EARTHWATCH : A Brilliant Idea : Long-life light bulbs cost more, but they can reduce power bills and end the act of bulb-snatching.

Yesterday we bought our last electric light bulb.

It all began because I was trying to atone for an act of bulb-snatching earlier in the week. And it ended with me being provoked into virtue--i.e., environmentalism.

My desk lamp had gone out (with that alarming rise in brightness followed by that "plink") and everybody at home yelled at me for trying to snatch bulbs from their rooms. So I went to the convenience store.

Every bulb was $2. That started me thinking. We must have more than 25 bulbs in the house. Fifty bucks and tax. Plus we keep five or 10 extras around all the time for replacements. But we don't really keep them because we use them. Murphy's Law: you never have a replacement bulb when yours burns out. They last a few months--a little longer if you are obsessive about turning lights off, which I had been doing to cut electric bills--but I never thought about the bulbs.

So, yesterday morning, the paper arrived with two bits of news nicely suited to my frame of mind.

* The new California environmental ballot measure "Big Green" could raise the electric bill by 20%.

* A local hardware store flyer mentioned a special on long-life bulbs.

LONG life. Twelve times longer. That's years and years before one of these suckers would die on me. I foresaw the end of embarrassing bulb-snatching.

Well, virtue and atonement have their price, but I was motivated. After a little comparison phone shopping it was off to the store during lunch break.

The price tag was understandable, I guess--$10 or $12 for an item that's going to stop you spending $25 or $30 eventually. And these fluorescent warm-tone bulbs give 75 watts worth of light for 15 watts on your power bill. So the low electricity usage is an immediate boon. My bill is going to be half of what it was last month. (If we all do this, the power companies will never have to build another generator.)

I went all the way. Replaced every bulb in the house. And put the ones we took out into storage as backup. Now we're fixed forever. I mean, with a calculator you can figure out how long a 9,000-hour bulb will last at X hours a day. But I feel like it's forever, and a relief. The statement on the long-life bulb box said each one of these will save me $50 in unpurchased electrical power over the life of the bulb and I'm inclined to believe it.

I was motivated, as I said. But if you're "just looking," prepare yourself for a jolt. Not the price. You know about that now. But the bulbs themselves. They look like Teenage Mutant Ninja Bulbs, according to my daughter. Some of them look like swords from Star Wars, or illuminated pretzels. You should discuss the various styles, brightness and color of the light they give off with the hardware person. I got several different kinds, and I'm fooling around with various combinations and really getting to like the look of them.

I feel like a pioneer, too. From chagrin to delight has been a quick journey, like getting used to "Twin Peaks" on television. All of a sudden the regular old stuff is just not as interesting.

* THE DETAILS: In Ventura County, long-life bulbs (fluorescents with screw adapters) are available at Holiday Hardware in Camarillo, Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks. Home Depot and Lumber City or your local hardware dealer sometimes stock them.

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