The Lighting Lowdown

New technology means more efficient lighting options for your home.

Soon, choosing energy-efficient  will be a must for every homeowner. Thanks to new efficiency standards set by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, U.S. retailers will start phasing out many incandescent bulbs by 2012. Happily, a wide range of new, efficient options match the quality of incandescent light but last much longer and pay for themselves through lower energy bills.

LED-ing the way

The biggest buzz in efficient lighting today surrounds light-emitting diodes (LEDs). Because they emit light using electron movement and have no filament to burn out, LEDs last as long as 10 to 20 years. They’re also four times more efficient than incandescents and, unlike compact fluorescents, contain no mercury. Though LEDs have been illuminating digital clocks, watches and appliances for years, the new LEDs are bright enough to handle many other tasks. The LR6, a recessed can-style light by Cree, is one of the first LEDs on the market with a color rendering index (CRI) higher than 90, which makes it ideal for task lighting in places such as the kitchen. Though they’re designed for ease and work with existing can ligiht fixtures, they’re pricey at more than $100 each.

Just as CFLs have dropped in price since their market introduction, LEDs are becoming more affordable. Researchers at Purdue University are exploring low-cost, metal coated silicon wafers that would help cut the expense of making an LED lamp. New advances in LED technology combined with improved manufacturing techniques could reduce the price of LED lamps to around the cost of a coffeehouse specialty, says Timothy Sands, director of Birck Nanotechnolgy Center at Purdue University. “When the cost of a white LED lamp comes down to about $5, LEDs will be in widespread use for general illumination,” Sands says. “LEDs are still improving in efficiency, so they will surpass fluorescents. Everything looks favorable for LEDs, except for that initial cost, which is a problem that is likely to be solved soon.

CFL controversy

Compact fluorescents have come a long way from the flickering, unflattering light of a decade ago. Both screw-in and pin-based bulbs are available in a wide range of light temperatures and sizes, and some are now dimmable. Energy-efficient fluorescents use one-fifth to one-third the electricity of a comparable bright incandescent bulb and can last 10 times longer. Look for Energy Star indoor fixtures with pin-based CFLs that carry a two-year warranty, double the industry standard.

Though the Energy Star program has been campaigning for Americans to use CFLs, some consumers have resisted because of concerns over their mercury content. But coal-fired power plants contribute 40 percent of the mercury released into the environment, so using an inefficient incandescent results in the release of twice as much mercury as the tiny amount contained in a CFL bulb, according to the EPA. And that’s only if the bulb is broken or improperly disposed of; as long as you properly recycle your CFL, no mercury is released. Home Depot, Ikea and True Value recycle them for free.

When shopping for efficient bulbs, you may run across cold cathode CFLs (typical fluorescents are known as hot cathode). The coils in cold cathode bulbs are een smaller than in standard CFLs, and they consume extremely low levels of electricity while producing very little heat. Cold cathode CFLs withstand extremely cold temperatures, making them good for outdoor use.

Incandescent Update

The technology behind standard incandescent has changed little since Thomas Edison invented them in 1879. Incandescents are energy hogs that use only about 10 percent of the electricity they draw for light-the rest is emitted as heat. (A 100-watt light bulb generated enough heat to bake a cake in the old Easy-Bake Ovens.) Philips was the first lighting manufacturer to introduce an updated incandescent. The company’s Halogena performs like a conventional bulb but uses halogen technology to improve its efficiency by 30 percent, thus meeting the new efficiency standards.

Regular halogens, which have been around for 50 years, are more energy-efficient than standard incandescent bulbs and can last up to two to six times longer. Though classified as incandescents because they use the same tungsten filament, halogen filaments are housed in smaller quartz bulbs filled with halogen gases. Halogen bulbs burn extremely hot, giving them a bright, clear light that resembles daylight. They work well for track and task lighting, but their extreme heat makes them a fire hazard in lamps. If you choose halogen, the best option is the more efficient infrared coated (IRC) bulb. IRC bulbs have the same bulb and filament, but the infrared coating helps produce more light for the same amount of energy. A 35-watt IRC produces the same amount of light as a 50-watt standard halogen. Both GE and Philips offer IRC bulbs.

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