Goodby incandescents - hello efficiency

Published Tuesday, January 7, 2014 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

While most of us were clinking our glasses to ring in 2014, new Canadian regulations phasing out incandescent light bulbs took effect.  Here’s an overview of what’s happening, and some exciting lighting alternatives.

Venerable but inefficient

After 130 years, the incandescent light bulb feels like an old friend.  We’ve gotten used to its warm glow, low cost and simplicity.

But no one could ever accuse it of being efficient.  In fact, instead of calling it a light bulb that produces a bit of waste heat, it’d be more accurate to call it a heater that gives off a bit of waste light.  A standard 60 watt incandescent bulb is only 10% efficient, producing only about 5 watts worth of light and about 55 watts worth of heat.

(It’s sometimes pointed out that, in winter, that waste heat isn’t wasted.  That’s somewhat true – but only during the heating season, and light bulbs are an expensive and inefficient way to heat interior spaces.  As well, the heat from incandescents installed outdoors or in unheated spaces is always wasted.)

So as of January 1, 100 and 75 watt incandescent bulbs are no longer available in Canada.  60 and 40 watt bulbs will only be available until December 31, 2014.  Oven lights and other specialty bulbs will remain available.

That leaves two efficient options, Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFLs) and Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs).

CFLs

Most people know CFLs by their distinctive curly shape.  They are essentially the fluorescent tubes we’ve long known from commercial buildings, twisted into a small format that fits a standard light socket.

CFLs are very efficient.  A 13 watt CFL produces as much light as a 60 watt incandescent; that’s a savings of 78%.  

Some people are wary of CFLs because some early models flickered excessively, didn’t last as long as promised or gave an unpleasant quality of light.  Fortunately, all three of those issues have been addressed (more on light quality below); just look for the ENERGY STAR logo when you shop.  Today’s CFLs do still take a minute or two to warm up and reach full intensity.

Like fluorescent tubes, CFLs contain a tiny amount of mercury.  It’s just a trace, but mercury is not to be taken lightly.  Unfortunately, a nationwide standard for recycling CFLs remains a work in progress, so stay tuned.  It’s fair to say they definitely don’t belong in a landfill.

LEDs

LEDs are an exciting, up-and-coming alternative.  They have revolutionized Christmas lighting, and now they promise to do the same for general lighting.  

LEDs are even more efficient than CFLs.  A 10 watt LED is as bright as a 60 watt incandescent; that’s a savings of 83%.  They contain no mercury.  They work well in cold temperatures and they turn on instantly, just like incandescents.  Best of all, they have an incredibly long life: 25,000 hours or more, compared to the 1000 hour life of a regular incandescent.  So you can say goodbye to the nuisance of changing burnt out bulbs.

LEDs do cost more up front – over $10/bulb at present – but costs have dropped 40% over the past year and continue to fall.  When you factor in convenience, how many incandescents they replace and how much energy they save, LEDs are the least expensive long term lighting option.  

And if you are building or renovating, consider LED fixtures.  They have highly efficient LEDs built right into them and are permanently installed by an electrician.  With a rating of 50,000 hours, LED fixtures are designed to last as long as your house.

Both CFLs and LEDs come in a range of light qualities, as indicated by their Kelvin number.  If you want a soft, incandescent-like color, look for bulbs rated 2700K to 3500K.  If you want whiter light, look for bulbs rated 5000K.  For LEDs especially, it’s important to pick a color you like, because you’ll have them for a long, long time.

So – goodbye incandescent and thanks for the many great years – but hello efficient CFLs and, especially, LEDs.