Pay now, save later with energy-stingy compact fluorescent bulbs


August 21, 1991|By Susan McGrath | Susan McGrath,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

You may have heard of compact fluorescents, the futuristic-looking light bulbs that use just a pinch of electricity and yet don't give your complexion that belly-of-a-fish look. Energy experts -- environmentalists and utility executives alike -- rave about them.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, in Berkeley, Calif., here's why:

If your electric utility burns coal to light your house, a single fluorescent bulb will -- over its 10,000-hour lifetime -- save about 528 pounds of coal. It'll prevent 1 ton of CO2 and 21 pounds of sulfur dioxide pollution from entering the air.

Your utility burns oil? The bulb will save 1.3 barrels of oil -- 56 gallons -- over its lifetime. Your utility is a nuke? The bulb will eliminate some 25 milligrams of radioactive plutonium waste.

The bulbs are expensive, it's true. A 15-watt fluorescent, which provides light equivalent to a 75-watt incandescent bulb, costs about $15. The incandescent runs less than $1. One-hundred-watt fluorescent equivalents can cost as much as $25. Are these bulbs then just for the rich and zealous?

On the contrary. Experts at the Berkeley Lab figure it this way: at 10,000 hours of use, 7.5 cents a kilowatt hour (the national average cost of electricity), a single compact fluorescent bulb will save you $33.75 over its lifetime. And because it lasts much longer than any incandescent, the bulb will save you another $7 in replacement bulbs.

You've probably heard all these far-out facts about compact fluorescents before. So why don't you have one yet? Maybe it's because, no matter how much they save you in the long run, it's hard to shell out $15 for a light bulb. Perhaps it's that your hardware store owner has never heard of them. It could be because every light in the house was designed for an incandescent. Or is it that compact fluorescents come in so many peculiar shapes and sizes, with such a variety of confusing restrictions -- on dimmers, and so on -- that you just don't know where to start?

I don't blame you. But listen to this: If every home in the United States replaced just one incandescent bulb with a compact fluorescent, we could save the equivalent of all the energy generated by a nuclear power plant running full-time for a year. So let's give it a stab.

First, the money. Light bulbs are disposable, right? They burn out on a regular basis, and you toss them in the trash. They can't be recycled because they are made of a mixture of materials, and the glass is not bottling glass.

But wait a minute. Any thinking person these days, tree hugger or tree chopper, is thinking a little more about his or her trash output. So here's a light bulb that will last you four years. It is the cloth napkin, the ceramic mug, the rechargeable battery of the lighting world.

So that's step one: Overcome a lifetime habit of thinking of light bulbs as disposables. Think of it as a glow-in-the-dark savings bond.

Now, let's find a store reasonably near you that carries a reasonable variety of bulbs. If you strike out, you can resort to any of many good mail-order sources. A store should be your first choice, though, for reasons I'll get to.

Look in the yellow pages under Light Bulbs and Tubes. Pick a couple of likely candidates and start calling. Ask how many different brands a store carries.

In addition, look for "eco" stores in your city, shops that specialize in "green" products. A call to a good health food store can help you find one.

Call your electrical utility and ask if they give away or rent compact fluorescents to customers. A number of utilities around the country do. If yours does not, nudge them a little in the right direction.

You could, for instance, call them every day for the next week, because I can't fit this whole subject into one column, and what else will you do as you sit in the dark waiting for next week's column, "A Socket-By-Socket Guide to Your Home"?

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