The light bulb test: How best to use today’s energy-efficient choices in the house

04/22/2014 1:00 PM

04/22/2014 1:00 PM

You’d be hard-pressed to find home decor topics more boring or confusing than light bulbs. Or so I thought until Terry Mott, a lighting consultant with Rensen House of Lights, arrived at my house one morning with a dozen or so bulbs and a wealth of easily digestible information on watts, lumens and Kelvin temperature. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 began phasing out most incandescent bulbs, starting with 100-watt ones in 2012. Last year, 75-watt bulbs were phased out, and this year, 60- and 40-watt bulbs are being phased out. Watts are the measurement for how much electricity a bulb consumes. The law also required manufacturers to begin producing longer lasting, more efficient light bulbs, which include CFL (compact fluorescent light) and LED (light emitting diode) bulbs. Both consume a fraction of the wattage, but they also cost more, are odd looking and require us to learn new lingo to figure out how exactly they’ll light a room. Specifically, the number of lumens on the box indicates a bulb’s brightness, while the Kelvin temperature measures the color or warmth of its light. •  Lumens range from 450 to 2600. The higher the number, the brighter the bulb. •  Kelvin temperatures range from 2700 to 6500. The higher the number, the colder (or bluer) the color of the light. Watts no longer signify how bright or warm a light bulb is, Mott said. “This is why it’s important to read your light bulb box or go to a lighting center to talk to an expert.” I have no interest in my living or dining rooms being lit like a cold, sterile surgical center. So Mott showed me the bulbs in action in a familiar environment: my home. Over a workspace “Is that a light bulb out? Perfect!” Mott said, pulling a chair to my stove. She got up on the chair to reach one of two floodlights inset on either side of the ceiling exhaust fan. She unscrewed the burnt-out bulb and replaced it with a 65-watt incandescent reflector bulb that puts out 620 lumens. By the way, some specialty incandescent bulbs such as reflector bulbs that reflect light downward, those used in appliances, three-way bulbs and candelabra bulbs will never be phased out. Light from the Satco reflector bulb looked almost like the light from the existing incandescent bulb on the other side of the exhaust fan. Mott unscrewed that bulb and put in a 15-watt CFL reflector bulb that put out more light at 700 lumens. It consumes less than a quarter of the electricity of the previous 65-watt bulb, yet was noticeably brighter. Even though it had the same Kelvin temperature of 2700 as the incandescent bulb, the light didn’t seem as warm. That’s OK though, because it was shining on a wall-facing space where I prep food and need more light, but don’t care how warm (yellowish) or cool (bluish) it is. Finally, Mott put a 14-watt LED bulb in the same spot that put out 665 lumens of brightness. It also had a color temperature of 2700 Kelvin but was noticeably cooler than both the incandescent and CFL bulbs. Again, who cares? Not me. “People don’t like change, so they wouldn’t like that color on their face or their furniture,” Mott said. “But I don’t mind it for cooking. Some places you want to be lighter and brighter. You want that energy, you want to be able to see the task at hand.” In a chandelier Next, she put a small, flame-shaped LED bulb in the chandelier over my kitchen table. It looked weird. The lower third of it was coated in silver to hide a driver inside the bulb. It also directed the light up toward the ceiling, rather than out or down toward the table where it’s most needed. “So the (LED) candelabra bulbs are not quite there yet,” Mott said. “LED bulbs throw light all in one direction, so it’s a great spotlight.” She also noted that some manufacturers are trying to lower, or warm up, the Kelvin temperature of LED bulbs by putting a yellow coating on the outside rather than the inside. As an example, she pulled out a bulb that looked like a yellow door knob. Mott thinks it’s ugly. I think it’s interesting, maybe even sporty. Clearly, these new bulbs will either have to evolve until they look more like incandescent ones, or consumers’ tastes will have to change. One company, Cree, sells a line of LED bulbs that look like incandescent bulbs. They advertise several of them as soft-white bulbs and list a Kelvin temperature of 2700. But I could tell a distinct color difference between the light of an incandescent bulb and an LED bulb, even when they both had a Kelvin temperature of 2700. So I’m skeptical. Around the living room Our living room is dark because of limited natural daylight and no overhead lighting. I’ve scattered five lamps throughout the space, but it’s still hard to read in there, and the space can feel gloomy. Mott suggested putting a halogen uplight in a corner that doesn’t get much light and hiding it with a chair. She then tested several bulbs in the five lamps. Two of them are equipped for three-way bulbs, so she screwed in three-way CFL bulbs, only to realize that the ballasts on the bottoms were too big, prohibiting the bulbs from sitting in the socket tight enough to get the three-way benefit. She suggested three-way incandescent bulbs with a Kelvin temperature of 2700. That way, we could use them at maximum brightness while reading and at lower levels when entertaining. CFL bulbs with a Kelvin temperature of 2700 would be fine for the other lamps. The best way to use LED bulbs in rooms where you entertain, Mott said, is in inset ceiling lights around the perimeter, and they should be equipped with dimmer switches. Otherwise, they’re best in work spaces or to provide a narrow beam that illuminates an item, like a piece of artwork. “In lights that are really high and hard to reach, you should always use LED,” she added. “If you burn them three hours a day, which is the average, they will last 20 years. So the longevity of the bulb makes up for the upfront cost.” If you’re a commercial establishment and have to pay someone to change sky-high bulbs, they’ll save you even more money, she pointed out. Room for improvement The main goal of phasing out incandescent bulbs and switching to LEDs and CFLs is to lower greenhouse gas emissions from incandescent bulbs and to reduce the number of bulbs we use and the amount of energy consumed. Energy Star, a federal program created to help us use less energy, states on its website that if every home in America replaced just one incandescent bulb with a CFL, we’d save enough energy in one year to light more than 3 million homes and would prevent the release of greenhouse gas emissions equal to that of about 800,000 cars. Halogen bulbs, which also use fewer watts and last longer, are another alternative, but they have issues. They reach dangerously high temperatures that can burn skin and set fire to nearby objects. They also require special handling because the oil and salt from people’s skin can reduce the life of the bulb. Mott pointed out one downside to CFL bulbs that makes her think the industry will steer us toward using mostly LED bulbs: CFL bulbs contain mercury, a neurotoxin. “They have to be disposed of at a recycling center,” she said. “Who is going to do that? Nobody! They go into our trash cans and then the landfill and do more damage than emissions from incandescent bulbs. They also don’t do well in cold weather. They take awhile to warm up.” National hardware retailers including Lowes and Home Depot will recycle used CFL bulbs.

Kelvin temperature colors

2700-3000 provides a soft, warm white similar to that of incandescent bulbs.

3500-4100 provides a cool, bright white.

5000-6500 provides a cold light similar to natural or daylight.

Cleaning up a broken CFL bulb

• Have people and pets leave the room.

• Air out the room for 5 to 10 minutes by opening a window or door.

• Shut off central forced air heating/ air-conditioning systems.

• Scoop up glass fragments and powder using stiff paper or cardboard. Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up remaining small glass fragments and powder. Use damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes on hard surfaces.

• DO NOT VACUUM until after all other cleanup steps have been taken. Vacuuming could spread mercury-containing powder or mercury vapor.

• Put all debris and cleanup materials, including vacuum cleaner bags, outdoors in a trash container or protected area.

• Check with your local government about disposal requirements in your area. If there is no such requirement in your area, dispose of the materials with your household trash.

• If you have further questions, please call your local poison control center at 800-222-1222.

Still confused?

Picture Perfect Interiors, 11922 College Blvd., Overland Park, is hosting a free panel discussion with lighting experts at 6 p.m. Thursday. They’ll have several types of bulbs on hand for comparison and will give advice on choosing bulbs with the right amount of lumens and Kelvin Temperature for different rooms and uses. For more information, call 913-829-3365.

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