The Eternal Flame

Compact Fluorescents are Cheap, Earth-Friendly and May Last Forever

Lighting accounts for 20 to 25 percent of all electricity sold in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). With Americans paying eight cents per kilowatt hour, energy-efficient lighting is starting to look very appealing to consumers. And because energy costs can also add up quickly from frequently-used appliances, small changes can equal big-time savings.

Compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), the most popular entry in the field, use a quarter of the energy to produce the same amount of light as incandescents, then produce significantly less thermal energy, and eliminate bulb changes to about once a decade. One bulb CFL can keep a dozen used incandescents out of landfills.

In the early 1980s, CFLs emerged as oddly-shaped, expensive, hard-to-fit bulbs whose appeal was elusive. Today, CFLs have not only captured 10 percent of the world market for lighting capacity (over 500 million are now in use), but their size, fit and function are much more diverse, bringing far fewer complaints from consumers. Indeed, Japan now gets over 80 percent of its home lighting from compact fluorescents.

Consumers now have the option of buying CFLs with dimmer switches, portable dimmer rings, and harp extenders for oddly-shaped bulbs. Screw-in adapters are also available to make sockets immediately ready for CFL use.

CFLs are categorized by what type of ballast each has, either magnetic or electronic. The ballast regulates the amount of current going to the lamp. According to Consumer Reports, magnetic ballasts are the best energy savers, averaging 15,000 hours. (In contrast, a 100-watt incandescent lasts 750 to 1,000 hours, wasting 95 percent of its energy producing heat instead of light.) Magnetic starters also last longer than electronic ones.

Good buys for magnetic ballast bulbs include General Electric’s Compax FLB15/TL ($15; produces the equivalent of 40+ watts; median lifespan 18,600+ hours), and Panasonic’s Light Capsule ($14; 40+ watt equivalent; median lifespan 18,600+ hours). High-rated electronic ballast bulbs include Osram’s Dulux ($22; 75+ watt equivalent; 11,200+ hour lifespan) and Panasonic’s Twin Light Capsule ($20; 75+ watt equivalent; 11,200+ hour lifespan).

Typically, an 18-watt CFL will save a homeowner $40 in electricity and $5 to $10 in replacement bulbs during the bulb’s lifetime (6 to 10 years). In addition, that one bulb will spare the Earth up to 2,000 pounds of CO2 and 20 pounds of sulfur dioxide from a coal-fired power plant.

Along with improved technology, CFL prices have dropped substantially. The average bulb now costs about $15, compared to $29 several years ago. Rebates from electrical companies had helped make them appealing nonetheless, but now companies are moving away from rebates and offering monetary incentives to CFL manufacturers to lower their prices to consumers. David Malin Roodman of the Worldwatch Institute says consumers are wary of CFLs because of their shape and cost. “They don’t fit in all standard fixtures,” he says. “And they’re never as small as incandescents. There’s also the high up-front cost.”

Another concern with older CFL tubes was the five milligrams of highly toxic mercury built into them. Newer bulbs, like Phillips’ Alto, have significantly lowered mercury content (it was only one percent of the amount in a household thermometer to begin with), and are classified by the EPA as “non-hazardous.” This drawback is mooted by the fact that CFLs cut mercury generation in half by lowering coal-burning power production, which emits far more mercury and arsenic into the atmosphere.

Other Alternatives to Incandescents

Other energy-efficient lighting solutions include halogen bulbs, fiber optics and E-lamps. Lasting twice as long as incandescents, about 1,500 to 2,000 hours, and creating 10 to 20 percent more light, halogens have become favorites for little used areas, enhancement lighting or dimmer lights. But because halogens run $3 to $10 apiece, most lighting experts recommend the compact fluorescent for long-term, energy-efficient savings.

E-lamps, also known as electronic lamps, use 75 percent less energy than incandescents by creating an electromagnetic field within the bulb to produce light. Phillips’ QL lamp was introduced to Europe in 1991, followed by GE’s Genura (1994). Because of the high-volume of orders from Europe, GE predicts the Genura won’t be available in the U.S. until sometime next year.

With fiber optics, another emerging option, light is captured in a funnel unit, directing a beam into a fiber-optic thread the thickness of pencil lead. Fiber optics are a great choice for lighting small areas, and the fixture creates no heat or ultraviolet energy, and is useful for paintings and heat/light-sensitive decor, because the fixtures are cool enough to handle. But the cost can be very high for integrated systems—$200 to $1,500.

Right now, CFLs present the best option for energy-efficient lighting, but rapid advances in technology mean that consumers should stay alert to new innovations.