Urban Natural Homes February 7, 2013

Shedding Some Light on Energy Efficient Light Bulbs


Is anyone else out there as confused about the current light bulb situation as I am? I know that incandescent bulbs' days are numbered—and I want to do the right thing with more energy efficient options. But every time I go to the store determined to make a real change I falter. First off, the most common alternatives always seem to give off a weird-colored light when I get them home, so I just end up switching back to my comfortable incandescent bulbs. And secondly, why are the alternatives so expensive?

But again, the times they are a-changing, and I know this. So with that thought in mind I sat down to do some research. Currently the most common energy efficient alternatives are CFL (Compact Florescent Light) bulbs. CFLs last up to 10 times longer than incandescents and use 50-80% less energy. Although initially more expensive, you do end up saving money in the long run due to less energy usage and longer bulb life. They have limitations however, including on/off cycling (their efficacy is reduced when the bulb is turned on and off a lot), not all are dimmable, and they contain a small amount of mercury, a toxic metal, which may be released if the bulb is broken.

As mentioned, an additional major limitation as far as I’m concerned is their apparent inability to match the warm, natural light I am used to with incandescents. It turns out that in order to understand this phenomenon we need to discuss the “Coloring Rendering Index” (CRI). CRI represents quality of light and its faithfulness to render colors correctly, that is, to enable us to perceive colors as we know them. The ideal CRI is 100, and some incandescent bulbs approach this level. The best CFLs, however, have ratings only in the mid 80s, which explains why CFLs just seem “off” color-wise.

Enter LED (Light Emitting Diodes) bulbs. LED bulbs are the up and coming energy efficient alternative. Their CRI rating currently ranges from 70 to 95 (still not 100, but much better), they last up to 10 times longer than CFL bulbs (making them even more energy efficient), and they have none of CFL bulbs' limitations. After doing the research, it’s apparent that CFLs are a temporary solution to energy-efficient lighting and that LED bulbs will eventually be what we use to replace incandescent bulbs. The reason LEDs have not yet displaced CFLs in the market are twofold: the first generation LED bulbs had a too narrow and focused light beam, and the cost of the LED bulbs was too high. The “sticker shock” of the latest LEDs still remains a deterrent to widespread acceptance by consumers, despite greater savings over time than even CFL bulbs. Developments in LED technology, however, will undoubtedly continue to address this issue until the point at which they become the norm.

So what to do in the meantime? I plan to experiment. Many retailers are receiving subsidies from the government that enable them to greatly reduce the price on some energy efficient bulbs in an attempt to sway buyers to the energy efficient alternatives. I’ll try a few of these LED bulbs now to test them out and will continue to try updated versions as they develop. I’m also going to try putting less expensive CFLs in areas where the color cast isn’t as important to me, such as in basements, garages, closets, hallways, etc. We are obviously in a real transition phase, but it’s good to know that we are moving in the right direction and that viable, affordable energy efficient lighting does appear to be on the horizon.