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Why people still use inefficient incandescent light bulbs

7:34 PM, Dec 28, 2013   |    comments
A plethora of more efficient alternatives to the traditional 60-watt and 40-watt incandescent light bulbs have entered the market in recent years. Some are halogens, and others are CFLs (compact fluorescent lamps) and LEDs (light emitting diodes). (Photo: Wendy Koch, USA TODAY)
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By Jolie Lee
USA TODAY Network

In 2014, you can say goodbye to the standard incandescent light bulb.

Starting Jan. 1, the United States will no longer manufacture or import incandescent bulbs - although stores can still sell what they have in stock. The phaseout is a result of federal rules to switch to more energy-efficient bulbs.

Energy-efficient bulbs cost more than incandescent bulbs but last much longer and save on energy costs in the long-term. So why are people still buying incandescent bulbs and what will the phaseout mean for you?

Cost

Incandescent bulbs cost much less than their energy-efficient alternatives - mainly CFLs (compact fluorescent lamps) and LEDs (light emitting diodes).

An incandescent bulb can cost as little as 70 cents. Meanwhile, a CFL bulb sells for at least a few dollars and an LED starts at $10 but usually runs around $20.

The problem with incandescents is you end up paying more in electricity costs. Incandescents are inefficient - 90% of the energy goes toward heat and only 10% toward light.

Incandescents also don't last as long as CFLs and LEDs. The typical incandescent bulb lasts about 1,000 hours, while a 15-watt CFL bulb lasts 10,000 hours and a 12-watt LED bulb lasts 25,000 hours. In other words, incandescents last about a year while CFLs can last 10 years and LEDs up to 25.

All told, your energy costs can be 25%-80% less by switching to energy-efficient bulbs, according to Energy.gov.

Despite the savings, many still stick with incandescents because they typically don't spend that much in the first place on lighting in their homes.

"There hasn't been a lot of incentive to go more efficient because it's not going to make a big deal on their electric bill," said Joe Rey-Barreau, a lighting design professor at the University of Kentucky and a consultant with the American Lighting Association, about why some people haven't switch to more energy-efficient bulbs.

While an office building may use 21% of its electricity for lighting, a house uses as little as 13%, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Home improvement store Lowe's did a study comparing electricity costs of an LED vs. an incandescent bulb. Energy costs for the LED added up to $30 over the bulb's 22-year lifespan. Energy costs for using an incandescent bulb over that same period added up to $165 - savings, certainly, but perhaps not significant enough for many homeowners over two decades to alter their buying habits.

Color

Incandescents are known for their warm light, which looks particularly good against skin tones, Rey-Barreau said. On the other hand, fluorescent lights have gained a reputation for casting a harsh, bluish light.

Rey-Barreau said that belief is a "carryover" from what the lights first looked like.

"Today, you can have fluorescents that match incandescents exactly," he said. Light bulb manufacturers are required to include on their label the color temperature of their bulbs, so consumers can know exactly what they're purchasing.

Life span

Some consumers complain that CFLs don't last as long as advertised. One characteristic of CFL bulbs is they are "fairly fragile" and can succumb to overheating, said Terry McGowan, director of engineering for the American Lighting Association.

"Those life ratings are established in a test lab and not established in somebody's living room fixture," McGowan said. "When you put them in a fixture and bottle them up in a glass shade, they get too hot and the life will be shortened."

LED lights can also overheat. McGowan recommends using these bulbs in light fixtures that have good ventilation.

CFL bulbs are also susceptible to shorter life spans when they are frequently turned on and off. A bathroom might not be a good place for a CFL, for example. A table lamp, floor lamp or hallway light would be more likely to extend a CFL bulb's life span, McGowan said.

Weird look

Another complaint about non-incandescent bulbs is how they look. CFLs, in particular, have a curly design.

"The corkscrew shape of the CFL was troubling" for some consumers, Lowe's spokesperson Karen Cobb said.

"We heard from customers who said it's just an unusual shape and it doesn't look as nicely as the incandescent bulbs in their light fixtures," Cobb said.

Rey-Barreau said if you don't see the shape of the bulb, the light of a CFL looks no different than an incandescent.

Habits

Part of what's driving the use of cheap, inefficient incandescent bulbs is simply that they are familiar.

"That's all people have known for most of their lives, and it's only the last five, six years this whole issue of energy efficiency has become a greater priority," Rey-Barreau said.

But LEDs are increasingly becoming popular. At Lowe's, the number of LED bulbs sold at its stores doubled in the last year, Cobb said. Currently, one in three light bulbs purchased at Lowe's is a CFL or LED bulb, she said.

LED's popularity is partly driven by consumers' familiarity with LED in other products such as TVs and computers, Cobb said.

The price of LED bulbs has also gone down significantly. The first LED bulbs to hit the market cost $30 each. Now some manufacturers offer LED bulbs for as little as $10, Rey-Barreau said.

As the cost continues to drop, he predicts LED bulbs will become "the default light source."

Follow @JolieLeeDC on Twitter.

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