Hit the switch. A pause. A hum . . . a flicker . . . then an explosion of eerie white light that casts a greenish pallor on all within its range.
No. It's not a description of the detonation of the first atomic bomb. It's just a description of what most people expect when they switch on a fluorescent light.
You are familiar with fluorescents, I'm sure: long skinny tubes that fit into inverted trays on the ceilings of schools, office buildings and even department store dressing rooms (where only the stout of heart dare try on a swimsuit under their relentless cool glare).
Not the sort of light you would want in your living room, you might think. But you would be wrong, because the home light-bulb of the future has arrived, and it is a fluorescent.
This light bulb of the future bears no resemblance to the old-fashioned tubes, however. It is compact. It fits into most ordinary sockets. And it casts a warm, flattering light that could charm even the lumpiest of us into buying a swimsuit.
Every home should have them, and here's why: Compact fluorescents are four times as efficient as ordinary incandescent bulbs.
In practical terms, this means that an 18-watt fluorescent bulb casts as much light as a 75-watt incandescent. You only use -- and only pay for -- 18 watts for light to read by instead of 75 watts. And the fluorescent bulb lasts more than 10 times as long.
The compact fluorescents are much more expensive -- about $16 apiece, as compared with the 75 cents you pay for incandescents. But you earn that back in savings on electricity: You save about $40 over the lifetime of the bulb. Since one fluorescent ($16) lasts as long as at least 10 incandescents ($7.50), you should subtract about $8.50 from that savings.
Saving electricity has benefits beyond your pocketbook. Electric power plants are among the largest industrial sources of air pollution in the world, emitting gases that contribute to acid rain and the greenhouse effect. More than 20 percent of electricity generated in the United States is used for lighting. According to the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories in California, 40 large U.S. power plants could be retired if we fully used fluorescent bulbs and other cost-effective lighting technologies.
By substituting one fluorescent for an incandescent in your house, you keep one ton of pollutants out of the air and eliminate the need for 524 pounds of coal, or a barrel of oil, or 42 gallons of gas -- enough to drive your car 1,100 miles.
The new fluorescents come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Don't be intimidated. The one-piece bulbs are just big, fat light bulbs. These are good in fixtures without shades, where the bulb will show. For an extra five dollars, you can buy a metal reflector cup which adapts the bulbs for use in a recessed can.
Fluorescent lights do have limitations. They cannot be used with a dimmer switch or in place of three-way bulbs. The one-piece bulbs should not be used in completely enclosed fixtures. (They won't catch fire, but they will overheat and shut down.) Some globes will not fit between the harps of a lamp shade, and the two-piecers are too delicate to hold a clip-on shade.
If your utility does not provide bulbs, they can be ordered from a number of places: Seventh Generation, at 1-800-456-1177; Real Goods News, at 1-800-762-7325.