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CFL vs. Incandescent Lighting

Say goodbye to the incandescent bulb.

It's had a pretty good run since Thomas Edison's first public demonstration on New Year's Eve 1879. Starting with 100-watt bulbs in January 2012 and ending with 40-watt bulbs in 2014, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 is throwing the off-switch.

This is a good thing.  The incandescent bulb is a pretty good heat generating device, turning 90-95% of your electric bill into heat.  (Your toaster actually does a better job of it, but makes for an awkward reading lamp.)  What the incandescent bulb never did very well was produce light.

Say what?  Thomas Edison's pride & joy was a lousy light bulb. I don't really want to get into watts and joules and lumens, so how about simple dollars and cents? With a typical incandescent bulb, for every dollar you spend on electricity, you get about a nickel's worth of light.

Introducing Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFLs)

Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFLs) are the obvious immediate replacement.  Prices have dropped significantly in the past year and local utility incentives have had a significant price impact on the retail side. A 6-pack of CFLs for recessed lights cost under $1/bulb at a big orange box store last week (BTW regular incandescent BR30s were more than twice the price) and standard lamp-style CFLs were as little as 50¢ each.  With the CFLs I'm only spending a quarter to get that nickel's worth of light and instead of replacing bulbs twice a year, the CFLs will last 4-5 years or longer.  At these prices and efficiencies, the breakeven point will get here with my next BGE bill. Changing out all the incandescent bulbs in a typical home will save about $200 in annual electrical costs.

The drawbacks of the first CFLs: cost, delayed start, warm-up period, color rendering; have been overcome for the most part.  If the Kelvin rating system for color rendering throws you,  just pick the Soft or Warm White bulbs. They're the closest in color to incandescent. Dimmable CFLs still carry a hefty price tag.  At $9/bulb, I've left incandescent bulbs in our fixtures with dimmers, but that's just my head trash. Some quick calculation tells me I'd save an average $1/month for each of those dimmable bulbs I change. Breakeven point 9 months down the road.

LED bulbs are another choice, but a little tougher to swallow at an upfront cost around $90 (down 35% from a year ago) to replace that 65-watt bulb in your recessed light. The cost savings are there, running about 15% of an incandescent bulb.

The real savings in LED bulbs comes with their long life. 50,000 hours vs 2,000 hours. Modern homes with 2-story foyers and family rooms have posed real problems for builders and homeowners alike. Having to change a light bulb twice a year in this situation can be real a hassle. A lot of homeowners would be real happy to switch to a 20-year light bulb.

So what's the take away?


You could start stocking up on incandescent bulbs. Better start soon. While the ban on 100-watt bulbs may be 18 months away, no manufacturer will want to be stuck with any significant inventory.  Don't worry about specialty bulbs: flood lights, 3-way bulbs, appliance bulbs and many other specialty bulbs are exempted under the regulation.

Or, you could do your wallet a good turn: switch to CFLs today.

Sometimes going Green is about saving Green.

©2010 Jerry H Harman is Director of Design at Starcom Design/Build in Columbia, Maryland, a Certified Green Advantage Remodeler and is real happy not to be changing lights bulbs all the time.