Light bulbs can save money and the planet at the same time.

One of the easiest ways to reduce your electric bill is to replace old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs. It may also be the most cost-effective and practical way for the average American to contribute to the fight against global warming. And soon you’ll have no choice. Under terms of the recently signed Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, standard incandescent bulbs will be phased out within the next five years.

Incandescent bulbs, which have changed little from the days of Thomas Edison, have a fragile filament that when heated to the point of glowing emits a bright yellow light. The disadvantage is that most of the electricity used by this kind of bulb is wasted as heat, enough heat in fact that incandescent bulbs can significantly raise room temperature, leading to even more electricity use in the form of air conditioning.

Compact fluorescents are capable of producing the same amount of light as an incandescent bulb, while using only one quarter of the electricity. Unlike the fluorescent tubes common in office buildings, compact fluorescents use different phosphors, and typically give off a natural, warm light that is comparable to incandescent bulbs. A standard 100-watt incandescent bulb produces about 1600 lumens of light, while a compact fluorescent giving off the same amount of light uses only 23 watts of electricity.

Some manufacturers claim that compact fluorescents have a lifespan six to ten times as long as a comparable incandescent light, although in my experience the first generation bulbs did not last nearly as long as manufacturers claimed. While the initial cost of purchasing compact fluorescents is generally higher than buying a comparable incandescent, the energy savings combined with the longer life adds up to a significant savings over time. The cost of CFLs has been steadily dropping as well, and I’ve recently found CFL bulbs in Missoula priced at less than a dollar apiece.

While I’m not a huge fan of Walmart, I do applaud their corporate commitment to promoting compact fluorescents. According to Walmart, if every one of their 100 million customers bought just one CFL bulb, it would eliminate the need to burn 11 million tons of coal. has a calculator that estimates shoppers who purchase one CFL bulb will save $35 on their electric bill over the life of the bulb.

Approximately 25% of the average homeowner’s energy bill represents the cost of lighting. At my house I figure we spend about $100 per month just to keep the lights on. (Disclaimer: my two teenaged children figured out how to turn a light switch on when they were toddlers, but still haven’t realized that lights can be turned off as well.)

I’ve been buying compact fluorescents since the now defunct Montana Power Company began its “Switch ‘N Save” program in the 1990s, and routinely install compact fluorescents every time an incandescent light burns out. Although I’ve replaced the most commonly used lights in my house with CFLs, I still have quite a number of incandescent bulbs that need replacing.

Frequently turning CFL bulbs on and off reduces their life span, so for maximum efficiency and lifespan they should be used in fixtures that are on for several hours at a time. Most compact fluorescents come in a double spiral shape that provides the best light distribution, but they are available in numerous other shapes as well, including decorative globes and candelabras. There are also special bulbs for use with dimmer switches and 3-way fixtures. Locally, the best selection of styles, sizes and shapes that I have found are at Ace Hardware, Western Montana Lighting, Lowes, and Walmart.

Although compact fluorescents make sense from both a financial and environmental standpoint, there is a downside. Fluorescent lights contain mercury vapor, and are classified by the EPA as Universal Waste. Any fluorescent bulb should be recycled rather than thrown in the trash. Palmer Electric in Missoula (406-543-3086) will recycle fluorescent bulbs for a small fee. Although a single bulb contains only a very small amount of mercury, if you break one inside your home you should follow government cleanup guidelines (see In addition, many people who suffer from migraines and epilepsy believe that compact fluorescents, particularly the older bulbs, can cause headaches and seizures.

In spite if these drawbacks, installing compact fluorescent bulbs is good for both your pocketbook, and for the planet, and there aren’t a lot of products on the market that can make that claim.


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