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FAQ: New lightbulbs, new choices

Published: January 2012

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The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 requires most screw-in lightbulbs to use at least 27 percent less energy by 2014. CFLs, LEDs, and some halogen bulbs, a type of incandescent, meet that requirement. Standard incandescents do not and are being phased out. As of Jan. 1 2012, 100-watt bulbs are no longer being made or imported but can be sold until supplies run out. The 75-watt incandescent bulb goes away in 2013, and a year later it’s lights out for 60- and 40-watt bulbs. Here is a guide to how to choose replacement lightbulbs, which are being continually tested in the labs at Consumer Reports.

Why are incandescent bulbs being phased out?

In short, because they waste energy. Less than 10 percent of the energy used by the bulb produces light; the rest escapes as heat. So it takes a lot of energy to create the incandescent’s warm glow. There are an estimated 4 billion lightbulb sockets in American homes, according to the Department of Energy, and more than 3 billion still use the standard incandescent. You can see how all this wasted energy adds up.

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 aims to help the country become more energy independent, in part, by increasing the efficiency of vehicles, buildings, commercial and industrial equipment, and consumer products such as residential dishwashers, washers, dehumidifiers, and lightbulbs. Most screw-in based bulbs are required to use at least 27 percent less energy by 2014. CFLs, LEDs and some halogen bulbs meet the standard, traditional incandescents do not.

So come January 1, 2012 the phase out begins with 100-watt incandescent bulbs, when they can no longer be made or imported but can be sold until supplies run out. The 75-watt fades away in 2013, and a year later it’s goodbye to 60- and 40-watt incandescent bulbs. California began its phase out in January 2011; Europe and Australia in 2009. To find the right energy-saving bulbs for your sockets, see our Ratings of CFLs, LEDs and halogen bulbs.

What are the pros and cons of compact fluorescent lightbulbs?

Energy Star-qualified 60-watt replacement CFLs are as bright as regular incandescents, use about 75 percent less energy, and last seven to 10 times longer. Of course, they need time to fully brighten, and most aren't dimmable. Our tests of 100-watt-equivalent CFLs found that they may sacrifice some brightness to save energy.

CFLs save money. Fans of 100-watt incandescents like their added brightness. But when compared with a 100-watt incandescent, a CFL can save you $100 or more on electricity over the lifetime of the lightbulb. All bulbs lose brightness over time, including old-fashioned incandescents. But in our tests of 100-watt replacement CFLs, even the brightest were only roughly 1,400 lumens after 3,000 hours of testing. Energy Star recommends 1,600 lumens or more to replace a 100-watt bulb when new, though it allows lumens to drop off as CFLs age.

Keep in mind that the 100-watt equivalent CFLs we tested provide substantially more light than the 60-watt CFL replacements in our labs. So if you're just looking for more light than a 60-watt bulb, any of the recommended 100-watt replacement CFLs should be fine. They all provide a warm, yellow light but are slightly larger than the incandescents they replace.

CFLs, contain a small amount of mercury, and should be recycled at the end of their useful life. Home Depot, Lowe's and Ikea, among others, accept used bulbs for recycling.

When a CFL shatters, the cleanup involves a series of steps to minimize exposure to mercury. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers step-by-step cleanup advice. To prevent such breakage, don’t put CFLs in lamps in play spaces or other areas where light fixtures can be easily broken or knocked over.                         

What are the pros and cons of light-emitting diodes?

LEDs instantly brighten and aren't affected by frequent on/off cycles and cold temperatures, and many can be dimmed. They use slightly less energy than CFLs and are claimed to last even longer, 20,000 to 50,000 hours, or around 20 to 40 years. LED prices are dropping, but the bulbs are still expensive and have a payback period of two years or longer. Not all lamp-type LEDs emit light evenly so look for Energy-Star qualified CFLs.

LED’s are pricey because production is challenging and expensive, but as with other electronic-based products, prices are dropping as demand and performance go up. Until then, look online for rebates from manufacturers and utilities. You'll spend about $1 a year on average to power an Energy Star LED or CFL, $3.50 for a halogen, and almost $5 for a traditional incandescent bulb, according to the Department of Energy.

Semiconductor chips and electronic circuitry in LEDs can include lead, arsenic, and gallium, but those substances aren't accessible, even if the bulb breaks. LEDs should be recycled with other electronic waste.

LED replacements for 100-watt bulbs from major manufacturers aren’t yet available. Bulb makers are working on fitting all the diodes and circuitry needed to produce enough lumens into a standard-sized bulb, and on dispersing the heat those components generate. They hope to have those 100-watt replacement LEDs in stores later this year. In the meantime, we’re testing an LED that replaces a 75-watt bulb.

What are the pros and cons of halogens?

Some halogens use about 25 to 30 percent less energy than standard incandescents, but they cost more and many don't last much longer. So you're unlikely to save much money. But halogens instantly produce light, are fully dimmable, and cast light evenly.

The Color Rendering Index  of halogen bulbs is also higher than a CFL. The CRI measures how accurately the bulb displays colors. The 100-watt replacement halogens we tested use less energy than the incandescents but use significantly more than CFLs, and they don’t last nearly as long. That short life span, similar to an incandescent’s, is one reason halogens don’t meet Energy Star standards.

Can CFLs and LEDs be used in traditional fixtures?

Not every energy-saving lightbulb can be used in every fixture. In fact, incorrect use of an energy-saving bulb can affect its performance and shorten its life. Before buying a replacement bulb, check the package for proper use. Here are some tips on how to choose the right bulb for the fixtures in your home.

Lamps and ceiling fixtures: Make sure the bulb can be used in a fully enclosed fixture, if that’s what you have. Consider covered CFLs if you don’t like the spiral look, but those bulbs take longer to warm up.

Recessed or track lights: The interior color of the recessed can or track head affects brightness. Shiny metal and white interiors reflect light. Black absorbs some light, so you might want more lumens to compensate.

Outdoors: The colder the temperature the longer it will take for CFLs to brighten up. LEDs aren’t affected by the cold. Bulbs in the 2,700- to 3,000-kelvin range flatter warm-colored exteriors; bulbs with 3,500 or more kelvins enhance grays and cool colors and can appear brighter.

What's a lumen? A kelvin? And CRI?

Lumens: Brightness is measured in lumens; watts measure energy use. Here's a cheat sheet for equivalents: To replace a 40-watt incandescent lamp bulb, look for at least 450 lumens; 60 watts, get 800 lumens or higher; 75 watts, get a minimum of 1,100 lumens; 100 watts, get 1,600 lumens and up.

Kelvins: The color of the light is measured by its temperature in kelvins (K). To match a soft-white incandescent, get a CFL or LED with 2700 K. The light from bulbs with 3000 K is comparable to the whiter light of halogen bulbs, while bulbs with 3500 K to 4100 K give off a cool, bright white light. To mimic daylight, and for task lighting, choose bulbs with 5000 K to 6500 K but those higher temperatures, with their bluer tones, can be unflattering indoors. Rely on kelvins to get the right color light because terms like soft white and warm white mean different things to different manufacturers.

Color Rendering Index:
The CRI ranges from 0 to 100 and indicates how accurately colors appear under the light. The higher the CRI, the better. Incandescent bulbs are near 100. Most CFLs we tested have a CRI in the low 80s, though a few reached the upper 80s and lower 90s. A CRI of at least 80 is generally recommended for interior lights, and differences of fewer than five points are insignificant. Few of our staffers have complained about the CRI of the CFLs and LEDs we tested.

What information is on the Lighting Facts label?

CFL and LED bulbs use fewer watts, or less energy, to produce the same amount of light, or lumens, as incandescent bulbs. But the color of the light varies by the type of bulb, so you need more information than just a bulb's watts to get the light you'd like. The Lighting Facts label, patterned on nutrition labels on foods, will give you much of that information. It lists the bulb's lumens, or brightness; its estimated yearly energy cost; how long the bulb is expected to last; its appearance, from warm to cool; how much energy, or watts, it uses; and whether the bulb contains mercury. The label must be on packages starting in January 2012.

Do CFLs and LEDs really save money?

Yes. CFLs save money faster. It usually takes less than a year to recoup the cost of most CFLs, according to our tests, which are based on the bulbs being turned on for three hours a day. Each 60-watt equivalent CFL can save you $52 over its lifetime. Each 100-watt equivalent can save you $100 or more over its lifetime in electrical costs.

LEDs take longer to start saving money, but because of its longer claimed life, an LED can save you $100 to $400 per bulb over its lifetime.

Can CFLs be used in vintage fixtures?

Yes. Light fixtures are designed to handle a bulb that uses a certain wattage. Because a CFL uses far fewer watts than a standard incandescent bulb while providing the same amount of light, you can replace a 60-watt incandescent with a 13- to 15-watt CFL without worrying about overheating the fixture. CFLs last much longer, so you won’t need to replace them as often. That’s handy if you have to remove a fragile or hard-to-replace cover from your vintage fixture to replace the bulb.

Are there any places where I shouldn’t use a CFL?

Because CFLs don’t fully brighten instantly, don’t use them in staircases or other areas where you need instant brightness. Consider halogen or LED bulbs instead.

How does Consumer Reports test lightbulbs?

Manufacturers of CFLs and LEDs make a lot of promises, from a bulb’s brightness and light color, to its lifespan and energy savings. Our lighting lab puts those claims to the test, and after thousands of hours of testing, continually updates the results on our website. Our Ratings indicate payback time, or how long it takes for a bulb to pay for itself compared to the incandescent it replaces. After that point you’re saving money by using less electricity.

For more information, see our lightbulb Ratings and recommendations.

 

   

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