In Battle Of The Bulbs, It's Watts Vs. Lumens

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Michael Turner, director and Rauner distinguished service professor, Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics, University of Chicago, Chicago, Ill.

Ron Cowen, astronomy writer, Science News, Washington, D.C.

A move to roll back energy standards for light bulbs failed this week in Congress; new bulbs will have to be at least 25 percent more efficacious by 2014. Lighting expert Mark Rea discusses the new standards, and whether some incandescent light bulbs might not make the grade.

IRA FLATOW, host: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Up next, the future of light bulbs. This week, Congress tried and failed to pull the plug on legislation that would force light bulb makers to start making more energy-efficient bulbs. The Energy Independence and Security Act, which was passed under then-President George W. Bush, remains in place and sets new standards for common household bulbs. The new laws require bulb makers to make the bulbs put out more light per watt.

Some bulbs like the common 100-watt incandescent may have - that you have hanging over your kitchen table, well, it may not make the grade, at least in its present form, so they'll be phased out over the next few years. What will take their place? Lots of folks aren't thrilled with the CFLs, compact fluorescents. There's complaints about the quality of the light, concerns about mercury being inside of them and what happens if you drop them and break them. What about the new generations of LEDs?

Yes, they're expensive, but they use less energy, and those costs will probably be coming down. So what new technology? What would you like to see? Our number is 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Would you be willing to spend, you know, a few extra cents on a compact fluorescent or an LED? Let me bring on my guest. Mark Rea is director of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy. He joins us from his office there. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

MARK REA: Thank you, Ira. Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: You're welcome. The debate about light bulbs is not that compact fluorescents are more efficient, is that they are more efficient at using electricity. Correct?

REA: Yes, they are.

FLATOW: And so for X number of watts, you get more light out per bulb than incandescent?

REA: Yeah. That's the notion of efficacy, lumens per watt, yes, higher lumens per watt for CFLs and LEDs.

FLATOW: But when you decide to go out and buy a CFL, it's a lot - you have more choices than you do than an incandescent. It used to be like, you know, in the old Model T Ford days, you can get any color you want as long as it's black. It's - now, you just go into when you buy an incandescent, you get anything you want. It's going to basically have sort of a dullish yellow color, isn't it?

REA: Well, it's interesting. There have been trends over the last 30, 40 years to actually coat incandescent lamps, so that's not strictly true but generally true that that's right. You do get them in different flavors for CFLs and LEDs, and the choices are much more limited with incandescent. That's true.

FLATOW: Are these new regulations going to ban some of the bulbs we have today?

REA: Well, yeah, I think in - we're already seeing that in California. In 2012, next year, we're going to see the 100-watt lamp, incandescent lamp, as we know it, is going to be disallowed for sale. Yes, that's correct. And then, there's a staging to lower wattages being restricted as years to come from 2012.

FLATOW: And what is - why do people have problems with this - with the old law, the 2007 law that people in Congress wanted to repeal it?

REA: Well, I think it's really a two-part issue here that comes together. We don't really just have bare light bulbs hanging in our homes. We actually put them into fixtures of various types - your family's Tiffany lamp to down lights. And the infrastructure that holds that lamp was designed to hold that particular type of technology, the incandescent lamp. And if you're focused on lumens per watt or lumens or the light, the bundled features that are associated with an incandescent lamp are not necessarily comparable as you go to a different technology.

For example, the CFL tends to weigh more than an incandescent lamp. So if you have a favorite sort of table lamp that is carefully balanced, you put a heavy lamp in there it won't stay up. These features are often forgotten when you're just focused on lumens per watt or lumens. You really have to think about the bundled technologies that fit into the existing infrastructure that's there. And there are some more subtle issues, too. You mentioned color. You know, some people might like to change the decor and change the light source, but other people would just - rather just stick to one change.

So I think we don't - we really haven't discussed these bundled features well enough, and so people come back with a lamp they expect the same bundled features of an incandescent. And then, they don't always get it, and they sometimes are disappointed.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let's go to Bob in Berne, Indiana. Hi, Bob.

BOB: Hi.

FLATOW: Hi, there. Go ahead.

BOB: Well, my issue with light bulbs and I've used light bulbs like LED and fluorescent. My problem with the fluorescent light bulbs is that they tend to be of low quality. And even though they promise - high.

FLATOW: Yeah. You're dropping...

BOB: High.

FLATOW: You're in and out there, so I'm...

BOB: I'm sorry.

FLATOW: It's OK. So you're saying that they're like cheap bulbs, the - they're made cheap...

BOB: In my experience is even if though promised a longer life span, especially if they're exposed to any heat, they don't last as long, sometimes only - you know, I've had some burn out in just a couple of weeks, whereas an incandescent light bulb would last longer.

FLATOW: Yeah. Good question. Thanks for the call. I have noticed that myself. I'm actually starting - I have a lot of light bulbs there, and I'm starting to put dates on them in the ceiling once, because they turn brown and burn out, you know, in a matter of months sometimes, Mark.

REA: Yeah. The heat is unkind to some of these technologies. So when you put them into an open air application, like your table lamp that's open, you probably will not be disappointed. But if you put them into a closed ceiling fixture, the temperatures rise and the electronic components begin to deteriorate, so you get short life.

But one thing, as a purchaser, you need to be aware of the Energy Star label which goes through a number of testing procedures to make sure that the quality is going to be there. So you can buy those with Energy Star labels, those without. You're much less likely to be disappointed if you get an Energy Star label on the CFL that you're going to buy.

FLATOW: I've tried to find, you know, high-quality bulbs. I actually have bulb that are 15 years old that are still working...

REA: Yes.

FLATOW: ...the original ones. I think they were made from Philips, somebody like that and...

REA: Well, again, I think that the application of the lamp - I mean, again, it comes back to the incandescent. You know, you put an incandescent on your porch or you can put it in a ceiling fixture and it's a robust technology. It's not going to fail. But CFLs do not like hot environments and so you're more likely to be successful in those applications that minimize heat.

FLATOW: Hmm. And this is - and fluorescents like to stay on, don't they? They - you actually wear them out more by turning them on and off. Is that not correct?

REA: Well, that's a bit of an old wives' tale actually.



REA: It's a - your life is determined by how frequently you switch. But most of the technologies, the cathodes that actually get the light moving in that tube is going to be fine, robust and from a cost point of view, energy-savings. If you leave it off for a minute and a half, you're already recouping the loss that you might get in lamp light from the energy savings you have. So you should not be afraid to turn them off. Turn them off when you don't need them, absolutely.

FLATOW: There you go. Nancy(ph) in Columbus. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

NANCY: Thank you for your show, Ira. I look forward to it every year.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

NANCY: My concern with these new light bulbs is I do hear people talking or educating the public about disposal. And I'm concerned about the - most people taking those light bulbs and throwing them into their trash and mercury re-entering the water supply and the environment.

FLATOW: Not to mention your house.

NANCY: Right. That - well, you do hear that about if they get dropped in the house. But I am very concerned about them. I love LED lights. I wish everyone would replace their HALED(ph) lights with those, because those are very polluting also. And I'm not just opposed to change, but I do think these are ugly to look at and they have an ugly light. And I'm concerned about that mercury re-entering the environment.

FLATOW: All right. Well, let's get an answer from Mark.

NANCY: Thank you.

FLATOW: You can go answer your doorbell. Go ahead.


NANCY: Thanks, bye.


REA: Well, you know, the first of all, I want to point out the U.S. EPA has some guidelines on how to deal with broken CFLs and that's a good procedure. But one thing is that people are - often forget is the offset, particular in Ohio, where they burn fossil fuels, you're offsetting more mercury into the environment by using more efficient technology than you are that which is contained within the CFL. Now, obviously, the distribution is different and so on, and there are some considerations with regard to the concentration at any one point. But I think that we've had fluorescent lamps since 1939. They've all contained mercury - much, much less mercury in the last, say, 10 years than they were prior to that.

So I think that, yes, it's a legitimate concern. EPA has some guidelines on how to deal with that, but I think the net benefit of mercury into the environment is improved by fluorescent lights rather than made worst.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. How quickly can we expect the LEDs to come down in price? They're pretty expensive.

REA: Well, you know, they say it's a race to the bottom.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah.

REA: Everybody is trying to get cheaper and cheaper products out there. I think you can follow some reasonable trends. I think that people are pretty good at predicting what the price points are going to be over the next five years. So there'll be a steady decline year after year for the next three to five years probably. I don't think it's going to be 60 cents at the checkout counter, but you will definitely have a much less expensive product in two to three years.

FLATOW: There are many states that subsidize, give you a little rebate for buying CFLs. Possibly they'll do LEDs the same way.

REA: Yes. I think that was certainly the story in compact fluorescents in the late '80s and '90s. Rebates was a large part of trying to transform the market back at that time. It's an interesting sideline, I think, Ira, that that was not very successful. And people, again, focused on just lumens per watt. They couldn't understand it. But the form factor of those old CFLs was very different. If you recall, Ira, they had sort of a long tube that stuck out, and sometimes they stuck down into your ceiling space and that sort of thing.

The real transformation came, yes, with price. No question about that. But the form factor that the curly Q or the pigtail shape is the one that really began to get the CFL market moving because it was a form factor that were more consistent with the existing infrastructure that supports them. That was a big deal, just changing the shape.

FLATOW: Yeah. I recall that. One last question for you, it's a tweet, and it comes from DVA John(ph). It says, is there anyway that the incandescent bulbs could be modified to meet the energy requirements from the law?

REA: Well, it's an interesting thing. That's a great question. We could have 30 percent higher efficacy in our light bulbs today. But the life of the lamp would only be a few hundred hours instead of a thousand hours, which you expect. So there's an optimization that the industry has evolved over the last 100 years between how many lumens or how much light you get out, what's the efficacy and the life. It would take a technological innovation to change that, keep all those other - that is, the lumens and the life constant while increasing efficacy. But it's certainly conceivable with some high technology on infrared reflecting films to be able to do that.

But remember, you can get that today. You're just only going to have a couple hundred hours of your lamp life and you'll be changing light bulbs but you can get that efficacy today.

FLATOW: All right. Mark, thank you for taking time to talk with us.

REA: My pleasure, Ira. Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Mark Rea is the director of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

And now to continue our theme of light bulbs, here is Flora Lichtman, our multimedia editor. Hi, Flora.


FLATOW: And you certainly have done your homework on this one.

LICHTMAN: Yes, we did our own illumination investigation this week with David Brooks. He's the owner of a real - it seems like a New York landmark, this place. He's the owner of Just Bulbs. It's on the Upper East Side of New York. And they sell just bulbs.

FLATOW: Just bulbs.

LICHTMAN: Just bulbs, just light bulbs.

FLATOW: And thousands of them in that store.

LICHTMAN: 36,000 different kinds...

FLATOW: 30...

LICHTMAN: that store.

FLATOW: Any bulb you ever want...


FLATOW: ...he's got it.

LICHTMAN: And it's like a shoebox, so it's real - they're crammed into drawers, floor to ceiling. It's very hard to get around. But it's really a neat place if you're in the nearby area and looking for a light bulb, you can't go wrong.

FLATOW: And it's a great place to get educated about the different kinds of bulb...

LICHTMAN: Exactly.

FLATOW: ...which is why you did. You went out there.

LICHTMAN: That's what we did this week. So we - I was a little bit skeptical about CFLs because the CFL I have in my house, and maybe it's old, or I just picked out wrong - is really ugly. It's that hospital blue color and it looks terrible. I mean, I turn on the light and people are like, turn that off.


LICHTMAN: So we went to see if really there are other options. And it turns out there are six shades of CFLs, ranging from a yellow that approximates an incandescent, to the sort of very blue. And more than that, David Brooks is really, like, I don't know why anyone would want that really yellow color. It makes everything look antique-y. And he will give you expert advice about what color to choose for your living space.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: So if, you know, if you have vibrant colors, he says, red or green, go with Florida sunshine. It's right in the very middle of the...


FLATOW: Well, there's a bulb that the color is called Florida sunshine.

LICHTMAN: How could you go wrong with that?

FLATOW: I feel the - I feel it already on my skin.

LICHTMAN: But he said also, if you have blue, like dark blues and slates in your house, you might actually want that blue light bulb because it really makes those colors pop out, so interesting.

FLATOW: And - yeah. And that's the advantage of the fluorescents is you can choose your color. You know, with incandescents, that's it, you know?

LICHTMAN: It sounds like your - you know, there's some variation. But you're pretty much stuck.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: And this, you really can choose your color.

FLATOW: These are just like designer colors. You can go in. And in your video - it's up on our website at It's our Video Pick of the Week. You can see the tour and the - well, David gives you a...

LICHTMAN: David Brooks.

FLATOW: you a sample of each color light, right?


FLATOW: And you show it.

LICHTMAN: And different shapes, that's the other thing. I thought, OK, maybe some people don't like the spiral or the curly Q thing. But they come in, you know, all different kinds of shapes, the chandelier shape, the sort of normal light bulb shape but it's frosted. So if you want to just forget it's a CFL, you can - can't see through it.

FLATOW: And he had some advice for our listeners and viewers, is to stock up now because what did he say? This was amazing.

LICHTMAN: This was amazing. I hadn't heard this from anybody else, actually, but he says that phosphorous, which is used in CFL production and sort of going up in price. And so he's heard from his sources that CFLs are about to go up in price, so buy now.



FLATOW: Well, he gets to see the price list in advance, so he must know when the new stock is coming in.

LICHTMAN: But, you know, most people are hoarding the incandescents, he said.

FLATOW: Is that right?

LICHTMAN: People are buying - they're calculating how many sockets they have and how long they're going to live, and then they're buying thousands...


LICHTMAN: ...and putting them under beds, he says.

FLATOW: How long they're going to live?

LICHTMAN: That is how attached people - people love - their love for incandescents cannot be dimmed, Ira.

FLATOW: I can't top that.


FLATOW: Thank you for illuminating us.

LICHTMAN: No, I think you just did.

FLATOW: No, no. Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: That's our Video Pick of the Week up there on our website. It's at And you can also take a tour - it's a great tour of how to shop for a fluorescent light bulb.

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