Using compact fluorescent light bulbs is a great idea and can save more than $30 on each bulb you replace, even factoring in a higher purchase price.
But buying compact fluorescent lamps, or CFLs as they're called, takes more knowledge than buying incandescent bulbs. That may be why they still only make up about 5 percent of the light-bulb market, according to Department of Energy estimates.
Traditional bulbs are a commodity, meaning you can buy on price because they're roughly the same unless you're choosy about the color or intensity of the light. For proof, ask yourself whether you know the brand of bulbs in your fixtures now. And incandescents are mostly interchangeable in various fixtures.
But incandescent bulbs are really little heaters that happen to give off a small percentage of their energy as light. Compact fluorescents are about four times more efficient and don't give off much heat at all. They also last eight to 15 times longer. That's why they save so much money and energy.
"If used in the right location, you'll be thrilled for years, and they'll save you a ton of money," said Wendy Reed, spokeswoman for the government's Energy Star program. "I know in our house, we have cut back our electricity bills a ridiculous amount."
Last week, we looked at money reasons to use compact fluorescents. Here, we'll provide tips on shopping for CFLs.
-- Take baby steps
At a savings of more than $30 per bulb, consumers might be tempted to run out and buy CFLs for all their fixtures. But start with replacing your five most-used bulbs. Outdoor porch lights that automatically turn on every night are an example.
By easing into CFLs, you can get a sense of the differences. For example, you might note a slight delay before the light turns on, and a delay before it becomes fully bright. The size might be slightly different and the shape will definitely be different, with many looking like an ice cream cone spiral.
"I don't recommend people go out and just replace every single bulb in their house," Reed said. "What I do recommend is they replace the bulbs they use the most."
-- Think brightness, not watts
The most basic relearning with CFLs is in looking at the wattage. We've been trained to know a 100-watt bulb is very bright and a 40-watt bulb is dimmer. But watts refer to how much energy the bulb sucks from your electrical system.
CFLs use about a quarter of the energy. So, the equivalent of a 60-watt incandescent is a 15-watt CFL.
Brightness is more appropriately measured in lumens. For example, a traditional 60-watt bulb and a 15-watt CFL both produce about 800 lumens. More lumens means more light. The good news is you probably won't have to bother with these conversions. The packaging of many CFLs prominently displays its incandescent equivalent. If light from a CFL appears dim, step up in wattage. That's the great thing about the low-wattage CFLs--you can put a much brighter bulb in the same fixture.
-- Follow the Star
Buy CFLs certified as Energy Star, the government-backed labeling program for energy-efficient products. It will be marked on the package.
Energy Star compact fluorescents will give the highest-quality light and save you the most money. Energy Star bulbs use at least two-thirds less energy than incandescents to provide the same amount of light and are likely to last 10 times longer. Certified bulbs generally turn on within one second, achieve full brightness within three minutes and produce no sound. They also must come with at least a two-year warranty.
"If a manufacturer has not bothered to earn the Energy Star, or can't earn it, there's a reason," Reed said. "It's not the same."
-- Seek multipacks
The best deals on CFLs are in multipacks found at such retailers as Costco, Home Depot, Lowe's, Sam's Club, Wal-Mart and BJ's Wholesale. For a regular lamp bulb, a four-pack for $10, or $2.50 per bulb, is a good price.
-- Specialty bulbs
Regular CFLs won't reduce in brightness with a dimmer switch. You'll have to find CFLs specifically labeled as dimmable, which are more expensive and are not guaranteed to work in your fixture. And be aware that the dimming range is narrower than with traditional bulbs.
This is one area where CFL technology has not quite caught up. So try replacing bulbs in non-dimmable fixtures first before venturing into dimmable ones. Three-way CFLs work the same as incandescents, but are also more expensive than regular CFLs. Reflector flood bulbs, globe bulbs and other shapes are available as compact fluorescents.
-- When color counts
Bulb color is measured with color temperature, in "degrees Kelvin." If you want a similar light color as many incandescent bulbs, look for CFLs with the color temperature of 2,700 degrees Kelvin or labeled "warm white," which has a yellowish hue. The color at 3,000 will be neutral white, while those over 4,000 will be bluish-white, or "daylight."
-- Search for bulbs
To find bulbs, start with an online guide by advocacy group Environmental Defense at www.environmentaldefense.org/go/cflguide. The guide, which includes reviews by people who used the bulbs, asks where you'll use the bulb and what shape it is, along with any special features you want, such as being dimmable. It then suggests appropriate brands and model numbers of CFLs.
The Energy Star CFL Web site, www.energystar.gov/cfls, has a product search section, along with other information.
Be aware that CFLs contain a tiny amount of mercury, though hundreds of times less than thermostats or old-style thermometers. For that reason it's best not to dispose of CFLs in the household trash if better options exist. Find out your disposal options at www.earth911.org or by calling 1-877-EARTH911. A full discussion of the mercury in CFLs is available on the Energy Star CFL Web page.
-- Save receipts
Warranties on CFLs are very long, sometimes five years or more. So keep receipts in case a CFL doesn't last as long as it should and you have to have it replaced under terms of the warranty.
Don't be overwhelmed by these detailed buying tips. The short guide to buying CFLs is simply to buy a multipack of Energy Star bulbs and try them.
"They really are a no-brainer, once you get past some of these initial educational areas," Reed said.
Gregory Karp is a personal finance writer for The Morning Call, Allentown, Pa., a Tribune Co. newspaper. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For additional discussion on spending wisely, see the Spending Smart blog at http://blogs.mcall.com/spendingsmart/.