You may have heard by now: the classic incandescent light bulb is on its way out. Because incandescent light bulbs are some of the least efficient on the market—wasting up to 90% of electricity as heat instead of light—they are being phased out of production and what’s on the shelves and in warehouses now is all that’s left.
The changes are due to the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which requires new light bulbs to be more energy efficient than the bulbs we are used to buying. 100-watt and 75-watt traditional incandescent bulbs were retired in 2012 and 2013, respectively, and, starting this year, 60-watt bulbs and 40-watt bulbs are also required to meet new efficiency standards.
To be clear, only "standard" bulbs that need to meet the new requirements. Plenty of bulbs are exempt from the new standards—including appliance lamps, rough service bulbs, 3-way bulbs, colored lamps, stage lighting, plant lights, candelabra lights under 60 watts, and outdoor post lights less than 100 watts.
What that means, though, is that soon, when you're looking for a new light bulb, your options on store shelves are going to be a little different.
What are my light bulb options?
Instead of going to the store and grabbing an incandescent off the shelf, you now have several options when shopping for light bulbs:
- Energy-saving incandescents (halogen): These lower wattage incandescent bulbs have a tungsten filament like standard bulbs, but are surrounded by a halogen gas, rather than argon or nitrogen, to provide bright light with better efficiency. These are 25% more efficient than traditional incandescent bulbs and will last three times as long.
- Compact fluorescents (CFLs): You've probably seen these curly, bulb-sized fluorescents on sale. Though early versions tended to offer harsh light, new bulbs have more color options and are even styled to look like traditional incandescent bulbs. These bulbs offer 75% energy savings over an incandescent and last ten times as long.
- LEDs: The most efficient option, LED bulbs are 75-80% more efficient than traditional incandescents and last 25 times longer.
How much will I save with the new light bulbs?
All of these bulbs will cost more than a traditional incandescent bulb—halogen incandescents being the least expensive and LEDs being the most expensive—but the energy savings will add up over time. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates you'll save $6 a year for each incandescent you upgrade to a CFL—and the savings only grow over time, since these bulbs all last significantly longer and won't require replacing as often as a standard incandescent. If you replace 15 bulbs in your house, expect to save $50 in energy costs every year—and on top of that, you won't have to buy light bulbs nearly as often.
So long as you buy Energy Star certified light bulbs, which are tested to meet specific efficiency standards, you're guaranteed savings with these bulbs—even though you'll spend more up front. Want to know exactly how much a bulb is going to cost you? Check out the label, which should tell you how much it will cost to use for a year as well as how long it will last.
What about the light quality of these bulbs?
If you're looking to replace specific bulbs in your household, you're probably used to picking up a bulb that's 60-watt, 75-watt, or the like—but these measurements, based on how much energy the bulb used, are not an accurate way to tell how much light bulbs produce.
Instead look at the "lumens" which is a measure of how much light a bulb produces before you buy it. Here's a cheat sheet:
- If you used to buy 100 watt bulbs, look for a bulb with 1600 lumens.
- If you used to buy 75 watt bulbs, look for a bulb with 1100 lumens.
- If you used to buy 60 watt bulbs, look for a bulb with 800 lumens.
- If you used to buy 40 watt bulbs, look for a bulb with 450 lumens.
Another new option you'll see is color temperature. Because few people are fond of the harshness of fluorescent lights, most CFLs now come in colors designed to mimic the warmth of an incandescent bulb. Color is measured in Kelvins, ranging from 2,700 K (the warm light of typical incadescents) up to around 5,500 K (proving a daylight or natural tone). Though all of these bulbs produce white light, warmer lights will have a more yellow tint—better for bedrooms and other soft lighting conditions—while cooler lights will have a blue tint—better for reading. Check the packaging to see what kind of light a bulb produces before you buy—and if you're not sure what colors you want, go to your local hardware store to see different lights on display.
Are new bulbs safe?
It's true: compact fluorescent lights have a small amount of mercury inside. In standard use, the mercury stays inside the bulb and there's no risk. However, if you break a bulb, you'll want to take care to clean it up following these instructions from the EPA. But don't be too alarmed, according to the EPA, CFLs contain a very small amount of mercury—less than 1/100th of the amount in a mercury thermometer.
When your bulb has burned out, you should recycle it to prevent that mercury from winding up in a landfill. Your city or waste collection provider may offer recycling services, but many major retailers also accept CFLs for recycling. Home Depot, Lowes, IKEA, Ace Hardware, and TrueValue will all recycle bulbs—just check with your retailer when you buy your bulb to see what to do.
[light bulb image via Shutterstock]