July 7, 2014

Light Bulbs..... save money, save the planet!

NOTE: This is a pamphlet I created to hand out to lamp buyers and everyone else

The History and Future of Light Bulbs
July 2014, Peter Bloch

Incandescent Bulbs: dinosaurs of the lighting world
The last ten years have seen a huge shift in the world of light bulbs. We used to all use incandescent bulbs. They were inexpensive, available everywhere, and were made in a wide variety of styles and brightness. The only trouble is, they were terribly inefficient – only 5% of the electricity consumed by incandescent bulbs is converted in to light. The rest becomes heat. This horrible wastefulness was expensive to the pocketbook and to the carbon footprint of the entire electrical grid. 

The importance of ridding our world of incandescents is why the government has banned some types. You can no longer buy incandescents under 100 watts, unless they are specialized bulbs like 3-ways or spotlights. There is an alternative called halogen bulbs, but they are not much more efficient than the incandescents. 

CFL Bulbs: efficient but unattractive lighting
The first type of energy efficient replacement bulbs were the Compact Fluorescents, also known as CFLs. These usually have a spiral shape because they are basically like the long straight fluorescent light bulbs in those ceiling fixtures, just made smaller and curled around in a tight curve. They are much more efficient (about 15%) than incandescent bulbs, and although they are usually 5-10 times the cost of the incandescents, they can pay for themselves in a year or two because of the greater efficiency. CFL bulbs have a lot of advantages, but some downsides.  The most important is that the color of the light that the bulbs emit is not very attractive. They tend towards the pale green or blue. While that color shift is not completely obvious, if you compare two lamps, one with incandescent and one with CFL, you will instantly see the difference. Most people do not like the feel of being around CFL bulbs.

Other problems are that CFL bulbs have small amounts of mercury in them, making them an environmental hazard if they are broken or improperly disposed of. Also, they don’t instantly illuminate to their peak brightness, so when you first turn a CFL on, it seems dim. Most CFLs are not dimmable, and those that are supposed to be, do a terrible job of it. Finally, CFL bulbs are rated for a wattage-equivalent to incandescent bulbs, but my perception is that this calculation is inflated. Overall, CFL bulbs are good for efficiency, but a fairly poor substitute for the wonderful warm light of the old fashioned incandescents.

LED bulbs are the future of lighting
Over the past few years, a new type of bulb has been introduced. They are called LEDs, which stands for Light Emitting Diode. At first, they were extremely expensive, and the color of the light tended to be bluish. Also most LEDs were designed for spot lights. Even when some of the LEDs came to market to be used in screw-in fixtures like table and floor lamps, they had shapes that didn’t provide light that evenly spread all around. That is a desirable characteristic known as being “omnidirectional,” and in my translucent wood lampshades, it is crucial. Also, LEDs were not bright enough to be used in my lamps. The good news is that LED bulbs are even more energy efficient than CFLs. And the technology keeps advancing, with increased efficiency.

CREE Brand LEDs, my recommendation!
In the past year, one company has come up with solutions to almost all of the issues with CFL and earlier LED bulbs. The company is CREE, they make bulbs that are manufactured in this country and they are a very big company with history of making specialized LEDs for factories, etc. When they put their mind to designing “regular” LED light bulbs, they came up with some wonderful solutions. CREE bulbs use 18% of the energy, compared to incandescents. They don’t get warm, because all the juice goes in to making light! Better yet, CREE LEDs are dimmable. Just make sure you have a dimmer switch that is designed for LEDs. 

CREE bulbs are now available in 60, 75 and 100 watt equivalents, and they just started making 3-way 100 watt equivalents. My hope and expectation is that they will soon be making 150 watt equivalents, which is the brightness I suggest for many of my lamps. CREE bulbs that are labeled “soft white” emit a wonderful color of light, basically exactly like the old incandescents. They are shaped very similarly to the old bulbs, and are truly omnidirectional. They almost last forever (rated for 23 years, guaranteed for 10). They contain no mercury. They are easy to buy, Home Depot is a major reseller. As of this writing, Home Depot sells the bulbs for these prices:
  • 40 or 60 watt: $10
  • 75 watt: $16
  • 100 watt: $21
  • 100 watt 3-way: $22
That may seem like a lot to spend for a light bulb. But if you use a light for 3 hours a day, the savings from using an LED bulb will pay for the bulb in just one year. After that, it is all savings directly to your wallet… for TWENTY YEARS!

Some CREE bulbs are available through subsidy programs run by many electricity providers, which make much less expensive. A 60 watt equivalent bulb is only $3. In NH, you can check nhsaves.com. Elsewhere, ask your electric company. Right now, the ones available tend to be the lower wattage CREE bulbs, but I expect the others to be in these subsidy programs soon. With these subsidy plans, switching to CREE LEDs is a no-brainer!

Where is this heading?
The only remaining downside to the wonderful CREE bulbs is that they max out at 100 watts. But I have observed this company coming up with many new products in a short period of time, so I am confident that we will see 150 watt equivalent CREE bulbs in the near future, and when we do, I will be completely weened off of incandescents. Until then, I still provide my larger lampshades with incandescent bulbs. I hope that is a situation that is remedied soon.

There are other types of bulbs technologies in development – perhaps LEDs are not the end of the road. But these CREE bulbs are everything we want from a light bulb, and I recommend them very highly. Wherever in your home that you have a bulb that has an equivalent CREE bulb, I hope you invest in the future of your checkbook AND the health of the planet by making the change soon. 

Questions? Send me an email and I will try to be helpful,

Peter Bloch peterbloch@woodshades.com, www.woodshades.com