This year marks the end of an era in lighting technology — the beginning of the end for the A-type incandescent bulb (similar to the one Thomas Edison invented 130 years ago). Thanks to new standards in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 that began to take effect Jan. 1, incandescent bulbs are being phased out of distribution in the United States.
Front-running technologies to replace incandescent bulbs include compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and light-emitting diodes (LEDs). The benefits of both are compelling: They use far less energy to produce about the same amount of light. According to Energy Star, a CFL uses 75 percent less energy than an incandescent bulb, lasts 10 times as long (10,000 hours) and saves about $40 over its lifetime. LED bulbs have roughly the same efficiency as CFLs, depending upon bulb design, and last a lot longer than incandescents or CFLs (up to 50,000 hours). In addition, CFLs and LEDs produce much less heat than incandescents — a boon during summer.
So what’s not to like? Plenty, according to critics. Here’s a look at the good and the bad in the latest lighting options to help you decide how to replace burned out or outmoded bulbs.
The Problem With CFLs
The incandescent-replacement bulb of choice for many energy-conscious consumers, CFLs are already in wide use. However, critics contend that the bulbs have many drawbacks: foremost, their quality of light.
Even with recent improvements, fluorescent lighting seems unnatural to many people — perhaps because of the difference in the way the light is produced. An incandescent bulb, like a flame or candle, produces light via thermal radiation; electricity heats a filament until it glows. A fluorescent lamp, also known as a gas-discharge lamp, sends an electronically controlled electrical charge through a chamber filled with gases and mercury vapor. The mercury atoms, after being excited by the current, produce UV light that in turn causes the bulb or tube’s phosphor coating to fluoresce (emit a visible light). As a result of this process, many people can detect flicker, or shimmer, in a CFL bulb. Some believe they are adversely affected by it, though risk thresholds have not been established.
Another drawback: The mercury used in fluorescent lights poses a problem if the bulb breaks or is improperly disposed of (see “Cleaning up After a CFL Breaks,” below). Mercury is a neurotoxin that, in high enough exposures, can impair vision, hearing, speech and coordination and damage the lungs and kidneys. CFL proponents point out that the amount of mercury in a bulb is quite small and that far greater amounts of mercury are released into the atmosphere by coal-burning power plants (pollution that the use of CFLs would theoretically help to decrease).
But CFLs have other problems as well. Their failure rate may be much higher than many manufacturers claim. Temperature and frequent on-off cycles can affect their life and performance. In addition, CFLs take several minutes to achieve full brightness, and they can interfere with radio frequencies. Many CFLs are not dimmable unless you install new dimmer switches (see “Dimmer Switches for CFLs,” below), and the dimming range is often limited. The price of a CFL, though reduced in recent years, is still two or three times higher than an equivalent incandescent (and the CFL may produce less light). Finally, fluorescents have been accused of causing or exacerbating health problems including skin conditions and depression.
The Promise of LEDs
Once limited to instrument panels, stoplights, signs and holiday light strings, LEDs are now being offered for general household lighting. Like CFLs, LEDs require sophisticated electronics to control current. But unlike CFLs, LEDs do not employ gases or mercury. Instead, photons are released when electricity passes through a diode, or semiconductor. The light can be diffused or focused by lenses and directed with reflectors. The lens, typically made of epoxy, also serves to encase the semiconductor, making it highly durable.
Early LED bulbs, especially those in which the diodes are visible, often had a bluish cast and were too bright to look at. This has been largely overcome through various means, including the use of phosphor coatings. Today’s LEDs produce light in a range of colors, including cool and warm whites that are not very different from other light sources. The units I tried cast a bright, white light similar to that produced by halogen bulbs.
LEDs use an emerging technology, so you can expect to find many variations in products, including inconsistent performance, and misleading claims. For example, illumination levels produced by LEDs (and CFLs) are often lower than those of “equivalent” incandescents. Stick with well-established companies when purchasing LED lighting. Some LED products are not recommended for use with circuits controlled by dimmers, so read the packaging carefully before purchasing.
LED bulbs are available for virtually any household lighting fixture, including R-30 replacements and general-purpose A-19 bulbs (right). The 10.5-watt flood bulb from Cree (left) can substitute for 65-watt incandescent recessed ceiling floodlights. It replaces the existing baffle and trim and is expected to last at least 20 years.
Although prices have dropped dramatically, LEDs are still expensive. Bulbs for recessed can lights cost $40 to $50 each, and an A-19-style LED lamp bulb that produces about the same lumens as a 40-watt incandescent costs about $10. Equipping an entire house with LED bulbs could easily cost $1,000.
LED bulbs can be adapted for use in decorative fixtures with candelabra or medium bases.
The Halogen Alternative
More efficient and longer-lasting than conventional incandescent bulbs, halogen lighting is incandescent, but the bulbs are filled with halogen gas, which allows for a hotter filament temperature that produces a whiter, more natural light. Today’s halogens typically use at least 30 percent less energy than a normal incandescent bulb, which will enable them to meet the 2012 standards and avoid being banned. They also last two to three times longer than conventional bulbs – and even longer if they’re often dimmed. Halogen bulbs fully illuminate instantly and can be dimmed with existing dimmer switches. Like other incandescents and LEDs, halogens do not contain mercury. And unlike CFLs and LEDs, halogens will not cause radio or TV interference.
Halogen bulbs, such as the floodlights and spotlights shown, can be installed anywhere common incandescent bulbs are used. Table-lamp-style A-19 halogen bulbs are also available.
In the past, halogen bulbs required special fixtures and were awkward to install and replace. A fingerprint on the quartz bulb enclosure could cause bulbs to prematurely fail or burst. Many of today’s halogen bulbs are “double-wrapped” by glass. The filament is enclosed in a quartz-fused capsule, which is surrounded by a conventional glass bulb. Halogen bulbs look and install like old-fashioned incandescent bulbs with Edison-style screw-in bases. However, they must still be handled with care. Be sure to turn off the electricity before installing them because the fragile filament can easily be destroyed. Another drawback is the heat halogens produce (about as much as any common incandescent bulb of similar wattage). If you must cool the room that you’re lighting for a significant portion of the year, an LED bulb may be the better choice.
ESLs: The Bulbs of the Future?
Earlier this year, Vu1 Corp. introduced a new energy-saving light bulb called the ESL, which stands for electron-stimulated luminescence. This technology produces light by firing electrons at the inside of a phosphor-coated bulb. The resulting glow is very much like that of an incandescent bulb, but ESL bulbs are about twice as efficient as incandescents and will last 10,000 hours or more.
ESLs address many of the concerns of CFLs. They are made without mercury. There is only a one-second delay before they reach full illumination. The bulbs are fully dimmable with traditional dimmer switches. Because ESLs operate at a relatively low frequency, they do not interfere with radios and TVs. Nor are there flicker or health issues associated with the new technology, according to Charles Hunt, Vu1’s chief technology officer and ESL patent holder.
However, there are a few drawbacks to the ESL bulb. The number of lumens produced per watt of energy consumed is significantly less than that of a CFL or an LED bulb. The R-30 bulb I reviewed produces about 31 lumens per watt, whereas CFL and LED R-30s produce 45 to 55 lumens per watt. ESL bulbs are also longer and heavier than equivalent R-30-type incandescent and CFL bulbs. This means ESLs are ill-suited for some track fixtures because they may protrude or lean against the baffle if the track light is set at an angle. Furthermore, the base of the bulb is quite large: about 2-1/4 in. dia. versus 1-3/4 in. for a typical CFL that’s made for recessed fixtures. The larger ESL base does not fit in all older fixtures (including mine, where bulb-height adjustment clips get in the way). However, the bulbs do fit in newer cans, the kind in which the bulb height is adjusted with a wing nut. If your fixtures are older, check to be sure the Vu1 bulbs will fit before purchasing them. As for price, an ESL R-30 bulb is less expensive ($20) than an equivalent LED bulb ($50) but costs twice as much as an R-30 CFL bulb ($10).
We’re used to thinking about bulbs in terms of wattage – 40, 75 and 100 watts are typical. That’s fine for comparing conventional incandescent bulbs with each other. But when comparing different types of bulbs (halogen, CFL, LED, etc.), it’s more helpful to look at the number of lumens (units that measure the perceived amount of light) each bulb produces.
To replace a 100-watt incandescent bulb, for example, you’ll need a bulb that produces about 1,700 lumens. To replace a 65-watt floodlight in the ceiling, you’ll want a bulb that produces about 650 lumens. LED and CFL “equivalents” sometimes do not match these outputs. In one case, an LED bulb that claimed to be equivalent to a 65-watt incandescent flood produced only 575 lumens. In another instance, an LED bulb for a candelabra produced only 30 lumens even though it was labeled as a replacement for a 15-watt, 110-lumen incandescent bulb. LED and CFL alternatives do use fewer watts per lumen and will therefore be more efficient, but they may not deliver the same amount of light as the incandescent to which you’re accustomed.
When comparing bulbs for efficiency, determine the number of lumens the bulb will produce per watt. The lumens and wattage will often be listed on the packaging or on the bulb itself. Divide the number of lumens by the number of watts. The higher the result, the more efficient the bulb. For example, an 8-watt, 450-lumen LED bulb produces about 56 lumens per watt (450 divided by 8). A common 40-watt, 495-lumen incandescent bulb produces only 12 lumens per watt.
Estimating the cost savings for a particular bulb is a bit more difficult, but doing the math yourself is better than believing the manufacturers' estimates — not because the manufacturer is being misleading, but because so many variables are involved. For example, if electricity rates where you live are high (as in California), you will save more money than someone who lives in an area where rates are low (such as in Idaho). Cost savings also depends on how long you keep your lights on. The more you use them, the more money high-efficiency bulbs will save you.
To estimate how much money a more efficient bulb will save you, multiply the expected life of the bulb in hours (printed on the bulb package) by the number of watts the light uses (also printed on the package). Divide the total by 1,000 to get the kilowatts used during the life of the bulb. Then multiply the result by your local cost per kilowatt hour (shown on your electric bill). Do the same for the bulbs you're currently using, and estimate the number of bulbs you'll need to buy to equal the life of the high-efficiency bulb. Add the bulb costs to the operating costs and compare.
In my home, we use recessed incandescent floodlights in the kitchen ceiling. They burn 65 watts per hour, last for about 2,000 hours, and cost $6 apiece. I'm considering replacing them with LED bulbs that burn only 15 watts per hour, last 50,000 hours, and cost $40 each. The cost to operate the incandescents for 50,000 hours is roughly $325 (65 watts x 50,000 hours ÷ 1,000 x .10 per kilowatt hour). The cost to operate the LED bulb is $75 (15 watts x 50,000 hours ÷ 1,000 x .10). Add in the price of 23 incandescent bulbs ($138) to the operating cost of the incandescents and the total cost for 50,000 hours is $463. Add the price of the LED bulb ($40) to the operating costs for the LED and the total is $115. The projected savings works out to $348 ($463 – $115).
Our kitchen lights are on about three hours a day, or about 1,100 hours per year, so I would probably not live long enough to realize the full savings of the LED bulb, which would last about 45 years! This scenario assumes that the cost of electricity and bulbs remain the same. But increases in the cost of electricity or decreases in the cost of LED bulbs (safe bets) would only result in greater savings. It also assumes that the quality of the light produced by long-lasting bulbs will not degrade substantially over the years (a real possibility) and require an early replacement.
Many factors come into play when you choose a bulb in today’s market. Doing your homework (including the math) and understanding your options will help you see the light that best suits your needs and desires.
DIMMER SWITCHES FOR CFLS
Leviton has introduced a dimmer switch that’s designed to optimize the performance of dimmable CFLs. Called the Decora CFL Slide Dimmer, it can detect whether a lamp is an incandescent or a dimmable CFL, determine low-end dimming capabilities and adjust the dimmer range accordingly. It outperforms incandescent dimmers when controlling dimmable CFLs. This UL-listed product has a built-in filter for radio and TV interference. It replaces a standard switch, uses standard wiring, and has a shallow depth for easy installation.
New dimmer switches cost about $20 each and work with existing wiring.
CLEANING UP AFTER A CFL BREAKS
Because CFLs contain mercury, cleaning up a broken bulb is more complicated than simply sweeping up glass. Here are the updated recommendations from the Environmental Protection Agency:
- Have people and pets leave the room.
- Air out the room for five to 10 minutes by opening a window or door to the outside.
- Shut off the central forced-air heating/air-conditioning system, if you have one.
- Collect materials needed to clean up the broken bulb.
- Be thorough in collecting broken glass and visible powder.
- Place cleanup materials in a sealable container.
- Promptly place all bulb debris and cleanup materials outdoors in a trash container or protected area until materials can be disposed of properly. Avoid leaving any bulb fragments or cleanup materials indoors.
- If practical, continue to air out the room where the bulb was broken, and leave the heating/air conditioning system shut off for several hours.