Future grows dimmer for classic light bulb

Light bulbs are changing.

Federal rules taking effect Jan. 1 ban the manufacture of incandescent bulbs using 40 watts of power or more, the third phase of energy efficiency legislation passed in 2007.

The intent of the law is to push consumers toward more energy-efficient lighting technology than the incandescent light bulb – which has helped beat back the night for more than a century, but expends most of its energy producing heat rather than light.

Compact fluorescent lamps — those spiraling tubes that some consumers may associate with harsh light and delayed start-up — cost more than incandescents but last longer and use 75 percent less energy.

Halogen incandescent bulbs are more energy-efficient than older ones, but less efficient than CFLs, which are emerging as the most common alternative as higher-wattage incandescents fade out.

And retailers say their quality has improved significantly.

“If you bought a CFL bulb three years ago, you might not know how good the technology is now,” said Mark Smith, a Houston-based director of operations for retail chain Batteries Plus Bulbs.

Video: Home energy checkup can flip switch on bill savings

A key to the improvement was advances in the technology of ballasts, devices that regulate the currents and voltage in fluorescent bulbs. The electronic ballasts in newer CFLs eliminate the flickering and slow illumination of older bulbs.

“They are cheaper, safer, more efficient and are instantly on,” Smith said.

Also available — considered state-of-the art lighting but at higher up-front cost — are light-emitting diode lamps, known as LEDs.

While costlier, LEDs are 80 percent more energy-efficient than incandescents, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, and have far longer life expectancies.

Incandescent bulbs typically last 1,000 to 2,000 hours, while LEDs can burn 25,000 hours or more. The increase is the result of illumination technology that relies on computer chips.

The technology also makes LEDs environmentally friendlier than CFLs, which contain small amounts of toxic mercury.

Significant savings

The energy efficiency of both types can mean significant savings for consumers, said Doug Lewin, executive director of the South-central Partnership for Energy Efficiency as a Resource, which promotes energy efficiency in Texas and Oklahoma.

About a third of residential electricity usage can go to lighting, Lewin said, so an 80 percent reduction in that power use could mean significant savings over time.

In general, recent improvements in technology have reduced residential electricity demand for lighting by 2 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Report: Texas ranked No. 3 for power outages in 2012

Besides the potential for long-term savings, the new bulbs also give consumers a chance to reassess the aesthetics of lighting their homes.

Martin Lide, a Houston architect, recently decided to replace 32 incandescent lights in his home with the LEDs, inspired both by the cost savings and the chance to judge the quality of the lightinge.

Lide began by buying four variations of LEDs and experimented with using them in various rooms. “I wanted to see how they lighted up art as opposed to a room,” Lide said.

Lide noted that LED boxes include information on color and brightness relative to comparable incandescent bulbs.

“Buy one or two and put them in the same location and make sure you are not disappointed with the result,” he advised.

Special rebates

CenterPoint Energy, which distributes electricity to Houston-area customers regardless of what company sells them power, has a program that periodically offers rebates on specially marked LED bulbs at certain stories, said Cheryl Bowman, an energy efficiency specialist for CenterPoint.

The program has resulted in sales of nearly 40,000 LED bulbs this year, potentially saving more than two million kilowatt-hours of electricity use, Bowman said.

None of this means incandescent lights are going out for good.

Even though the manufacturing of 40-watt and higher bulbs will shut down, stores will be able to sell inventories that could last months.

“We thought the incandescent would go away completely, but they are making some more energy efficient incandescent bulbs,” said Bowman. “The incandescent is not going to completely disappear off the shelf.”


Also in FuelFix:

Temporary power companies growing in Eagle Ford