Of CFLs, LEDs, and modern lighting in general

Compact Fluorescent and LED light bulbs just couldn’t stay out of the news this week, and boy, is there some bad information still out there.

Let’s start with Velvet Underground drummer Moe Tucker, who recently discovered a form of libertarianism after years of voting a straight Democratic ticket. She said three things about CFLs in an interview with Village Voice Media:

1. They’re bright as a candle

Sounds like she tried some when they first became commercially available. The first 40w equivalents I bought in 2002-03 weren’t as bright as the 40w bulbs they replaced, and I really didn’t like them when I tried them in place of 60 and 100 watt bulbs. But today’s CFLs really are as bright or brighter than the equivalent incandescent bulb, and you can get them in at least three different color temperatures, like incandescent bulbs.

Eventually I took to just putting 23W CFLs everywhere, regardless of what incandescent I’d been using. I don’t have to do that anymore. Today’s 7W CFLs really are usable anywhere a 40w incandescent was acceptable.

2. They’re expensive

They cost $3-$6, depending on wattage, but they last a long time. I suspected mine were burning out prematurely, so about three years ago I started writing the date of purchase on the bulb when I installed it. None of those bulbs have burned out yet, so they last at least three years, which is about six times as long as a decent incandescent bulb. And in the meantime, they’re saving you money on your electric bill.

But, depending on where you live, they might not cost anywhere near that. My local utility subsidizes them, so I can buy 40, 60, and 100w equivalent CFLs for around 50 cents. (Specialty bulbs, like dimmables and globes, are still full price.) The local utility does this because CFLs cost less than building new power plants. So essentially, they’re willing to pay the premium over incandescents if I’m willing to use them.

The Rev. Larry Rice, an outspoken St. Louis pastor who works with the poor and homeless, gets companies to donate CFLs and he gives them away at his food pantries. His reasoning is that if he can get the poor to use CFLs, their electric bills will drop, freeing up money for their other necessities.

3. And they contain mercury! How are you supposed to dispose of them?

Take them to your nearest Home Depot. There’s a box right inside the entrance where you can deposit your burned-out CFLs. They’ve been doing this for two years.

I’ve been using CFLs for years and I put up with the growing pains because they saved me money. We’re talking $10-$20 per month, but who wouldn’t want $10 more per month? Lighting is 20% of your electric bill, on average, so when you can cut your lighting bill by 75-80%, that’s not chump change. It doesn’t take long to recoup the investment anymore.

So I’m willing to go to bat for CFLs, but I’m looking forward to LED bulbs. In fact, I intend to buy more of them this year, even though I’ll be paying the early adopter tax. I’ve tried the $20 LED bulb from Home Depot, and I intend to try the $18 LED bulb from Lowe’s too.

Even at early adopter pricing, those bulbs have their uses.

I have dimmer switches in my sons’ rooms. For that reason, they were the last bastion of incandescent lighting in the house. A month or two ago, I bought a package of dimmable CFLs to try them out. I paid $8 per bulb. They work, but when I turn the dimmer to about 50%, they go out completely.

I knew there was a reason I didn’t buy six bulbs. More on that in a second.

So it might be time for a new dimmer switch. I priced those. They’re about 10 bucks.

But I tried the Home Depot LED bulb in one son’s room. It’s dimmable (the Lowe’s bulb reportedly isn’t). Not only is it dimmable, but it works over the full range of the dimmer switch.

So, with two dimmable CFLs and one LED bulb, one son’s room is dimmable with the switch I have. At 50% the lighting drops off considerably of course, but it’s usable. As the CFLs fail, I can swap in LED bulbs. By the time that happens, LED bulbs may very well cost $8.

So I can replace a switch and use all CFLs. Or I can use the switch I have and put at least one LED bulb in each room. The LED bulb costs $2 more than a new switch and a dimmable CFL, and takes 30 seconds to install.

It should take me about 15 minutes to install a new switch, including the time to get to the basement and find the right breaker to throw. (Isn’t it labeled? Har!) But I like 30 seconds better. It’s much easier to get 30 seconds alone in my sons’ rooms than 15 minutes.

I think I’m willing to pay full price for three more LED bulbs. One for the other son’s room, which I’ll probably do this weekend, and then to replace a couple of lights that tend to be on for really long stretches of time, so every watt counts. The LED bulb will save me two watts over a CFL. That isn’t a lot, but coupled with the other benefits, it’s worth it. Maybe. Just in those instances.

Like CFLs, early LED lights had issues. But I’m happy with the light Home Depot sells. It’s more yellow than blue, and it’s the cold, harsh blue light that people usually find objectionable. And they don’t put out any ultraviolet light, so they won’t fade the pictures on your walls and they won’t attract bugs. In five years, I may be able to get a nice, high powered LED bulb to use in my outdoor lights. I’m looking forward to that.

Right now you can get a better variety of color temperatures from CFLs than you can from LEDs.

Tomorrow’s LED bulbs will be cheaper, and probably better. If they’re noticeably better, I’ll just rotate the bulbs I have today into less-important roles.

In the meantime, there’s nothing at all wrong with picking up a couple of packages of CFLs and catching the low-hanging fruit, especially if your local utility subsidizes them. By the time those bulbs run out, LEDs should be even better and more affordable than they are today.

6 thoughts on “Of CFLs, LEDs, and modern lighting in general

  • October 25, 2010 at 10:47 am

    Do you know of any CFL or LED bulbs that have 2 circuits? I have a bedside lamp that has four switch positions, and can use a bulb marked as (say) 30/70/100 Watts. The switch switches between using the 30W filament, the 70W filament and both of them (and off, of course) to give different amounts of light without using a dimmer. I find it useful (though slightly annoying when one filament burns out long before the other). Anyway, I’d be interested in CFL or LED bulbs that support this

    • October 25, 2010 at 6:28 pm

      Unfortunately I don’t, and with you being in the UK, what’s available to me may not be the same for you. I’d suggest going to one of the large DIY stores that has a large selection of bulbs and ask. Hopefully yours aren’t like the ones here, where when you walk in, the employees yell, “RUN!” and take off, and you hear the theme from “Chariots of Fire” and never see them again.

      That feature is something that may take a little more time to appear, but with incandescent bulbs due to be discontinued entirely in some countries, that’s a gap that some manufacturer is going to have to find a way to fill, somehow. We have plenty of 3-way lamps here too, and people aren’t just going to throw those out.

  • October 25, 2010 at 11:00 pm

    Heh. Actually, I live in St Louis. I’d never seen a 3-way lamp until I moved here nearly 10 years ago. 🙂

    • October 28, 2010 at 9:35 pm

      I had a thought this evening. Since you’re in St. Louis, give Home Eco a call at 314-351-2000. If anyone in St. Louis has that type of bulb, it’s them.

  • November 3, 2010 at 8:16 pm

    I like the LED bulbs from ccrane.com. They work well. My sons enjoy the color changing LED bulb in their room while they sleep. I haven’t tried any of the 60 W replacements but they have good reviews. They are supposed to last longer then the lowe’s or HD versions.

    • November 4, 2010 at 6:49 pm

      Thanks, Dave. I’ll look into those.

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