04 May 2010

Lighten Up

The green building program requires that at least 80% of our lighting be CFLs (compact fluorescent lights). With some of our lighting having special sockets that will only accept halogen or other non-CFL bulbs, that means all of our "regular" lighting has to be CFLs. But the benefits of this new technology mean that we would have chosen those wacky spiral bulbs anyway.

There seems to be a lot of confusion about the advantages and disadvantages of this new-ish technology. Sure, by now everyone knows (or should know) that CFLs save energy but cost more, but let's explore this further. As I write this, I'm looking at a 4-pack of CFL bulbs that cost about $8-10. They're designed to replace 75 watt bulbs...but they're only 18 watts. Unlike incandescent bulbs, which waste a lot of their energy making heat instead of light, these CFLs' 18 watts go almost entirely to making light, and saving energy saves money. Most CFL packages gleefully advertise how much you will save by using them; this one says you can save up to $55 in energy costs by replacing just four regular bulbs. So...if a regular bulb costs about a dollar, you'll save about $50 over the life of the four CFLs you replace. But wait -- there's more! You'll actually save more than that because CFLs last many times longer than incandescent bulbs, so you're saving the cost of buying replacement bulbs, too. AND (don't I sound like an infomercial?) you're not creating extra heat in the house that your air conditioner is just going to have to work harder to compensate for (during the summer, anyway).

Now let's consider the (alleged) down side of CFLs.
  • People say they don't like the fluorescent blue color of CFLs. I don't like that hospital look in my home, either -- but if you shop wisely, you can avoid it. CFLs come in a range of "color temperatures" -- from 2700° kelvin, which turns everything in its wake Harvest Gold, to 6500°, which is that way-too-blue fluorescent color. In the middle are 3500° and 4100°, which give off nice white light, and those are the ones you want to look for. Lowe's has a brand called Bright Effects that come in three colors -- 2700, 3500, and 6500, with the packages color-coded to match the color of the light. You can't go wrong with the 3500 bulbs in the pale blue package.
  • Some people also don't like the look of the spiral bulbs in exposed fixtures, but some manufacturers have started to encase the spirals in glass spheres that look like regular bulbs. (I don't know how available these are in 3500s, though.)
  • CFLs don't generally work with dimmers. Some dimmer-compatible CFLs are starting to come on the market, but they are really expensive (more than $10/bulb) and, again, they're limited in color choices. We gave a lot of thought to this option and even tested a few at the temporary house before deciding against using them. Over the next couple of years, as the technology improves, we'll probably make the transition.
  • There is concern over the mercury content in CFLs. That's a legitimate concern. I think mercury-free CFLs are on the horizon, but until then, if you break a CFL, you need to be really careful about cleanup. Or -- better -- be really careful not to break CFLs.
That's probably everything you ever wanted to know about CFLs, but if you want more information, check out this page of the Energy Star website (which, by the way, states the average savings per bulb at $30 and says CFLs last ten times as long as incandescent bulbs!).

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