info 09.23.14

Green: Lightbulbs
Every Person in New York

Setting aside the environmental advantages of the new lightbulbs, the move away from incandescent was not a happy prospect for anyone who likes the warmth of incandescent bulbs since the alternative was a mortuarial cast to your home or office. Fine if you're a pathologist—if not, not.

Even though the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 calls for phasing out incandescents beginning this year, the good news is that the last few years have seen a lot of creative energy expended on designing more efficient bulbs and the quality of light is improving.

The new bulbs are measured in lumens rather than watts—450 lumens is 40W, 1600 lumens is 100W. The new bulbs cost more—sometimes a lot more, though they are likely to keep dropping in price. Generally speaking, their longer life span means you will use less energy and reduce bulb replacement costs (a PDF reference sheet of cost/benefits from NRDC). But some manufacturers were exaggerating claims, according to the FTC, and a federal court ordered the companies to pay $21 million for misleading consumers. In any case, bulb life will vary by individual use.

The biggest resistance to the new bulbs (besides price) is the quality of light they emit. When shopping, look for the labeling of color temperature and the Color Rendering Index (CRI). These will give you a good idea of what kind of light you'll get from the bulb. The color temperature isn't intuitive: a 2000k bulb is a warm incandescent while a higher color temperature will be a cooler light. The higher the CRI, the more accurate the rendering of color. The Energy Star seal of approval requires 80 CRI or higher. The way a light starts up, whether it flickers and whether it makes noise is a function of the ballast. Electronic ballasts are preferred since they eliminate the noise and flickers. Magnetic ballasts may cause those problems.

Other things to keep in mind include the direction of the light from the bulbs since different bulb shapes may throw light differently. More and more of the new bulbs can be dimmed but not all. Breakage and disposal are of particular concern with compact fluorescent lightbulbs, since they contain mercury.

The old incandescents will retire, but in their place come more efficient incandescents (28% improved efficiency by the use of halogen). But: they cost more, the light isn't as warm, there's more glare and they burn hotter. More on the halogen incandescents.

Much-maligned, compact fluorescent lightbulbs have improved light quality since their introduction, though tolerance is still a matter of taste. Some, but not all, can be dimmed and they're not advisable for outdoor use. CFLs last roughly 10 years. You'll have to do some serious damage control if they break and you need to dispose of them properly.

Light emitting diodes have a lot going for them. They're long-lasting (up to 25 times longer than incandescents) and use 75% less energy, they don't contain mercury, many are dimmable, and they can produce warm and cool light across a spectrum. Up-front cost is still high. How to choose an LED light bulb.

The Cambridge, Mass company Finally has created what they call an acandescent bulb, which promises to offer the warm light of an incandescent and the energy efficiency and durability of LEDs at a pre-order cost of $10 a bulb. Significant downside: contains mercury. Shipping to begin this fall.

Jason Polan started Every Person in New York in March of 2008. He plans on working on the project until it is finished. Look for Every Person in New York on Tuesdays in MUG and daily at Jason's site.

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