Incandescent Lightbulb Phase-Out

Dear EarthTalk: What do I need to know about the new U.S. energy efficiency standards for light bulbs that take effect in January 2012? Will certain bulbs be unavailable? And am I supposed to switch out my older inefficient bulbs with newer efficient ones?

— Melissa McCarthy, Aptos, CA

Indeed, January 2012 marks the beginning of a planned phase-out of inefficient light bulbs in the United States that was signed into law five years ago by President George W. Bush. It was designed to reduce energy usage nationally from lighting by some 30 percent overall within three years. The benefits of the phase-out will be a savings of between $100 and $200 annually on electric bills in each American household—a total energy savings equivalent to the output of 30 large power plants—and reductions in global warming-inducing carbon pollution equivalent to taking 17 million cars off the road.

The first bulbs to disappear from store shelves are conventional 100 watt incandescents, but consumers can get compact fluorescent (CFL) or light emitting diode (LED) bulbs with similar light output instead. There are also some new more efficient incandescent bulbs that made the cut and will be available as replacements for conventional incandescents. In 2013, conventional 75 watt incandescents will be phased out, while conventional 60 and 40 watt bulbs will be phased out in 2014. Given the great alternatives available these days, most consumers will hardly notice any difference except lower electric bills.

As for what consumers should do to prepare themselves, the best advice is to get educated about the difference between power use and light output as we enter the brave new world of more efficient lighting. “Given the range of efficiencies the new bulbs provide, buying a bulb solely on the amount of power it uses no longer makes sense and we’ll have to shift to buying lumens,” reports Noah Horowitz of the Natural Resource Defense Council. “For example, a typical 60 watt light bulb produces around 800 lumens. The CFL that produces 800 lumens only uses 15 watts.” He adds that bulb packages will likely contain claims like “as bright as a 60 watt bulb” or “15W = 60W” to help consumers make the transition.

Horowitz adds that consumers looking to replace their old incandescents with new more efficient varieties should look for CFLs or LEDs marked as “warm white,” since the quality of light they give off will be most similar to that given off by old-school incandescents. “Those marketed as ‘cool white’ or ‘day light’ have much different light color, which only a small minority of consumers prefer,” says Horowitz.

Also, Horowitz warns that most CFLs are not dimmable and “may fail prematurely if installed in a dimming circuit.” So if your space features light sockets with dimming capability the best bet would be LED bulbs or newer more efficient incandescents. Specially marked dimmable CFL bulbs are also an option but at present are less commonly available.

As for whether to switch out your older incandescents with newer more efficient bulbs, the answer is maybe. According to Earth911, the leading source of information of how and where to recycle anything, consumers should consider the waste they will create by throwing out working albeit aging light bulbs. “If they aren’t spent, don’t trash them,” reports Earth911, adding that they can be used until they burn out—at which point more efficient bulbs can go in. Those who want to start saving energy now might consider donating older bulbs to local charities. Meanwhile, spent bulbs can be recycled. Earth911’s website can help find locations near you where old bulbs can be dropped off.

CONTACTS: Natural Resources Defense Council; Earth911.