Let there be light

New technologies bring us brighter, more efficient and longer-lasting lightbulbs

By Megan McKoy-Noe, CCC

LED lightbulbs like the Energy Smart model from GE use between 75 and 80 percent less energy than classic bulbs.

On hot summer evenings, children love chasing fireflies and catching them in jars. Then the real magic begins as the intermittent glow captivates the captors.

That same sense of wonder can be found in labs as scientists refine the process of making light-emitting diodes (LEDs) — highly-efficient lightbulbs comparable to a firefly's glow. LEDs have been commonly used as solitary sensor lights in electronics; now manufacturers are searching for economical ways to contain a colony of LEDs in a single lighting shell. Just as children attempt to gather enough fireflies to make a lamp, an LED "jar" would create enough light output (lumens) to match that of traditional incandescent bulbs.

This research is part of national effort aimed at redefining household lighting. Starting in January 2012, the U.S. joins nations around the world in requiring lighting to be more energy efficient. In January, 100-watt incandescent bulbs — a technology developed in the U.S. by Thomas Edison in 1878 and largely untouched since — must by law become more energy efficient.

Federal mandate

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates we use 13.6 percent of our nation's energy supply to keep the lights on, and a lot of that power is wasted. If you've ever touched a traditional lightbulb when it's on, you realized much of the energy (90 percent) is released as heat (ouch!). This leaves a lot of room for improvement.

To tackle this issue, Congress passed the Energy Information and Security Act of 2007. By 2014, household lightbulbs using between 40 to 100 watts will need to consume at least 28 percent less energy than traditional incandescents, saving Americans an estimated $6 billion to $10 billion in lighting costs annually. The law also mandates lightbulbs become 70 percent more efficient than classic bulbs by 2020. (LEDs already exceed this goal.)

Look for labels

Such a massive product change means consumers must switch from thinking about lightbulbs in terms of watts (amount of energy used) to lumens (amount of light produced). Lumens tell you how bright a lightbulb is, no matter the type of bulb — the more lumens, the brighter the light.

The Federal Trade Commission has designed a "Lighting Facts" label and shopping guide that compares bulbs with traditional incandescent lightbulbs based on wattages at equivalent lumens. Beginning in 2012, labels on the front and back of lightbulb packages will emphasize a bulb's brightness in lumens, annual energy cost and expected lifespan.

Is this a bulb ban?

Contrary to popular belief, the federal Energy Information and Security Act of 2007 does not ban incandescent bulb technology; it requires bulbs use less energy.

"It's equivalent to standards passed in the 1980s to make refrigerators more energy efficient, and we're reaping those benefits," says Brian Sloboda with the Cooperative Research Network (CRN), a division of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. "Refrigerators use less than one-third of the electricity today than they did in the mid-1970s, but consumers can't tell a difference in how their food is cooled. The premise is, why not do the same for lightbulbs?"

The federal act halts the manufacture of inefficient lightbulbs, but stores will not remove tried-and-true incandescent bulbs from shelves come New Year's Day. Current inventory will still be available for sale until exhausted. And the improved efficiency requirements only apply to screw-based lightbulbs. Specialty bulbs for appliances, heavy-duty bulbs, colored lights and three-way bulbs are exempt.

Explore your options

Once traditional incandescents go the way of the passenger pigeon, residential bulbs will largely fit in three categories, each stacking up a bit differently:

  • Halogen Incandescents: Use 25 percent less energy, last three times longer than regular incandescent bulbs.
  • Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs): Use 75 percent less energy, last up to 10 times longer.
  • LEDs: Use between 75 percent and 80 percent less energy, last up to 25 times longer.

For consumers comfortable with their old incandescent bulbs, halogen incandescents will be an easy first-step. Featuring a capsule of halogen gas around the bulb's filament, they're available in a variety of familiar colors and can be dimmed.

"Halogen offers a big efficiency advantage over standard incandescent bulbs," says John Strainic, global product general manager, GE Lighting. "It consumes fewer watts while delivering a precise dimming capability and a bright, crisp light."

The most familiar options on the market today — and most economical — are CFLs. The technology operates the same as fluorescent lighting in offices or the kitchen. The bulbs are now available in a wide array of colors and some can be dimmed. Always check the package to make sure a bulb meets your needs.

According to David Schuellerman, GE Lighting's public relations manager, CFLs are generally best used where lighting is left on for extended periods and full brightness is not immediately necessary, such as family rooms, bedrooms and common areas. As with all fluorescent bulbs, each CFL contains a small amount of mercury (five times less than a watch battery) and should be recycled. Many retailers offer free CFL recycling; visit www.epa.gov/cfl for details.

The final choice (remember the fireflies?) is LEDs. Although still developing, you can find LED lights, recessed fixtures, and some lower wattage replacement bulbs on store shelves.

"LEDs are the up-and-coming solution," predicts Schuellerman."As they come down in price, homeowners will embrace them. Currently, most residential LEDs are used for outdoor lighting where fixtures are left on for extended periods and changing bulbs is not easily done. LEDs are also great for linear applications like under cabinet lighting, where light sources with thin profiles are needed."

LEDs are more expensive than other options: a replacement for a 60-watt incandescent bulb costs between $30 and $60. But costs will fall as manufacturers respond to growing consumer demand.

For example, in 2008 LEDs comprised 10 percent of the output from CREE Inc., a North Carolina-based lighting manufacturer. Fast-forward three years and LEDs are responsible for 70 percent of the company's businesses, and bulb efficiency has doubled. Innovations like a new production line last year are driving down costs.

LEDs are not without their problems. They have to stay cool to operate efficiently, and when several bulbs are placed together for a brighter, more consumer-friendly light, lifespan decreases. However, many manufacturers are accounting for this by adding cooling elements to LED bulbs.

Can you see a difference?

Some consumers believe more efficient bulbs won't provide the same warm look and feel as classic bulbs, but Schuellerman disagrees.

"Lighting technologies are advancing at such a rate that consumers won't notice a marked difference in the color of light from different technologies or how that light is dispersed. You also won't necessarily see a difference in bulb shape. Some consumers don't like the look of twist-shaped CFLs, for example, so we offer covered CFLs that look just like incandescent bulbs. We also have an LED bulb that is a replacement for a 40-watt incandescent, as well as halogen bulbs, that both are housed in incandescent-shaped shells."

The difference will be found on your monthly electric bill — more efficient bulbs use between 25 and 80 percent less energy than traditional incandescents, and last much longer. The U.S. Department of Energy claims each household can save $50 a year by replacing 15 traditional incandescent bulbs. With these new technologies, you should be spending less on electricity bills for lighting and changing fewer bulbs.

To learn about lighting options, visit energysavers.gov/lighting. For details on the change and shopping tips visit ftc.gov/lightbulbs.

Measuring light in lumens

New federal efficiency standards require lightbulbs to consume less electricity (measured in watts) for the amount of light produced (measured in lumens). Traditional 100-watt bulbs — typically incandescent bulbs — will give way to choices that use 72 watts or less to provide you a comparable amount of light. If you are replacing a 100-watt bulb, a good rule of thumb is to look for one that delivers about 1,600 lumens. As a result, a new bulb should provide that level of brightness for no more than 72 watts.

As of January 1, 2012, traditional 100-watt incandescent lightbulbs will no longer meet efficiency standards and will no longer be available at most stores. The law specifically limits the import or manufacture of inefficient bulbs. Stores will be able to sell remaining inventory.

Efficiency standards will kick in for other types of lightbulbs over the next three years. Traditional 75-watt incandescent lightbulbs will no longer be available as of January 1, 2013, and 40-watt and 60-watt versions will no longer be available as of January 1, 2014. However, you will have many other cost-saving options. Many of these choices are already on store shelves.

—U.S. Department of Energy

About the Author

Megan McKoy-Noe, CCC, writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the service organization for the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives.

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