Save the world, one light bulb at a time

Are you one of those people who cares about things like energy efficiency and global warming, but you don't go around hugging trees? If so, you're in a tough spot – other than opting for a reasonably-sized car, there are very few things you can do to personally make an impact.

Add compact fluorescent (CF) light bulbs to the list of ways you can make the world a better place. Fast Company recently had a great article about how if every household in the United States replaced just one regular bulb with a CF bulb, we'd save enough power to run a city of 1.5 million people. Slashdot followed with some great commentary.

There are two really big problems that make it hard to be an environmentalist right now:

  • Associating yourself with knee-jerk, pseudo-scientific “environmentalistsâ€? who believe in healing crystals and other claptrap, and
  • Finding things you can actually do that don't do more harm than good or require a huge, expensive sacrifice.

This is the real deal. I've been using CF bulbs since I got my own place a few years ago. They plug right in like regular light bulbs, most of the time you can't tell the difference, and the prices have gone down too. They're available at all the major retailers, and your power company has probably been recommending them in that literature they send along in your bill. But surprisingly few people seem to be using them.

Some pamphlets and web sites recommend simply replacing regular bulbs with CF bulbs as they burn out, but really you're better off grabbing a bunch tomorrow and switching them out with any regular bulbs that you use often. You can keep the old bulbs around as spares – these things will make a dent in your electricity bill immediately, so why wait? Retailers often have sales where you can pick up a 4-pack for less than $2 per bulb.

Most bulbs will give you a lifetime savings estimate right on the box, and in my experience they are pretty accurate. As a geek who stays up late with a lot of computers running, my electricity bill rarely hits $50 a month, even in the summer.

There a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Cheap, off brand CF lights are often crappy. Sometimes you'll run across people who have sworn off CF bulbs because they bought one that buzzed, flickered, or died quickly. There's a very good chance they bought a cheapy random off-brand CF bulb. To be safe, the big three (Philips, GE and Sylvania) are pretty reliable. I haven't had the best experience with Lights of America bulbs, but that's just anecdotal evidence.
  2. If you have a dimmer switch, you need a special CF bulb for dimmers.
  3. Watch out for lamps and fixtures that are a tight fit – you may need to buy an extension to get the CF bulb to fit, or just continue to use the old bulb for that particular lamp. Also, lamps that completely enclose the CF bulb may shorten it's life.
  4. If you have a room where color is very important, you might want to stick with conventional incandescent bulbs. Any new bulbs you buy now from a reputable manufacturer will make use of three colored phosphors to generate while light, somewhat like a television screen. The new ones are actually pretty good at rendering color most of the time – if you have seen fluorescent lighting that looked orange or pink, stark white, or made people's skin look like corpseflesh, chances are you're seen an old or cheap off-brand bulb that used just one phosphor.
On that last point, you really only have to worry if color rendering is extremely important. The bathroom might be a good place to keep conventional bulbs. In addition, an art studio or a room used as a gallery are probably exceptions. The best thing, really, is to just try it out.

Interested in learning more? In the near future I'll write a little more about how CF bulbs render color and which ones are the best.

Also, in the coming weeks and months I'll point out other ways to save money and save the earth (or at least the parts of it we want to drink and breath, the mantel and molten core are in no real danger).

Got any tips? Write about you experience with CF light bulbs below.

  1. My house is filled with Sylvania compact Fluorescents. The fire department just left. One of them was glowing like charcoal and could have burned my house down if I hadn’t been here to smell the stench. I’ve contacted Sylvania. Please beware of leaving these bulbs burning.

    S A Smith
    February 22nd, 2007 at 10:20 pm

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