Light Bulbs – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

It’s now January 3, 2014 and people are avidly buying up all of the incandescent bulbs on the market because the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 “The Light Bulb Law” said that by January 1, 2014 incandescent bulbs needed to produce the same lumen output at 27% less wattage.  Large manufacturers like GE gave up on the development of more efficient incandescent technology and moved on to more efficient CFL and LED technology instead, effectively phasing out incandescent light bulbs. Having not used an incandescent bulb in my home for over 7 years, I’m somewhat partial to the idea that these energy hogs will be gone! So let’s talk about some of the issues surrounding the phase out of incandescent bulbs.MERCURY:Yes, mercury is present in CFL bulbs, and although they have tried, they have not yet found a way to make them without mercury. Exposure to mercury can be dangerous, so please use care when handling CFL bulbs. Remove bulbs from the socket by the base, and never twist the glass. If you do break a bulb, immediately ventilate the space, refrain from vacuuming as that causes the mercury to become airborne, and collect all the debris and pieces of the bulb.  It is best to put them into a sealed glass jar, as mercury can escape through plastic. For the average individual, breaking a CFL bulb is no more hazardous than eating tuna, however, refraining from using CFL’s could be causing an even bigger issue.  According to the 2010 report from the EPA the US produces 103 metric tons of mercury each year.  More then half of this mercury is produced by coal fired power plants.  If every CFL bulb produced that year ended up broken in the landfill it would produce less then 0.1% of all of the mercury produced.  Airborne mercury is the leading pollutant to water sources and the leading cause of the higher levels of mercury in our aquatic life.  Most exposure of mercury is through eating fish.  15% of global power is from lighting, so if CFL’s reduce consumption by 2/3rds that would make a huge impact on the power generation at coal fired power plants. By using a CFL for the same number of hours in the lifetime of an incandescent bulb and including the mercury content in a CFL bulb, each CFL bulb would produce 70% less mercury than an incandescent bulb. And since exposure for most individuals is through fish, which is from airborne mercury, which is from coal fired power plants, which produce 99.9% more mercury then CFL bulbs, it still makes sense to use them, with careful handling.WHY DO MY BULBS NOT LAST:You get what you pay for!  People complained that CFL bulbs are so much more expensive and don’t last as long as they claim.  Demand has caused the price to go down over the years and more manufacturers to produce them, but it is still very important to know what you are getting.  Buy Energy Star products.  This is valuable in the lighting industry because Energy Star requires products to go through vigorous testing and actually meet the performance ratings that they specify on their packaging.  It’s not just one of those brand name labeling system that you pay more for, it’s actually a reliable independent testing organization that makes products really perform as they say.  That being said, not every bulb belongs in every application.  Lighting is getting more complicated and it’s necessary to read the packaging to see which applications are best for which bulbs.  For example: CFL’s don’t perform well in cold conditions and are often not recommended for exterior use.  LED’s should not be used in enclosed fixtures because they cannot dissipate the heat, and both LED and CFL technology need specific dimmers to work properly.  Halogen light bulbs require higher heat levels to produce the same amount of light and can be fire hazards.  And your standard incandescent light bulb uses 90% of its energy on heat because of the way it produces light. So read the packaging, and ask for professional advice if you’re still not sure.CFL’S DON’T PRODUCE THE SAME LIGHTCFL’s have been on the market long enough to work out some of their issues. They are now dimmable, if you buy the right bulb and dimmer, and they come in a variety of color temperatures.  It is simply a matter of selecting the right bulb, for the right location, for the right application. CFL’s also get a bad wrap because they have to “warm up”.  Each CFL has a ballast attached to the bulb or the fixture which either turns it on slowly – which increases the lifespan of the bulb, or turns it on instantly, which would be less noticeable to the individual but shortens the life of the bulb.  Let me be more clear, if you are leaving the room for less then 15 minutes it often makes more sense to leave the CFL bulb on.HOW DO I SELECT THE RIGHT BULB:The packaging industry has changed and now shows the lumens produced (amount of light) by each type of bulb and then provides the wattage rating.  Select the correct lumen output for the activity and then select the lowest wattage bulb to save the most energy.  Also take into consideration color temperature.  This is important for how people perceive the light that is being produced. 2700K is considered warm white and puts off the nice yellowish glow that is similar to incandescent bulbs. So when people see light that is 3000K, which is a whiter light, they often mistake it for brighter light, which may not be true as that bulb may be putting out the same number of lumens. When CFL bulbs also come in higher kelven temperature ranges which can appear bright white or slightly blue which is considered daylight equivalent. Several box stores and lighting stores will show you the different color renderings and help you to decipher which color would be best suited for which activities.DIMMINGBy dimming incandescent light bulbs it cuts the electric current that flows to the bulb, since that is not noticeable from the human eye we perceive it as dimming, when in effect, the light bulb is turning on and off producing lower light levels. That same technology does not work for LED bulbs and CFL bulbs so you cannot simply replace a bulb on an existing dimmer switch. Instead, you notice strobing, or that the bulb simply just turns off.  They do make dimmers for CFL bulbs and requires buying dimmable bulbs. It will say directly on the packaging whether it is dimmable.  However, dimming CFL’s still is not fully comparable to the incandescent fixtures and are likely to just turn off at 20% light level.  A more viable dimming option is LED’s.  However, since LED’s also produce lower wattage, using the correct dimmer with the LED bulbs will be critical.  They now make Omni-directional bulbs as well as LED PAR lamps and MR16 LED equivalent lamps, which are great for recessed lighting and spotlights.  LED’s also do not produce the same light spectrum and significantly less heat which make them ideal for exterior lighting because they do not need to “warm up” and they do not attract bugs.HALOGENS ARE THE REPLACEMENTS FOR INCANDESCENTSThis has to be one of my biggest issues with the phase out of incandescent bulbs.  It is true that halogen bulbs produce light at 75% of the incandescent bulb with an equivalent light output.  You can get a 60watt bulb that uses 53 watts as per the requirements of the Energy Independence and Security Act.  However, halogen bulbs produce a significant amount of extra heat to produce the same light levels.  They are a fire and a burn hazard.  That does not mean they should not be used, but they should not be considered a replacement for incandescent bulbs.  They still use 53 watts which is 40 watts more then the equivalent CFL and 43 watts more then the equivalent LED and they don’t last any longer then a typical incandescent.So what I encourage you to do is research.  Like all things, the more information you have the more satisfied you will be with your choices.  Select the right bulb and the right control for all of your lighting needs. And please consider recycling.  I don’t want to undervalue the fact that sending the CFL bulbs to the landfill still produces mercury in the air or ground. Please be responsible, recycle, research, and ask for guidance when you need it!