Shedding some light on the confusion about new light bulb rules
New federal standards were to kick in after Jan. 1 requiring 100-watt bulbs to be more energy efficient. Then Congress, in a bill passed this month to keep the government running, blocked enforcement of the new law until October 2012.
So is this the beginning of the end for the warm incandescent glow as we know it?
Here's what you need to know about buying light bulbs and how spending more can save you money:
First of all, what federal standards are we talking about?
The Energy Independence and Security Act became law in December 2007. It is wide-ranging, tackling topics from vehicle fuel economy and alternative automobile technologies to industrial energy efficiency, solar power and more.
The law has a section that sets energy-efficiency standards for "general service incandescent lamps."
It's code for everyday-use incandescent light bulbs, the kind you screw in to the lamp in the living room.
The law doesn't cover specialty bulbs such as black lights, bug lamps or plant lights; it also doesn't affect the 40-watt-or-less light bulbs you'd find in the refrigerator or oven.
What do the new rules demand?
Four of today's commonly purchased incandescent bulbs are targeted: 100, 75, 60 and 40 watt bulbs. The wattage refers to the amount of power the light bulbs draw. They're energy and money wasters because much of the power they consume is released as heat, not light.
As of Jan. 1, 2012, a bulb that puts out the same amount of light as today's 100-watt bulb is required to draw no more than 72 watts of power. In January 2013 and January 2014, similar new standards will go into effect for the other three light wattages.
Without funding to enforce the law, won't it just be business as usual for the 100-watt incandescent bulb?
Terry McGowan, director of engineering for the American Lighting Association, an industry trade group, doesn't think the last-minute politicking will change what the consumer sees on shelves.
Major light bulb makers started planning for this transition after the law passed in 2007, and have already invested in technologies to meet the more stringent specifications.
Retailers will be able to keep selling their supply of 100-watt incandescents until they're out of stock.
Manufacturers are continuing to make a new version of incandescent bulbs that meet the stricter standards.
What do I need to know to replace an existing 100-watt bulb?
The most useful new vocabulary word is "lumens," a measure of the amount of light a bulb produces.
An existing 100-watt bulb gives about 1,600 lumens. The Federal Trade Commission has started requiring light-bulb makers to adorn packages with a new "Lighting Facts" label that lists brightness in lumens, so you can compare.
The package label also specifies how "warm" or "cool" the bulb's light will be. The Department of Energy has a useful chart online that can help you figure out whether the bulb you really like is warm or cool: www.energysavers.gov/.
The site also has helpful charts that show the energy cost savings for new bulbs.
Another phrase to watch for is "halogen incandescent." Halogen bulbs, like regular incandescent bulbs, use a tungsten filament encased in a halogen gas-filled capsule that lets the filament burn hotter and more efficiently.
The newer halogen bulbs look like regular incandescent bulbs, and they're safer and cooler because the inner halogen tube is tucked inside a second bulb.
Does this mean I can forget about compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and other new kinds of light bulbs?
You might not want to. The Department of Energy says the new halogen incandescent bulbs are about 25 percent more energy-efficient than today's bulbs.
Compact fluorescent bulbs are 75 percent more efficient, last 10 times longer and, while they're more expensive, can pay for themselves in nine months.
The CFL technology is improving. It's possible to find instant-on and dimmable models that aren't reminiscent of the office bathroom.
Light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, are about 75 to 80 percent more efficient and are meant to last 25 times longer than a regular incandescent light bulb.
They're still much more expensive -- $25 for a single 60-watt-equivalent bulb recently on Home Depot's website, compared with about $5 for a five-pack of CFLs -- but prices are expected to drop as more people start using them.
Excuse me, did you say $25 for a light bulb?
Yep. The upfront costs, even for certain compact fluorescent bulbs, can be hard to swallow if you're used to paying less than $1 for incandescent bulbs, even if you know the investment will pay off down the road in longer bulb life and energy savings.
In the new era of energy-efficient lighting, we need to wrap our heads around the fact that shopping for a new light bulb is no longer akin to restocking the milk in the fridge, it's more like purchasing an appliance, McGowan says.
He recommends buying Energy Star-qualified bulbs, because they have a replacement program if the bulbs fail.
• Smartphone app for choosing light bulb replacements: www.lightbulbfinder.net/
• Lumen, an industry coalition: lumennow.org/
Department of Energy sites about light bulbs:
• Environmental Protection Agency summary of the 2007 law: www.epa.gov/lawsregs/laws/eisa.html
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