Seeing the light: myths about light bulbs

Amy Musser

One of the most surprising and frustrating aspects of working in the “energy efficiency industry” is the sheer number and prevalence of myths about light bulbs.  Buying a light bulb and putting it in a residential light fixture just is not that complicated.  (This sounds like the great lead-in for a joke… how many hippies does it take to screw in a light bulb?)

A lot of people think that LEDs (light emitting diodes) are a lot more efficient than CFLs (compact fluorescent lamps).  I’m not exactly sure why people think this, except that they must be assuming that if one costs $1 and the other costs $30 and they have the same light output, then the $30 one must be more efficient.

Actually, I just checked the shelves of my local home improvement store and the 60 Watt replacement CFL uses 14 Watts, while the LED uses 10 Watts.  The LED is better, but at current costs I estimate that it takes about 72,500 hours of operation until it saves you any money over a CFL.  That’s about 8 years of on-time, so if you don’t have the money to upgrade from CFLs to LEDs right now, you don’t need to feel guilty.

Did you see what else I just did there?  I compared the two lamps based on their “equivalency” to the old-style incandescent light bulb.  I did that so I can bash on how inefficient those are later and make an attempt to pry those things out of your cold, dead hands.  Both of these “new” technologies use about one-fifth or one-sixth of the energy that incandescent bulbs use, so why anyone would want to hoard old-style light bulbs is a mystery to me.  It’s like going to the gas pump and choosing to pay $6 per gallon instead of $1 per gallon.

Some people tell me that they’re waiting until their incandescent bulbs die, and then changing them out.  I like the idea of using things up and not throwing away something that works, but you really are throwing away dollars and polluting the environment.  At the hardware store CFLs now cost less than incandescent lamps.  But even if you already own it and assume that the incandescent lamp is free, the payback for a $1 CFL happens in about 200 hours of operation (8 days of on-time).

One myth that’s sort of true but doesn’t have to be is that CFLs have terrible color rendering.  Everyone, including me, has bought one that made everything in their house look kind of green.  I suspect the problem is that it costs more to make a CFL that renders colors well, putting pressure on manufacturers to produce a product that’s just barely acceptable.

15 years ago, I got some $8 CFLs that were called “incandescent fluorescent” because they’d been designed to render colors almost identically to an incandescent lamp.  I promise, you would not have been able to tell the difference.  It’s not the technology’s fault, it’s an economic problem.  I recommend that when you buy CFLs you try one and see if you like it.  You can return it if you don’t, or go back and buy more if you do.   It also helps to buy Energy Star bulbs, becuase they have some basic criteria for color rendering built into their requirements.

By the way, the same issue applies to LEDs.  I recently bought three MR16 replacements to put on some artwork in my entry hall, and they made the red look awful.  I returned one of them and kept the halogen in the center of the fixture.  That one gives me decent color, and the two LEDs are an efficient way to add to the brightness.  My house isn’t the Louvre, so it works OK.

There’s a political conspiracy myth that comes around my facebook feed and in email forwards – have you heard that Obama’s trying to take your light bulbs and force you to buy the toxic green kind?  Please check with Wikipedia before you forward this stuff to me or anyone else.  Actually, the legislation was passed in 2007 (Obama took office in 2008), by congress (which is actually how we make laws in the US).  So, even if you believe that the President controls what congress does, this would mean that George Bush is coming to take your light bulbs.  Maybe he only did it to sabotage Obama’s second term.  We’d better analyze this one some more.

Finally, there’s the big issue:  the mercury!  CFLs contain a small amount of mercury.  How much?  Coincidentally about the same amount that is emitted by a power plant to power the equivalent incandescent light bulb.  So ironically, refusal to use CFLs because of “the mercury” does nothing to reduce the amount of mercury that’s out there for people to be exposed to.  You’re just putting it into the air so that all of us are exposed.  I’m keeping it inside my light bulbs, where I can make sure it’s recycled or cleaned up properly if one breaks.  How nice of me.

Unless a CFL breaks, it releases no mercury at all.  If it does break, you don’t have to call a hazmat team to clean it up.  You should take a few easy precautions that involve duct tape, Ziploc bags, and paper towels.  If you don’t have these things in your house already, you should really stock up.  Even if you totally botch this, the amount of mercury involved is less than 1/100 of what’s in a mercury thermometer. If you’re over 30, you’ve probably broken at least one of those in your life and not cleaned that up properly.

But, the argument usually goes, your view of healthy living and/or parenting is to take a zero-tolerance approach to hazardous materials.  No one understands where this sentiment comes from more than I do, but I’d also like to just observe that you are living on the wrong planet.  Does your zero-tolerance stance on mercury extend to eating fish or fish oil?  Oh, and guess where the fish get mercury?  Power plant emissions is one of the big sources: air pollution eventually gets into the water, and then into the fish.  Wow, I wish there were some easy, low-cost options for reducing power plant emissions….  Maybe in my next blog I’ll think of some.

Does your zero tolerance approach include other chemicals?  If so, you might want to surf around the “other pollutants and toxics” section of the EPA’s web site, where you can learn about all sorts of other stuff that I’m sure you’re not using in your house.  Things like candles, prescription medication, Teflon, pressure-treated wood, and cleaning products.  And if you need to use them, I’m sure you’re handling and disposing of them as recommended to keep us all safe.

By the way, CFLs represent only about 1/100th of a percent of annual mercury emissions in the US, and 98.9% of the mercury in a CFL is recovered if it is recycled properly.  Most hardware stores have recycling programs, including Ace Hardware, Home Depot, Ikea, and Lowe’s.  If you happen to live in an area where recycling isn’t convenient, you can get mail-in kits.

There really just isn’t any rational excuse, but if you or someone you know is determined to cling to irrational ones, then fine.  The cost of doing that is about $30 each for LED bulbs.  Otherwise, spend a dollar and do the easiest, smallest thing possible to benefit your planet.  It’s the least you can do.