What to Do When the Government Takes Away Your Lightbulbs CFLs, LEDs, and Other Non-Lightbulb Options

The U.S. government is set to ban incandescent bulbs shortly. Here are some tips on what you can use to cheaply and safely replace them with.

Look up at the ceiling. What kind of bulb is being used to illuminate the room? Chances are you see an aging incandescent, the classic light bulb we all know. But if you live in the European Union, Australia, the United States, or any other number of countries set to phase out traditional light bulbs, you will soon be seeing a lot more compact fluorescent bulbs or light-emitting diodes. Although they are cheap, CFLsare filled with mercury and often emit harsh lighting, and LEDs are still on the pricey side. So what's a concerned, light-savvy consumer to do? The short answer: Hang tight.

First, a bit of history. Incandescent bulbs (Thomas Edison's bulb) generate light by heating a metal filament wire to a high temperature until the bulb glows. The problem is that there is a low ratio of visible light produced versus heat loss when compared to efficient alternatives like CFLs and LEDs. And in a world that is increasingly concerned with saving energy, that inefficiency won't do. Brazil, Venezuela, the European Union, and Australia are all in the midst of phasing out incandescent bulbs; Argentina, Russia, Canada, Malaysia, and the United States all plan to phase out the bulbs in the next few years.

The CFL bulb, as you likely know, is a fluorescent lamp that gives off the same amount of visible light as an incandescent but uses less power and has a longer life. The bulbs are cheap, to boot, with some costing under $2. But there are a few disadvantages to CFLs—they contain mercury, which makes their disposal difficult, and they have a different (some would go so far as to say unpleasant) light spectrum than their predecessors.

The next most popular option is LED lighting, a semiconductor light source that recombines electrons with electron holes when the light is turned on, triggering the release of photons in the form of energy. The light's color corresponds to the energy of the photon. Like CFLs, LED bulbs have a longer lifetime and decreased energy consumption compared to incandescents. They also have a much wider range of colors than CFLs, and don't contain mercury.

Sounds perfect. But the technology is still in its infancy. Just last May, Philips released what it calls the first LED replacement for the common 60-watt household bulb—a 12-watt LED dubbed the Endura. Philips's bulb is a direct swap-in for a 60-watt incandescent, and it has a lifespan of 25,000 hours. Pricing has not yet been announced, but a 16-watt Endura bulb retails for $65.95 on Amazon.

The first dimmable swap-in LED was also recently announced by Lemnis Lighting, which last October released the 6W Pharox60 bulb, a light source that is 90 percent more energy efficient and 25 times longer-lasting than a 60-watt incandescent. Once again, though, the price isn't quite there yet; the bulb retails for $60 $30. That's cheap when the bulb's lifespan is taken into account, but that kind of reasoning isn't usually employed in the aisles of a drug store.

There are other options. A company called Vu1 recently debuted its ESL light bulb, a dimmable, low-energy bulb that retails for $20 and that features less harsh lighting than CFLs, and lasts for 10,000 hours. (An ESL bulb uses accelerated electrons to light up a phosphor coating on the inside of a bulb). The first units, which are designed to replace 65-watt incandescents, will be released in 2011 and 2012. But ESL technology simply doesn't have the muscle of major lighting companies behind it.

In the long term, LEDs will probably win out—as soon as companies like Philips can lower the price to a point where purchasing them doesn't have to be a major household decision.


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