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New light bulb lexicon

New government guidelines are taking incandescent bulbs off the market, leaving us with compact fluorescents and LEDs. But now there's a new language for bulb shoppers to learn.

Tess Vigeland: It's everyone's favorite old saw, the light bulb joke: How many folk singers does it take to change a light bulb? Two. One to change the bulb, and one to write a song about how good the old light bulb was.

Some people are, indeed, mourning old light bulbs as new government guidelines take incandescent bulbs off the market. We've all learned about compact fluorescents by now, and LEDs are on the rise. But tell me this: How many reporters does it take to enlighten you about changes in the light bulb market? Hopefully just one.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, here's Eve Troeh.


Eve Troeh: Make no mistake, they are among you -- the light bulb hoarders. They're often aesthetes, very picky about light.

Katy Model: I get really aggravated by bad lighting, and it just makes me feel super unsettled if I don't have warm bright lighting.

That's Katy Model. She's felt nervous since the summer, when she first learned the U.S. is phasing out incandescents. The reason? George W. Bush signed a law five years ago to kill off inefficient bulbs. But so far, Model hates the alternatives. So, she's stocking up on the old kind.

Model: I'm already trying to get as many as I can, so yeah. In all other ways I do try to be energy efficient, but lighting I'm just like I can't.

U.S. companies had to stop making 100-watt incandescent bulbs this year. They're the least efficient, burning 90 of those 100 watts of electricity as heat -- not light. Next year the 75 watters go away. And in 2014 no more 40 or 60 watt bulbs will be made. The law only covers the manufacturing side. There's no telling when the supply of incandescents will actually run out.

Celia Kuperszmid Lehrman at Consumers Union says many shoppers remain suspicious of more efficient alternatives.

Celia Lehrman: We all still go into fitting rooms and bathrooms and other places where the lighting is not very flattering. And I think people feel that they're going to have to take that home with them now.

She says if you tried compact fluorescents, those curly Q bulbs, a few years ago and found them too harsh? Buy some new ones. They're much better now. You can put those early CFLs somewhere you won't use them much, like the garage. And LED bulbs are getting better, and cheaper, all the time. But Lehrman says it's not just the quality that bugs people about all the new choices.

Lehrman: Buying a light bulb has been one of those areas where you really didn't have to know much. It was sort of you picked up a bulb, and they were pretty much all the same. Now, you're gonna have to learn some new lingo.

OK, but don't run for your notebook. It's only two terms, which I bet you can remember just by hearing them.

Instead of watts, now you buy based on Lumens. Like illuminate lumens.

Lehrman: Instead of watts, you really want to look for lumens. Lumens is what tells you how bright the bulb is. The more lumens, the brighter the bulb.

But there's also the color of the light each bulb gives off in Kelvins.

Lehrman: How warm or cool the light looks, and that's the color temperature, which is put in Kelvins.

You might remember Kelvin from high school chemistry. Yes, same dead British scientist. Now, to test this knowledge in the field.

Hauer: Uh, we're currently in aisle one, which is our light bulb aisle.

I met Home Depot supervisor Dave Hauer at the Burbank, Calif., store. The light bulb selection spans 100 feet -- from flood lights to some strange purple curly Qs.

Troeh: You have eco-bulb party bulbs...

Hauer: Eco-bulb party bulbs, that's correct. For people who want to go all night, and save energy doing it.

The store still carries incandescents bulbs over 100 watts and under 40 are not affected by the new law.
And there are halogens, efficient enough to pass muster. But people still grumble about selection.

Hauer: The biggest complaint that we get is cost. Your standard incandescent is pennies on the dollar compared with and LED which is more expensive.

Twenty-five times more expensive, but it also lasts years, nay decades, longer than one of those old, cheap incandescents. To help explain the difference in cost over time every new bulb must now have a "Lighting Facts" label. It looks a lot like the food "nutrition facts" label, but with information like brightness, cost per year, and bulb life span.

Dan Thomsen joined me at the store, as well. He's with The Building Doctors.

Dan Thomsen: We do comprehensive energy audits on homes, to see how people are using and wasting energy.

Yes, he wears medical scrubs to do that. Thomsen says just changing your bulbs can put a big dent in the utility bills.

Thomsen: Anywhere from ten to 20 percent.

But he says new bulbs don't always work as planned. Put a compact fluorescent in a fixture you constantly flick on and off -- it burns out faster. Dimmer switches and three-way fixtures also pose problems. I ask him about my own dining room light, an old six-armed thing with small bulbs, the kind that look like a candle flame.

Thomsen: They do make LED bulbs. We just saw 'em.

Troeh: There's one here, yeah.

Thomsen: LED with the small base. It's just that I don't think the light is there yet, in my opinion.

Too piercing, he says. Not soft. So just stick with old school bulbs for the dining room? They're 25 watt incandescents, not affected by the new law.

Thomsen: The few times you have that lit up, I'm OK with it.

One less decision to make in the light bulb aisle? I just might be glowing.

I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.
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Eve Troeh failed to mention that the new halogen bulbs look and work just like the old incandescent bulbs. This is a third choice that no one ever seems to mention!

i keep saddles and other horse tack in the barn. recently, the barn i have my horses at changed the old incandescent light to a florescent. it is a HUGE difference in the winter. it is always cold, the light is dim for about an hour, and after doing some research, there is a greater chance of mildew on my lather items. the light bulb change is going to change the way i store things. and this is not something people would think about. a portable heater may work, except the fact that it is a barn. wood, hay, sawdust. all combustible material. so, on one hand, i say great! on the greener light, but, on the other hand, i say we should keep incandescent lights for certain times and places.

i keep saddles and other horse tack in the barn. recently, the barn i have my horses at changed the old incandescent light to a florescent. it is a HUGE difference in the winter. it is always cold, the light is dim for about an hour, and after doing some research, there is a greater chance of mildew on my lather items. the light bulb change is going to change the way i store things. and this is not something people would think about. a portable heater may work, except the fact that it is a barn. wood, hay, sawdust. all combustible material. so, on one hand, i say great! on the greener light, but, on the other hand, i say we should keep incandescent lights for certain times and places.

By the logic you have fallen for, in the 70s gasoline powered cars were banned because cars were required to be more efficient.

Conservatives have painted the 2005 energy law passed by Republican majority Congress and signed by Bush as banning incandescent light bulbs making you buy new dangerous poisonous light bulbs you need a hazmat team to change.

First, the law does not specify how light bulbs are designed, only the efficiency.

Second, the US lighting industry crafted the standard Congress passed to be not only easily met by US corporations, but more profitable for US corporations, specifically by making it possible for them to make incandescent lamps that are a higher tech and thus require higher tech manufacturing machines, often designed and built in the US: those halogen incandescent lamps.

Third, industry switched from incandescent lamps in the 50s to those ugly lamps that are in all the public places, the work places, the schools, the airports, and often in places we eat and socialize from diners to bowling alleys. I find it odd that people complain about the lighting in stores, then dress to go out under the warm incandescent lighting to get their "color" just right, then head out into the public spaces with the horrible lighting found in the stores.

And, while you didn't mention it, the majority of lighting in our lives (unless you never leave your property) is the "ugly" "dangerous" "mercury polluting" fluorescent lighting, not to mention the mercury vapor arc lighting once common in streets until largely replaced by sodium vapor, in part because people shot them for sport releasing mercury.

And the award for the most gratuitous and annoying sound effects goes to...

10 % not everywhere.
The amount of energy use in lighting does not always directly translate in to lower bills. All the so called “wasted energy” is really heat. Where you chose to live is the biggest factor in how much you can save.

Let’s say I live in Brownsville TX with 3924 cooling degree days and I use my 60 watt lamp 3 hours every day.
60 watts incandescent lamp x 3 hours x 365 days / 1000 = kilowatt hours 65.7 x electric rate .17 = 65.70 but since I run my air conditioner all year we need to double that cost to remove BTU the emitted by the lamp into my home. Running the lamp cost me 131.40.
12.5 watt LED lamp x 3 hours x 365 days / 1000 =13.68 kilowatt hours x electric rate .17 = 2.33 but since I run my air conditioner all year we need to double that cost to remove BTU the admit by the lamp into my home. Running the lamp cost me 4.65

131.40 – 4.65 = 126.75 saving in Brownsville.
Now, I move to Seattle WA with 173 cooling degree days with electric base board heaters and no AC.
The same bulbs but since I have no AC to remove the heat from the lamp, my savings are much lower, in fact, I now want heat 9 months of the year or 75% of the time heater runs longer to replace the BTU the lamp no longer emits in my home.
65.70 / 4 = 16.43 cost of Incandescent operation in Seattle
2.33 / 4 = 0.58 LED cost of operation in Seattle
16.43 - .58 = 15.84 savings in Seattle

So it seems to me when in Brownsville, I save 110.90 more per year than I do in Seattle with 1 lamp If the electric rates are the same.

Another consideration is how much heat the bulb emits. The halogen bulbs an electrician installed after our kitchen remodel were amazingly too hot and too bright. A stick of butter on the counter melted! Our hair felt warm to the touch after an hour prepping food in the kitchen; we had to squint or shield our eyes to look up at the top cabinet shelves. The undercabinet lighting, xenon, is so hot it melts the baking chocolate bars on the cabinet bottom shelf.

This article just wasn't as enlightening as I expected or hoped for. Eve mentions that we won't use watts when shopping for bulbs but will use lumens and kelvins instead. However, she leaves us in the dark regarding how lumens relates to watts as well as what temperature range in kelvins produces what is considered a warm color.

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