Lights On

Next-generation light bulbs glow with potential.

The next time you see a cartoon character with a light bulb above his head, you might find yourself wondering, “CFL or LED?” That’s right, the lowly light bulb is lowly no longer, having evolved way beyond its original incandescent roots. So how do you make sense of the range of options available today?

If your sole concern is price, there’s no better answer than a traditional incandescent bulb. Virtually unchanged since General Electric launched it nearly 120 years ago, the incandescent bulb contains tungsten, a heavy metal that glows when electricity passes by. A standard 60-watt bulb costs only about 50 cents. The drawback? Standard bulbs last just 750 hours (and long-life types merely double that), meaning that you need to change them fairly often if you use them regularly. Perhaps more problematic, incandescent bulbs are hugely inefficient, since only a small fraction of the energy they use goes to produce light, while the vast majority is wasted in the form of heat.

A “greener” alternative that can save energy and reduce your electricity bill is the swirly shaped compact fluorescent bulb. Originally developed during the energy crisis of the mid-1970s, CFLs use one-quarter of the energy of incandescent bulbs and last about 10 times longer. They also ring up at the affordable price of around $6 to $10 for a 15-watt bulb (which is comparable to a 60-watt incandescent). While early CFLs took long to reach full brightness, could not be used with dimmers, and gave off a weak, yellowish glow, the latest versions perform more like incandescent bulbs and are available in bluish-white color tones. You can also find CFLs that are shaped like typical light bulbs, with the spiral tube hidden inside. Keep in mind, however, that a CFL lights up because of a reaction involving mercury, a toxic chemical, so you cannot dispose of them with your regular garbage. Check at for local retailers that accept CFLs for recycling. You should also follow the Department of Energy’s clean-up guidelines at should you break a CFL bulb.

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Finally, an exciting development now unfolding is the debut of the LED bulb. LED (“light-emitting diode”) technology has been around for decades—producing, for example, the backlight on your cellphone—but only lately has it become viable as a home light source. A typical LED bulb emits a gleaming white light and uses about 80 percent less energy than incandescent lighting. What’s more, it can last an astonishing 50,000 hours—meaning that with average usage, you won’t need to change it for seven or more years. The downside is that LED bulbs are expensive, at more than $25 a bulb, and also currently sold at only a handful of retail and online outlets, since production is still starting up, both domestically and overseas. “But you can expect to gradually see prices come down and availability go up over the next few years,” says Randall Satin, senior partner with Green Lantern, an LED importer with warehouses in Mamaroneck and other U.S. locations.

With all this innovation in bulb technology, how fitting that the light bulb remains the universal symbol of a new and exciting idea!

Incandescent Light Bulbs The same tungsten-filament technology that GE introduced more than a century ago. Halogen, a type of incandescent lighting, adds halogen gas to the mix to create a bulb that’s longer-lasting, brilliantly white, and intensely hot. Incandescent bulbs are cheap and readily available at retail stores—but, since they burn out quickly, it’s best to put them in fixtures that are easy to reach. Halogen bulbs are great in desk lamps or accent fixtures where their bright glow supports close work or sheds light on art pieces. Incandescent bulbs are energy-guzzlers—wasteful for the environment and a reason for your astronomical electricity bill.
Compact Fluorescent A “green” alternative to the traditional incandescent bulb. Compact fluorescents use only one-quarter as much energy—and last 10 times longer. Initially, compact fluorescents were suitable only in basements or other areas where the weak, yellowish color wouldn’t annoy you. But these days, CFLs can go anywhere incandescent bulbs go, with comparable performance. Some people are uncomfortable with the mercury component—which is perfectly safe while the bulb in intact but can be a health hazard if the bulb breaks. It’s important to follow Department of Energy guidelines for cleaning up shattered bulbs. CFLs also need to be taken to a recycling facility once they have burned out.
LED The newest and most exciting light-bulb option LED bulbs offer a pleasingly bright, white light that can be used anywhere an incandescent can go—and since they can last through 50,000 hours of use, they are perfect for hard-to-reach fixtures. LED bulbs currently present the same problems as many new technologies—high price and low supply—but manufacturers expect these problems to gradually diminish as production increases in the next few years.


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