Guess how many of the bulbs in the photo are energy-efficient compact fluorescents? Yes, of course it’s a trick… ok, all of them, smartypants. And that’s the point of this post: to retract my longstanding opposition to compact fluorescent bulbs, and to get you to take a fresh look at a new generation of energy-efficient lighting that saves money while still doing the job well.
About fifteen years ago compact fluorescent lights appeared on my contractor’s radar; clients were asking about them, the public utility was hawking them in discount programs, and I was the stodgy old guy telling everyone to wait, the product wasn’t really up to the challenge, and removing the fixtures people insisted on buying in a rosy glow of greenness. The dim, harsh, flickering, watery, slow-to-light fluorescents that were supposed to change the world and lower our power bills have been a terrible disappointment, as this George Will essay sarcastically details.
And I, monsieur energy contractor, installing the latest in efficient heating and cooling equipment, and the best in automated home lighting systems that turn off when not needed to save money, was the naysayer who steered everyone away from the latest trends in alternative lighting.
Until now. it’s time to retract, and I’m doing it publicly. This link is to a catalog site showing many styles and brilliances of fluorescent and LED lighting, and while there are still caveats restraining the homeowner from believing every claim that GE and Phillips make for their new bulbs, I’m changing my stance and coming out for compact fluorescent retrofit bulbs, the ones that can be screwed into an old-style socket to replace an incandescent bulb.
The quality of the light is still “variable.” If you choose the “daylight” or “soft white” color options at the home store, you’ll probably be satisfied with the color and warmth of the light, even if it’s a bit whiter than your old incandescent bulbs.
The intensity is appropriate to the fixture. Compact fluorescents are now prominently labeled for their “lumen” output, a more telling measure than the old “watts” per bulb number. Buy a bulb equal to the lumen output of your old bulb, whatever the wattage, and you’ll get enough light. Notice, while you’re doing that, that your new fluorescent retrofit bulb costs as much as ten times what you’ve been paying for incandescent light bulbs, and is rated to last as much as twenty times as long; and this time they’re probably telling the truth. Older fluorescent retrofits were shorter-lived and grew dimmer as they aged.
Are all compact fluorescent bulbs created equal? No, sorry. Beware of those not costing significantly more than incandescents, and stick to brands like Phillips and GE rather than those packages which clearly indicate their foreign manufacture and sport suspiciously lower prices. The technology you’re paying for is not cheap, and you’ll be disappointed with the cheapest fluorescent retrofits. Check this Popular Mechanics link to a shootout test. Be told, as Granny used to say.
Environmental concerns? They’re real. Compact fluorescents contain a small dose of mercury, which poses no threat unless the bulb is broken. Incandescents are also not safe when broken, so all the same warnings apply. When the dog knocks over the lamp, shoo the kids out of the room and use the vacuum; carefully. Here’s an Energy Star data sheet to help you.
And how do the numbers work out? They work. A compact fluorescent using twelve watts of power competes with an incandescent 60 watt bulb for performance, lasts many times as long, and costs five or six dollars rather than 5o cents. That’s twenty five percent of the power, with a service life that works out as a bargain even ignoring the energy savings.
We’ve blogged before about LED bulbs, and expressed our reservations. We still harbor those reservations. Maybe we’ll visit that topic soon.. Until then, you can go to the big box store, or a good supermarket, and buy the compact fluorescents with confidence. Use them in lights you leave on a lot, not your basement or your closets. Then they’ll do you some real good. And I’m replacing the incandescents at my house, too. We walk what we talk……