This blog contains some simple tips and advice from two regular guys. We're not accountants, financial advisors, or brokers, so follow, ignore, or discuss our ideas as you see fit.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

In search of the frugal bulb

Posted by Matt

Here is yet another post inspired by the recent energy audit. One of the bonuses that came with our audit was a set of free compact fluorescent bulbs. We received three of the spiral bulbs to put in the pendant lights over our kitchen island and three enclosed floodlights in our foyer.

I was initially excited when I read we would be getting these with the energy audit. CFL's use less than the quarter of the power required by an equivalent incandescent (reducing electric bills) and they can last ten times as long (reducing replacement costs). From the CFL Wikipedia article linked above:

"A household that invested $90 in changing 30 fixtures to CFLs would save $440 to $1,500 over the five-year life of the bulbs, depending on your cost of electricity. Look at your utility bill and imagine a 12 percent discount to estimate the savings."

BUT....then I found out that the CFL's do have a few significant drawbacks:

  • The CFL bulbs are dim when initially lit and get brighter as they heat up. They probably reach maximum brightness after only a few minutes, but this does make them a poor choice for the foyer. We typically flick those lights on when guests arrive or when we are on the way out the door, so we often only see them as dim. Also, [from Wikipedia] "The life of a CFL lamp is significantly shorter if it is only turned on for a few minutes at a time: In the case of a 5-minute on/off cycle the lifespan of a CFL can be up to 85% shorter, reducing its lifespan to the level of an incandescent lamp. The US Energy Star program says to leave them on at least 15 minutes at a time to eliminate this problem." So much for the foyer bulbs.
  • The CFL's contain mercury, so they can't be thrown in the garbage. Our energy auditor instructed us to take them to a local recycling center. Also, if they break, you have to be very careful with the cleanup (use damp paper towels instead of a vacuum and seal everything used in plastic, THEN take to the recycling center).
  • The light quality is just not quite right. We figured having the CFL's in the kitchen would allow us to maximize our energy savings as those are the lights we most frequently use, but their high usage level also means we want the best light quality possible.
  • Cost wasn't an issue for the initial set, but they are slightly more expensive than regular incandescent light bulbs. This was the least of our concerns as their longer service life reduces their effective cost.

So, I haven't exactly been won over by the CFL's yet, but I'm in no hurry to remove them either, so I am saving some money there. If nothing else, hey, free light bulbs.

Just before we had the new CFL's installed, I read an article about LED bulbs. These sounded even more promising than the CFL's! They are solid-state (meaning MUCH less fragile), turn on instantly to full brightness without flicker or hum, produce no heat, use 1/3 the electricity of CFL's and last 5-10 times as long. AND, no mercury. I found the bulb recommended by the magazine online and read the manufacturer's claim that this bulb would save me $450 over its lifetime. Good thing, too, because the price was $99 "on sale".

Everything I'm reading about LED's indicates that they are the future of lighting (plus, it looked so COOL), so I decided to put up the money to see for myself. I ordered a bulb.

Now, before I give you the results of my experiment, I must admit that the manufacturer does not intend this particular bulb as a replacement of the standard incandescent bulb used in most home applications. It produces a directed white light, which I could have tested better with a desk lamp (if I had one). When I received it, I put it in one of the kitchen pendants to compare with the overhead incandescents and the CFL's in the other pendants. In comparison, the light was very cold and bluish. Just for fun, I also tried it in a lamp and the pictures show the difference (incandescent on the left):

If you haven't guessed by now, we did end up sending this bulb back. However, I did so very reluctantly. I'm so impressed with the light bulbs efficiency, and durability is always a big plus for me, but I'd like to find a bulb with light quality that is better suited to our applications, and also wait for the prices to come down before committing to upgrading the whole house.

One final point that I want to make on behalf of both the CFL's and LED's is that they will be especially important as enabling technologies. Right now, there are a lot of alternative energy options available (e.g., solar, wind, etc.) that are still maturing to the point where they can handle all of our modern energy needs. Reducing our energy requirements by using these new types of bulbs has the potential to make alternative energy sources feasible much sooner.

The future is bright!


Canadian Dream said...


Keep in mind the mecury in the CFL are nothing compared to the amount emitted by the coal burning power plant to produce the extra power for a regular bulb in the first place.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for such a thorough exploration of these lighting options. Very helpful for those of us who are investigating ways to reduce our carbon footprint.