The Efficient Life: Do I have to use compact fluorescent lightbulbs?

The Hive
Collective wisdom.
Feb. 19 2010 3:15 PM

The Efficient Life: The Light Bulb Dilemma

Do I have to use compact fluorescent bulbs?

In this project," The Efficient Life,"Slate is seeking your best ideas for helping people use less energy at home and save money. You can read Daniel Gross' explanation of The Efficient Life here.You can submit your proposal here and scan all the proposals submitted by readers so far. Over the next six weeks, readers and judges will choose a dozen finalists, the top five ideas, and a winner.

When it comes to saving money on home-energy use, lighting seems an obvious place to start. Most of us are simply throwing money away on lighting. Making a practice of turning off lights offers an instant return on investment. And you can save a lot more by replacing old-fashioned filament light bulbs with compact fluorescents—CFLs—or, eventually, with LEDs.

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But compact fluorescents raise a difficult question for us Efficient Life seekers, because even though they save money and energy, they may also reduce quality of life.

For years, we've been bombarded with the case for CFLs: They produce fewer emissions, use less energy, last much longer. And yet most Americans, including the ones who live in my house, aren't embracing them. Last weekend, my 7-year-old son and I conducted a light bulb census. Of 122 bulbs in and around our house, only nine were CFLs. That's pretty pathetic.

Why don't we have more CFLs? A few possible reasons. One is probably psychological. Going out and buying 50 or 100 CFLs at once would be a big expense. Like most consumers, I would recoil at spending $700 or $1,000 on light bulbs on a single visit to the hardware store, even though I know it would save me money in the long-term. Replacing cheapo light bulbs with other cheapo light bulbs as they burn out seems cheaper and more economical, even though it really isn't in the long-term. I'm confident, however, that I can overcome this obstacle, especially if I have a clearer sense of what the precise return would be.

But there are other, harder obstacles. The first is aesthetic. The CFLs I have seen—those coil bulbs—are ugly. They're fine for the garage or an unfinished basement. But they won't do for a chandelier or for the recessed ceiling lights. I choose non-CFLs for any light bulb that might be noticed.

I'm confessing my ignorance here (which is sort of the point of this whole project), but I'm wondering, readers, whether CFLs have evolved from that basic utilitarian coil into a wider, and prettier, range. Is it be possible for me to get CFLs in all the shapes and sizes—globes, tear-drop bulbs, etc.—currently in use in my house. Can I go CFL wholeheartedly without really changing the way anything looks? And if so, where do I go for the best selection?

My other CFL obstacle is that the quality of light seems mediocre. My eyesight is poor, and I perpetually feel that rooms I'm in aren't sufficiently bright. And so I need bulbs by my bedside, in my office, and above my desk that will make me feel as if I'm in left field in Yankee Stadium during a night game. Can any CFLs on the market produce the same (or better) quality of light that I'm getting from my array of incandescent bulbs?

Finally, an economic question. I'm guessing a lot of you have switched to CFLs whole hog (or something close to it) in recent years. We hear a lot from retailers and bulb manufacturers about how quickly CFLs pay for themselves and how much they reduced energy use. I'd like to hear from heavy users of CFLs in the comments below: From your experience, how much energy and money have you saved, and how long did it take to see those savings?

Slate is seeking the best ideas for helping people use less energy at home and save money. You can submit your proposal here, see the 10 most-popular reader proposals, and scan all the proposals submitted by readers so far. At the end of March, when we choose the top ideas, I'll commit to making changes in my use of energy. And over the course of the next year, I'll provide progress reports on whether my efficient life is living up to its promise.

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Daniel Gross is a longtime Slate contributor. His most recent book is Better, Stronger, Faster. Follow him on Twitter.

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