October 23, 2006

Positivity: CFL Lights

Filed under: Marvels,Money Tip of the Day,Positivity — Tom @ 6:03 am

This is a combined Positivity, Marvel, Money-Saving Tip post, about dramatic energy savings. This excerpt is probably less than 20% of a long article on topic that you ought to consider reading:

How Many Lightbulbs Does it Take to Change the World? One.

….. The product is the compact fluorescent lightbulb, a quirky-looking twist of frosted glass.

In the energy business, it is called a “CFL,” or an “energy saver.” One scientist calls it an “ice-cream-cone spiral,” because in its most-advanced, most-appealing version, it looks like nothing so much as a cone of swirled soft-serve ice cream.

Most people have some experience with swirl bulbs, but typically it hasn’t been happy. In the early 1990s, you would step into a room in a business traveler’s hotel, flip on the lights by the door and between the beds, turn on the desk lamp and the floor lamp, then stand in the gloom looking around and thinking, “There must be another switch somewhere that actually turns on the light.” Every one of the bulbs flickering to life was a compact fluorescent–and five of them together didn’t provide enough light to read the card listing the lineup of cable-TV channels.

For two decades, CFLs lacked precisely what we expect from lightbulbs: strong, unwavering light; quiet; not to mention shapes that actually fit in the places we use bulbs. Now every one of those problems has been conquered. The bulbs come on quickly; their light is bright, white, steady, and silent; and the old U-shaped tubes–they looked like bulbs from a World War II submarine–have mostly been replaced by the swirl. Since 1985, CFLs have changed as much as cell phones and portable music players.

One thing hasn’t changed: the energy savings. Compact fluorescents emit the same light as classic incandescents but use 75% or 80% less electricity.

What that means is that if every one of 110 million American households bought just one ice-cream-cone bulb, took it home, and screwed it in the place of an ordinary 60-watt bulb, the energy saved would be enough to power a city of 1.5 million people. One bulb swapped out, enough electricity saved to power all the homes in Delaware and Rhode Island. In terms of oil not burned, or greenhouse gases not exhausted into the atmosphere, one bulb is equivalent to taking 1.3 million cars off the roads.

That’s the law of large numbers–a small action, multiplied by 110 million.

The single greatest source of greenhouse gases in the United States is power plants–half our electricity comes from coal plants. One bulb swapped out: enough electricity saved to turn off two entire power plants–or skip building the next two.

….. Swirl bulbs don’t just work, they pay for themselves. They use so little power compared with old reliable bulbs, a $3 swirl pays for itself in lower electric bills in about five months. Screw one in, turn it on, and it’s not just lighting your living room, it’s dropping quarters in your pocket. The advantages pile up in a way to almost make one giddy. Compact fluorescents, even in heavy use, last 5, 7, 10 years. Years. Install one on your 30th birthday; it may be around to help illuminate your 40th.

In an era when political leaders and companies are too fainthearted to ask Americans to sacrifice anything for the greater good, the modern ice-cream swirl bulb requires no sacrifice. Buying and using it helps save the world–and also saves the customer money–with no compromise on quality. Selflessness and self-satisfaction, twirled into a single $3 purchase.

So far, the impact of compact fluorescents has been trivial, for a simple reason: We haven’t bought them. In our outdated experience, they don’t work well and they cost too much. Last year, U.S. consumers spent about $1 billion to buy about 2 billion lightbulbs–5.5 million every day. Just 5%, 100 million, were compact fluorescents. First introduced on March 28, 1980, swirls remain a niche product, more curiosity than revolution.

But that’s about to change. It will change before our very eyes. A year from now, chances are that you yourself will have installed a swirl or two, and will likely be quite happy with them. In the name of conservation and good corporate citizenship, not to mention economics, one unlikely company is about haul us to the lightbulb aisle, reeducate us, and sell us a swirl: Wal-Mart.

In the next 12 months, starting with a major push this month, Wal-Mart wants to sell every one of its regular customers–100 million in all–one swirl bulb. In the process, Wal-Mart wants to change energy consumption in the United States, and energy consciousness, too.



  1. Yup, we use none but the compact fluorescent bulbs now, and it did make quite an impact in our electricity use (as our heating and cooking are courtesy natural gas).

    I also like the color of their light compared to the incandescents…seem a lot whiter.

    Comment by meep — October 23, 2006 @ 7:38 am

  2. I have quite a few of these bulbs, and they work quite well. Once they get around the limitations (no completely enclosed bulbs, no bulbs on dimmer switches) I’ll be more inclined to place them throughout my house. As it is, they’re everywhere they can be.

    Comment by Chucko — October 23, 2006 @ 2:48 pm

  3. At Lowes today I bought Sylvania Soft White Mini 60 watt equivalent CFL Two Pack for $1.98(that’s 99cents per bulb). In California with electricity cost 32 cents per KW over your baseline. These lights will pay for themselves after only 60 hours of use.

    Comment by Eric Jeannerat — January 4, 2007 @ 2:28 am

  4. #3, wow.

    Comment by TBlumer — January 4, 2007 @ 8:01 am

  5. I live in Walnut Creek, CA, recently (Jan 07) I bought 2 Sylvania CFL 23 W (for 100W replacement) in 99cents store for just you guess it – $0.99 And that’s less than $0.50 each and probably same price as the regular light bulb. Before this I bought 15 from IKEA in Emeryville, CA and that’s 3 for $4.50 still cheap but 99cents store is really incredible, I think they should put a HUGE banner in front of their store to promote it, I bet people will rush in and buy it.

    My electric bill reduce almost $60.00 a month since last year Feb 2006

    Comment by James P — February 28, 2007 @ 6:49 pm

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