you turn the bulbs on and off frequently. Energy Star recommends that all CFLs be left on for at least 15 minutes at a time. (Also, if you are using the bulbs in a dimmer, make sure that you buy bulbs specifically marked “dimmable”.) If you buy Energy Star bulbs, they come with a two-year warranty, so save your receipts and contact the bulb’s manufacturer if it burns out prematurely.
Others dislike the white – sometimes called “harsh” – light of CFLs. This effect can be mitigated by buying cooler-burning CFLs. Bulbs with Kelvin temperatures in the range of 2,700 to 3,000 emit a warmer light than higher-temperature bulbs with Kelvin temperatures of 5,000 or higher, which tend to have a white or bluish light.
Still other critics point out that CFLs contain mercury. While this is true, incandescent bulbs are not mercury-free in practice either. The increased power used for incandescent likely comes from coal-powered plants that produce mercury and many other types of pollution.
If you do break a CFL in your home, consult the EPA’s website for instructions on how to clean it up safely. http://www.epa.gov/cfl/cflcleanup.html
Of course, manufacturers are preparing for 2012 by developing new kinds of light bulbs that meet the more stringent standards, including high-efficiency incandescent and LED bulbs, so look for these options to arrive in stores over the next year or so.
The good news? A much less-beloved light bulb has already been phased out. The T-12 fluorescent tube – those humming, flickering office lights that give everyone’s skin a miserable greenish cast – has been replaced by T-8 fluorescent tubes, which are quieter, more efficient, don’t flicker, and make colors look much more natural.