The Bulb Ban Cometh: Do CFL Bulbs Still Make You Cringe?

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CFL bulbThere's a bright bulb in my kitchen that clearly lights up what I'm cooking -- and clearly highlights every scary shadow of my face. Stand under it, and I look rather ghoulish. That effect's due mostly to the type of light fixture I have in my kitchen, but there are still many incandescent diehards who'd blame the CFL bulb for creating the suddenly scary Siel.

Though CFLs are now quite popular, the energy-efficient bulbs still haven't quite gotten over their rep for creating stark, eerie light. Even the New York Times published a recent trend piece about restaurants opting for "vintage" incandescent light bulbs: "The old-fashioned bulb, though less efficient than fluorescent or LED lamps, can build an ambience at a relatively low cost." Designers and bulb makers are quoted waxing lyrical about the nostalgic and comforting warm glow of incandescent bulbs, while unnamed San Francisco residents are said to have "complained that they hated how those squiggly [CFL] bulbs looked in their vintage fixtures, casting an odd green tinge inside their restored Victorians."

Have you stuck to your incandescent bulbs because you've had the same complaint about CFLs? Then I have bad news for you: Come 2014, your favorite old bulb will likely no longer be on the market.

A Look at the bulb ban

What law's burning out the incandescent bulbs? That would be the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which requires about 25 percent more efficiency for light bulbs. The rule will be phased in from 2012 to 2014 -- at which point the light bulb aisle in your nearest store will look radically different than it does now.

This doesn't mean incandescent bulbs will disappear entirely. More efficient incandescent bulbs that meet the new federal standards are already on the market, and won't be subject to the ban. Still, the lightbulb market will likely shift to mostly CFL and LED bulbs. In fact, IKEA recently announced that it's going to banish incandescent bulbs from its stores (PDF) altogether -- by January 2011, no less.

IKEA's bright move makes me think that the general public has already happily adapted to energy-efficient CFL bulbs -- especially in this economic climate, as people try to save on energy costs with more efficient lighting. But for those whose main concerns are aesthetic and who still believe CFL lighting to be ugly, the government's got a contest going that'll interest you. The U.S. Department of Energy's sponsoring the L Prize, which will award $10 million to the company that can build the most efficient light bulb with the most pleasing light. CBS News has the skinny:


Watch CBS News Videos Online

The CBS News clip makes CFLs sound like dingy, ghastly lighting and quickly moves on to LEDs -- but even now, pre-L Prize-winning bulb, I'm not sure I quite believe people are as CFL-phobic as the news stories make it sound. Talk to an average CFL user today, and they really won't have much to say about their bulbs other than the fact that they got it because it saves energy and money.

Those who still complain about the ghastly light of CFL bulbs are usually the unfortunate early adopters who tried energy-efficient bulbs when they first hit the market. Those newbies often were in fact inferior to incandescent bulbs. Some of those early CFLs not only looked scary but even emitted annoying buzzing sounds!

But since those early days, CFLs have come a long way. And even back in 2007, CFL bulbs outperformed a traditional incandescent bulb in a Popular Mechanics lab test. A similar 2008 test of 21 energy-efficient bulbs by the NY Tiimes spoke somewhat less glowingly of CFL bulbs in general, but still found a few that were "not only acceptable but attractive."

Judging from these reviews, it seems that the main "problem" -- if you can call it that -- with the CFL bulbs is that they tend to have more variability than incandescent bulbs do. Depending on the brand, a CFL bulb can be more bluish or more orangey, more warm or more cool. That's good news and bad news. On the one hand, a CFL bulb that emits the exact kind of light you prefer's likely out there. On the other, identifying which bulb that might be could prove a tad difficult, since the bulbs generally aren't sold with detailed descriptions of the glow they emit.

I tend not to be terribly picky about my lighting, since I find the types of lighting fixture and their placement has a lot more to do with how the light looks than the lighbulb itself. But if you're one of the picky ones, look through these roundup reviews of bulbs from Popular Mechanics, New York Times, and Grist to pick one that sounds like what you're looking for. Otherwise, shop for bulbs at stores with a great return policy so you can exchange any that don't work for you. The bulbs last close to a decade, so why not spend a little time choosing what you really want?

When the light goes out

Which brings me to the last argument incandescent holdouts will often make against CFL bulbs: CFL bulbs contain mercury. While I totally agree that mercury is dangerous and that disposal of CFL bulbs, e-waste, and other hazardous materials really needs to be made easier, I must point out that two big reasons why the mercury issue shouldn't hold you back from getting CFL bulbs:

1. Incandescent bulbs put more mercury into the atmosphere than CFL bulbs. Why? Most of our energy in the U.S. still comes from coal-fired plants, which put mercury into the atmosphere while producing energy (this, by the way, is a big reason why we have to worry about mercury in fish). Popular Mechanics crunched the numbers:

Over the 7500-hour average range of one CFL, then, a plant will emit 13.16 mg of mercury to sustain a 75-watt incandescent bulb but only 3.51 mg of mercury to sustain a 20-watt CFL (the lightning equivalent of a 75-watt traditional bulb). Even if the mercury contained in a CFL was directly released into the atmosphere, an incandescent would still contribute 4.65 more milligrams of mercury into the environment over its lifetime.

2. CFL bulbs last a really long time. Okay -- This is a fact people already know, but somehow seem to forget about when worrying about what they'll do with CFL bulbs once they burn out. Yes, trips to the e-waste center -- or IKEA or Home Depot, both of which accept CFL bulbs for recycling -- can be tedious, but we are talking about making this trip like once a decade! Seriously, the bulbs last way longer than most people keep their computers (which, by the way, also should be responsibly recycled), yet you don't see people freaking out about the tedious trip they'll need to make to the e-waste center when they buy their computers. Just save the CFL bulb, when it finally burns out, until you need to take a few things to your nearest e-waste center, then use Earth 911 to quicly find a center near you.

So -- What bulb do you use now? Do you plan to stockpile incandescent bulbs before they're taken off the shelves in 2014? Or have you already embraced CFLs? If you've found a CFL bulb with a light you especially like, share your recommendation in the comments so we can all bask in its warm glow, energy-efficiently.

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BlogHer Contributing Editor Siel has been using CFLs since 1999 and hasn't had one burn out on her yet. She blogs at greenLAgirl.com.

Photo by AZAdam

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