Energy Adviser: Shining a light on new bulbs

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These days it's easy to be in the dark when selecting a light. Federal law is phasing out some incandescent bulbs in favor of more energy-efficient ones. New technologies, including CFLs and LEDs, complicate making a selection. How do you pick one over the other?

Regardless of the bulb you pick there are several things to consider: the light fixture, the color of light, whether it needs to turns on fast, how often you use it and for how long, and cost.

CFLs take longer to reach the full light output than traditional incandescent bulbs and LEDs. A chemical reaction produces visible light using a fluorescent phosphor coating on the inside of the tube. This reaction typically takes 30 seconds to three minutes to complete and deliver the full brightness.

"We recommend using CFLs anyplace where lights stay on a long time," said DuWayne Dunham, Clark Public Utilities energy counselor. "Floor lamps, reading lamps and security lights seem ideal for CFL bulbs."

LEDs turn on instantly, because they use semiconductors, called light-emitting diodes. "LEDs are better for places where an instant on is important, like in bathrooms and closets or on dimmers," Durham said.

They also work well in track lighting. Placing LEDs in the fixtures of high ceilings can reduce the need to rent a scissor lift or hoist a ladder to swap bulbs out. They generate very little heat and last a long time.

There are places CFLs shouldn't be used. Putting CFLs in enclosed light fixtures shortens their life considerably. And the vibration of a ceiling fan can cause elements in the bulb to fail. LEDs are a better choice in both cases.

Unless the package says a CFL operates on a dimmer switch, you shouldn't use it there. They don't work well and won't last long. When you are using a CFL designed for dimming, the range typically goes from 100 percent power to 20 percent. Below that the bulb shuts off.

For the Northwest, consider the PAR CFL floodlights now coming on the market for outdoor use. Below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, regular CFLs don't work well, nor do they like wet environments. But the new PAR CFLs are a good match for our climate.

There are benefits to both new bulb technologies -- CFLs and LEDs -- so it's worth figuring out how and where to use them at home or in your offices. According to the EPA, CFLs use about 75 percent less energy and can last about 5 to 8 times longer than incandescent bulbs. This means saving about $30 over the CFL bulb life.

LEDs last as long as 50,000 hours (more than ten years if you use it 12 hours a day, every day) and run cooler than CFLs. They operate better outside in the cold and wet than CFLs and are a technology now being integrated into city street lighting.

In big-box retail stores, a 60-watt equivalent LED bulb runs about $20 and a CFL about $2. Both are available in a range of light colors, including warm (white to yellow) tones that look similar to traditional bulbs. Over its lifetime, a 60-watt equivalent CFL can save you $52. An LED can save you $100 to $400 over its longer lifetime.

And those halogen incandescent bulbs you've heard about? They are available in a wide range of shapes and colors and can be used with dimmers, but they burn hot and have a shorter life than CFL or LED bulbs.

"They are best used for task lighting," Dunham said. "But they can't be recycled."

Before tossing a bulb in the trash, wrap it in newspaper and replace it in its original packaging if you have it, or the packaging of the new bulb you're swapping it with, to prevent breakage.Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to ecod@clarkpud.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.