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Shedding light on new bulb laws

Thursday, January 16, 2014
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Life has enough big-issue challenges — where to live, whether to marry, what career to pursue — without having to agonize over the small stuff.

So I didn’t enjoy standing in the light bulb aisle trying to get my bearings among CFLs, LEDs and halogens.

In case you hadn’t noticed, traditional 100- and 75-watt incandescent bulbs are no more, and 60- and 40-watters were due to follow this year. Replacing them are more energy-efficient bulbs: the corkscrew-shaped compact fluorescent lamp (CFL), the high-tech looking light-emitting diode (LED) and the halogen incandescent, which most closely resembles the pear-shaped orb we’ve known for decades.

The changes date to the Energy Independence and Security Act, passed by Congress in 2007, which required that general-purpose household bulbs meet more stringent standards on lumens and wattage. In mandating that less energy be used for the light produced, the law barred the manufacture or import of traditional 100-watt bulbs in 2012 and 75-watt bulbs in 2013.

The same was to happen this month to 60- and 40-watt incandescents — until Congress cobbled together a budget compromise to avoid another federal shutdown that prohibits any spending to enforce the law.

That 100-watt bulb you once might have paid 50 cents for typically lasted a year and wasted most of its energy as heat. So, according to estimates by the National Resources Defense Council, its real energy cost to you was $12 annually.

In contrast, a CFL replacement might cost you $3 per bulb, but with a life expectancy of six years, its real energy cost would be just $2.77 annually.

The NRDC, a New York City-based environmental group, has an easy-to-read comparison of new bulbs versus old on its website. The group says we should get used to talking in lumens (brightness), since the new bulbs have oddball wattages such as 72, 20 and 19. Those are the equivalents in halogen, CFL and LED forms to a traditional 100-watt bulb, according to the group’s guide.

Besides, brightness is “the most important information on the label,” it says. Because the new bulbs will use less power to give off the same amount of light, that makes their wattage less crucial.

The 2007 law required new package labeling that puts lumens and estimated annual energy cost on the front panel — replacing the “100W” we might typically look for. On the back is a more extensive list of “Lighting Facts” — including the shade of light cast by the bulb (ranging from “warm” to “cool”) — that looks a lot like the nutrition guide seen on food packages.

Some manufacturers are trying to help consumers navigate the changeover by posting old watt numbers on their packages, too.

One bulb maker, Osram Sylvania, headquartered near Boston, which says it has “invested heavily” in replacement bulbs, has been polling consumer sentiment about energy-efficient lighting since the federal law was passed.

Its sixth annual “Socket Survey,” released last month, shows that nearly two-thirds of respondents were aware of the phase-out legislation; a majority reported a preference for CFL replacements.

But unlike the consumers already plotting their switch, 30 percent of respondents said they planned to buy up whatever traditional incandescents remained while they could — a sentiment I can understand.

In fact, I gave up trying to choose among the replacements on my trip down the bulb aisle this week and instead scooped up several boxes of 60- and 40-watt bulbs I found on the shelf. Next trip, I’ll make the switch. I promise.

Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at marlenejkennedy@gmail.com.

 
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