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.
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