LIGHTBULBS ARE SYNONYMOUS with bright ideas — in cartoons, at any rate. But compact fluorescent bulbs also can be a small, yet brilliant, step toward energy efficiency. The Department of Energy says they use two-thirds less energy than incandescent bulbs and last 10 times longer.
Why buy? Compact fluorescent bulbs (also known as CFLs) are available in different sizes and shapes — including mini-spiral, spiral and A-line — that fit almost any fixture. On average, each bulb can save more than $30 in electricity costs over its lifetime and prevent more than 450 pounds of greenhouse-gas emissions. CFLs and fixtures that use them that have earned the EPA’s Energy Star rating produce about 70 percent less heat, so they’re safer to use and can help cut energy costs associated with home cooling. (Consider that a halogen bulb in a torchiere lamp is 700 to 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit.)
Need to know: How to choose the right bulb or fixture? Look for one that offers the same lumen rating as the light you’re replacing. Manufacturers often label these products in terms of watt replacement, which also can guide your decision-making. Energy-efficient lighting will provide the same or more light while using fewer watts. Dimmers enable you to set the mood with a range of light output, but check the bulb or fixture’s packaging first, to be sure it will perform well on a dimmer.
What will it cost? On average, a CFL costs $3 more than a comparable incandescent bulb, but that’s not how the government measures the difference. Go to www.energystar.gov/ia/business/bulk—purchasing/bpsavings—calc/Calc—CFLs .xls to compute actual costs and savings.
Operating manual: For the biggest energy savings, replace incandescents or halogens with CFLs in the rooms you spend the most time in, such as your family and living rooms, kitchen and porch. Place the bulbs in open fixtures that allow air flow.
Cautionary tale: CFLs contain very small amounts of mercury sealed within the glass tubing — an average of 5 milligrams, roughly equivalent to the amount of ink on the tip of a ballpoint pen. Mercury is what enables the CFL to be an efficient light source; there is currently no substitute for it, but manufacturers have been trying to reduce the amount used. CFLs are safe to use in the home, according to the Department of Energy: No mercury is released when the bulbs are in use, and they pose no danger if used properly, though care should be taken when handling because the tubing is glass.
Disposal issues: Don’t throw CFLs away with the household trash if better disposal options exist. Check Earth911.org, which locates disposal options by ZIP code, call the U.S. Environmental Recycling Hotline at 1-877-327-8491, or contact your local waste-management agency for community guidelines. Additional information is available at Lamprecycle.org. Ikea stores take back used CFLs, and other retailers are considering it.
If no other disposal options are available except the trash can, place CFLs in a plastic bag and seal it. Never send a CFL or other mercury-containing product to an incinerator.