2008-05-15 / This Week's Attitude

This Week's Attitude

Switching Bulbs Can Enlighten (Up) Your Life
By Neil S. Friedman

By Neil S. Friedman

I'm not a rabid environmentalist, but I am partial to energy-efficient light bulbs. It's one of the few "green" changes I've made in the last few years and it's rewarding to do what little I can to save the planet for future generations.

I don't drive a hybrid car because they're still a little pricey. But if sticker prices drop in a few years - and they should - I might exchange my fuel-efficient Honda Accord for a hybrid or electric car. I've been leasing cars whose manufacturers promise good gas mileage for the last fifteen years, though more for the economical than ecological benefit. I don't adhere to earth-friendly living; I simply do what suits my lifestyle and my budget.

Ever since Earth Day began in 1970 - before my youthful idealism ebbed - I've become more conscious of Earth's fragile environment and what greed and thoughtlessness have done to endanger it. It struck a nerve last year while watching former Vice President Al Gore's Academy Award®-winning documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth" (it's daunting and far from the nonsense some claim it to be), as well as several nature specials on public and cable television.

I stopped littering after the first Earth Day and I cringe (and curse under my breath) when I see others do it. The first thing that comes to mind is "Slob!" Kids probably do it because they see thoughtless adults commit the same misdeed. Nevertheless, I doubt the same children or adults do it at home - unless they live in sty-like conditions.

I typically pocket my trash until I get home - or until I find the nearest receptacle to discard litter, like chewed gum in its foil wrapper or commercial flyers left on my windshield.

But, I digress.

Initially, I was reluctant to purchase the odd looking, spiral-designed light bulbs when I noticed them on store shelves about a year ago - mostly because of the price. Standard incandescent bulbs are inexpensive compared to the spiral bulbs - called CFLs (compact fluorescent lights) - that may cost three times as much. However, the discrepancy ultimately balances out because CFLs last longer - 10,000 hours compared to only 750 to 1,000 hours for incandescents - which manufacturers guarantee on every package.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, sales of spiral bulbs are - what else - spiraling, even though supplies are limited in most supermarkets. On the other hand, they're well stocked in small and large home improvement stores. The EPA reported CFLs made up about one-fifth of light bulb sales in the U.S. last year, a marked increase from 2006. In years to come, that figure is guaranteed to soar.

Light bulbs that consumers have used for more than a century will gradually be phased out since Congress mandated that they must be 25 percent more efficient by 2012 when the 100-watt version will be banned from retailers' shelves. All older bulbs will be phased out two years later when consumers will only be able to purchase CFLs, which are 75 percent more efficient. (Watch the price for the older bulbs skyrocket on the black market for those who refuse to switch.)

As expected with new products, there are complaints about CFLs. The chief gripe is the quality of light emitted. It takes about a minute for them to reach maximum glow, which is a little less bright than standard bulbs, but barely noticeable. Another is that they seldom work with dimmer switches and some don't fit in older lamps and fixtures because they're bigger than standard bulbs.

Another consumer objection is the higher price. CFLs cost $3 to $10 apiece, depending on the wattage equivalent of older bulbs. But advocates and manufacturers of the new bulb counter that the cost is gradually offset with less replacements and utility bills with moderate savings.

It's also been reported the spiral bulbs are temperature-sensitive and don't work as efficiently as projected when temperatures dip below 30 degrees. (But that's absurd since the average igloo doesn't get THAT cold.) They also don't work too well when it's over 80 degrees. (Well, that rules out my sauna.) Apparently, they work best in standard room temperature, which ranges from 65 to 78 degrees in most homes.

CFLs, however, have one crucial drawback - they contain mercury and could pose a health hazard if they break and are not handled and disposed of properly, which may be why homeowners have been reluctant to switch. Mercury is a known toxin, especially dangerous to children and pregnant women. Companies that market them say the mercury content of CFLs has been considerably reduced since they were introduced. A few retailers have CFL recycling programs, but as their use spreads, state and local governments are also expected to expand recycling.

More recently, some consumers have complained that the new bulbs gave them migraine headaches, but some experts contend there's a lack of evidence to condemn the CFLs for this malady in so few people.

If you're as skeptical as I was not too long ago, buy one and place it in a lamp that you frequently use and put the standard bulb in a closet. Six or seven months later you'll see the spiral bulb burns as bright as it did on Day One. More importantly, you should notice enough of a drop in your monthly utility bill to give in to the new technology and replace older bulbs with CFLs.

Besides, you'll be doing your bit to address global warming and make the Earth a little greener for your children and future generations.

And that's a convenient truth for which you can be proud.

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