Tech + Health

12.20.13

The Light Bulb Is Dead. Long Live the Light Bulb!

The government has begun phasing out the familiar 60-and-40-watt light bulbs. Is it time to hoard? No! Here are 3 alternatives to the energy hogging bulbs of the past.

Yes, it’s true the familiar 60-watt and 40-watt light bulbs are on their way out.

The Bush-era Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007 dictated a multi-year phase-out of the most commonly-used and inefficient light sources. And as of January 1, 2014, traditional 60-watt and 40-watt incandescent bulbs can no longer be manufactured or imported into the United States. This follows the 100-watt and 75-watt bulbs, which were eliminated on January 1 of 2012 and 2013, respectively.

While many incandescent specialty lamps, such as candle lamps and 3-way lamps, will still be available, does this mean that you should begin hoarding bulbs? Probably not. As with most new technologies, you will find that there are many choices that are just as good, and often better, than what you’re used to.

First of all, traditional incandescent light bulbs, which were invented 100 years ago, are tremendous electricity hogs.

Most of the energy they use is converted to heat, and not light (just try touching a 60W lamp that’s been on for a few minutes!). Not only is the electricity wasted by not creating the desired light, but in situations where cooling is required, even more electricity must be used by air conditioners to get rid of the additional heat. (Even if you don’t mind the additional heat, a light bulb is one of the least cost effective ways to produce it.)

While you’ll probably find 40-watt and 60-watt light bulbs on shelves until store inventories are depleted, there are already a multitude of new bulbs already available. And each one offers unique benefits, allowing consumers to select the best lighting source for their needs. There is no “best” bulb for every application. Instead, consumers are faced with a choice based on their personal preferences.

To help you make that decision, here’s a quick summary of the choices you’ll face the next time you need to buy a bulb.

1. Halogen Lamps (Amazon)

These are close cousins to the incandescent lamp. They have slightly different internal construction, allowing them to use only about 75% of the energy of their incandescent predecessors for the same light output. This can save you some money, making up for the slightly higher price of the lamp. The light of halogen lamps is slightly more “whiteish” than incandescent lamps. However, they work just as well as an incandescent lamp on any dimmer, and give you a nice familiar warm (orange) color when dimmed.

2. Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFL) (Amazon)

By now, everyone has seen these familiar “curly” lamps.

While early versions were often plagued by poor light quality, long warm-up times (until they reached full brightness), and premature failures, most major manufacturers have overcome these initial challenges. However, many CFL lamps don’t produce the true color consumers are used to, making them less-than-ideal for places like bedrooms, bathrooms, or kitchens, where accurate color of clothing or food is important.

Furthermore, CFLs may still suffer from long warm-up times when used in cold environments, such as in unheated spaces (or outdoors) in the winter. Finally, most CFL lamps are not dimmable (and those that can be dimmed cost much more, and don’t necessarily dim well), making them inappropriate for any spaces where dimming control is desired. Despite these drawbacks, CFLs are much more energy efficient than incandescent lamps, using only about 25% of the power of an incandescent for the same light output. On top of this, their long lifetime, 8-10 times that of an incandescent, makes up for their slightly higher price.

3. Light Emitting Diode (LED) Lamps (Amazon)

These lamps are a product of the semiconductor age, and thus share many characteristics with other consumer electronics: falling prices, rapid product change, and a myriad of choices and features.

Despite this, LED lamps hold the most promise for changing the way consumers experience lighting. LED lighting sources use the same basic technology as the LED displays on your TV, cellphone, or laptop, but wrapped into a more familiar bulb shape. In fact, today you’re likely to see LED lamps made by recognized consumer electronics brands. Like CFLs, early LED products were plagued with poor light quality and high prices. However, rapid innovation by major manufacturers has driven prices down and quality up.

Today’s LED lamps can provide excellent color quality, excellent energy savings (16% or less of an incandescent source for the same light output), and very long life—sometimes measured in decades!

Furthermore, most LED lamps are dimmable—but make sure you look for “dimmable” or “works with dimmers” somewhere on the package to be sure. Their dimming performance will rarely match that of an incandescent, but it is getting better as the technology improves. All of these benefits come at a cost—literally.

Most LED lamps are much more expensive than any other available bulb types, with lamps usually costing between $10 and $50 each. Some local utilities offer instant rebates that lower these prices, and continuing innovation is expected to drive them even lower in coming years. Typically, the energy savings makes up for the higher initial cost, allowing the lamps to pay for themselves after only a year or two. After that, additional energy savings are putting money in your pocket. Some of the most innovative products are giving a preview of how lighting my change in the future by offering color changing and remote control capabilities.

Besides changes in light bulbs, many consumers are showing increased interest in dimming and lighting controls. In some parts of the country, such as California, demand is being driven by building code requirements. However, in many cases, customers are interested in saving more energy (which happens no matter which light source is used) and improving the ambiance of their homes.

The potential widespread adoption of these new light sources brings with it new challenges when it comes to dimmers. Most dimmers installed today were designed and manufactured years, if not decades, ago—long before the invention of CFL and LED lamps. Existing dimmers are not likely to perform well when paired with modern lamps. To help, most major dimmer manufacturers, such as Lutron, where I work, have come out with new dimmers designed specifically for use with CFL and LED lamps. Furthermore, dimmer manufacturers provide guidance online to help consumers understand which lamps have been tested and confirmed to work with the desired control.  Make sure you choose a dimmer manufacturer who provides readily-accessible information on compatible lamps and dimmers. One such source is Lutron’s LED Center of Excellence.

While the old and familiar lamps are going the way of the VHS tape, these new lamps are responding to a national need for greater energy efficiency, and are improving rapidly to provide the type of light and performance consumers expect from their traditional Edison bulb. When modern light sources are paired with modern dimmers, consumers will get the same light quality they expect, while saving money in the process.