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Meghan Schiller/ MEDILL

Local retail stores such as Walgreens now offer more energy efficient light bulbs than ever before.

Shedding light on the light bulb debate

by Meghan Schiller
Jan 17, 2012


Meghan Schiller/MEDILL

Note the difference in energy costs between the label of the CFL bulb (left) and a standard incandescent (middle). The far right label shows lumens and estimated energy cost per year.

CFLs for Dummies

They’re both units of measurement, but watts measure power and lumens measure light. The number of watts tells the consumer how hot a bulb will become and lumens indicate the amount of light given off.

Not much will logistically change since the measurements essentially work the same. If you want dimmer lighting, buy a bulb with fewer lumens. For brighter light, aim for a higher number of lumens.

For example, if you normally buy 100-watt bulbs, look for bulbs with 1,600 lumens. For the equivalent of 75-watt bulbs, buy a bulb with 1,100 lumens. If you use 60-watt bulbs, purchase 800 lumens and for 40 watts, look for 450 lumens.

CFLs will save you money and energy. Replacing a 100-watt bulb with a CFL can save a consumer close to $60 over the life of the bulb. Since the CFLs emit less heat, people will also save on their home-cooling costs.

One example is the General Electric Co. “Reveal” CFL light bulb, available at Walgreens for $9.99. Although pricier than the $1.99 generic soft-light bulb, the advantages are hard to ignore.

The equivalent to a 100-watt bulb, this 1,600 lumens bulb will last five years and save $59 in energy costs based on four hours of usage a day.

If the bulb doesn’t last the full five years, you can return it.


This month the incandescent light bulb is retiring, making way for compact fluorescent lamps, an energy-efficient alternative to 130-year-old technology. A new law intended to decrease light bulb wattage and energy usage is slated to take effect this month, but some Republicans aren’t interested in the government controlling the lights in their family rooms.

In response to the new light-bulb law, part of the 2007 legislation signed by President George W. Bush, Republicans inserted a rider in Congress’ $3 trillion 2012 budget, hoping to “save the incandescent light bulb.” The rider delays for nine months funding from the Energy Department to implement the change.

Congressmen Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul, as well as Texas Gov. Rick Perry have chimed in on the topic.

“Let me tell you, President Bachmann will allow you to buy any light bulb you want in the United States of America," she said while campaigning in June.

But lighting manufacturers say they are committed to the original legislation and the production of the new bulbs is underway. Retailers appear to be onboard, too.

Lowe’s Cos.’ spokeswoman Jaclyn Pardini said her company realizes that energy efficient options have become increasingly popular with consumers. "It's really important to Lowe's for consumers to save energy." Lowe's is offering an online light-bulb buying guide and several YouTube videos explaining the light bulb legislation.

Even so, the debate leaves many consumers confused.

Walk into the light-bulb aisle at any retail store and you’ll notice the shelves are filled with options and terms such as soft light, halogen, incandescent, fluorescent, compact fluorescent and high-intensity discharge.

Until now, a clear-cut answer to the question, “What is the best light bulb for both my pocketbook and the environment?” has been hard to find.

The new compact fluorescent lamps, which are recognized by their spiral shape, give off the same amount of light as incandescent bulbs, use as much as 75 percent less energy and save consumers money. They last 10 times longer than an incandescent bulb.
Some opponents of the change can be found in the aisles of retail stores.

“I’m banking on the fact that the stupid law is repealed,” said Greg Moerschell, 44, an employee at a local private equity firm who was shopping at Walgreens. “I want the choice to get whatever kind of bulb I’d like. These new bulbs are more expensive and they’ll have to come up with another entitlement for people that can’t afford it.”


In fact, the law does not ban incandescent bulbs but mandates that bulbs must now use less energy.

“The retail stores can continue to sell what they have, but inefficient incandescent bulbs are out,” said David Schuellerman, spokesman at General Electric Co., one of the nation’s largest light bulb manufacturers.

The leading light manufacturers are reflecting the wattage changes in their production. The light produced by the new bulbs is measured in lumens rather than watts.

Starting now, 100-watt bulbs will become 72 watts. In 2013, 75 watts will shift to 53 watts. In 2014, 60-watt bulbs will become 43 watts. And finally, 40-watt bulbs will decrease to 29 watts starting Jan. 1, 2015.

It seems like a simple change but not all consumers are in favor. Although it saves energy, the spiral look turns some people off.

“When I’m shopping for a light bulb, I’m always looking for a specific style of bulb,” said Lisa Tesarik, a private wealth manager in Chicago.

But GE’s Schuellerman says that consumers shouldn’t be misled into believing that the new bulbs only come in the spiral shape.

“We have innovative technology to change the shape. The covered CFL has a glass lamp that encompasses the spiral,” said Schuellerman. “And we’re constantly developing new styles.”