Air Quality

Published on May 8th, 2012 | by Scott Raybin


How Much Incandescent Bulbs Really Cost

May 8th, 2012 by  

With so much misinformation out there, consumers are not being given good information about lighting. There is especially poor reporting about the ongoing elimination of 100w, 75w, 60w, and 40w incandescent lamps from the national inventory. In fact, incandescent lighting is not being eliminated or outlawed, but what is being eliminated are the least-efficient, commonly-used versions. As long as people pick the right bulb for the result they want, in terms of lighting quality and color, the alternatives available right now can do everything that incandescents do while costing much less and consuming far less energy.

A typical misinformed assertion will be that, “a 75w incandescent lamp is less expensive than a CFL [compact fluorescent lamp].” This is irresponsible, given that the statement is true only if you use the incandescent lamp for something like a paperweight. People need to know not the cost of buying one type of lamp or another, but rather the cost of owning and using one type lamp or another. Once people have that knowledge, they quickly realize that the incandescent lamps they grew up with are just about the most expensive there are, not the least expensive.

The table below can also be of value. It compares the ten-year cost of relying on 75w incandescent lighting to the cost of owning three alternatives: a 53w high-efficiency (halogen-filled) incandescent lamp, a 13w CFL, and a 17w LED lamp. As can be seen, the ten-year cost of owning and using a 75w incandescent lamp is more than five times the cost of owning a CFL that produces about the same amount and quality of light.

Keep in mind that the cost of ownership doesn’t consider a number of other costs, such as the additional carbon dioxide and mercury that’s put into the air by coal-fired power plants and by the planes, trains, ships, and trucks used to transport lamps from the factory to a distribution center, then to a warehouse, and then to a store. That’s ten times as many trips for conventional incandescents compared to CFLs, and 25 as many trips for conventional incandescents vs. LEDs.

There’s also all the extra packaging that has to be manufactured, and all the packaging and spent lamps that wind up in a landfill. If people were simply given the facts, they’d realize that all this fuss about losing incandescent lamps is a tempest in a teapot, based on misinformation. When people stop using conventional incandescent lamps, they lose nothing, they save money, and they’re gentler on the environment we all have to share.

Many of the same people who have nothing to say about the significant environmental problems that conventional incandescent lamps cause seem to be extraordinarily concerned about the miniscule amount of mercury in CFLs, as though it were really something for the nation to worry about. Here are some FACTS:

Fact: The amount of mercury in a typical CFL is not enough to coat the head of a pin.

FactThe typical swordfish contains 20 times more mercury than a typical CFL.

Fact: When a CFL is broken, most of its mercury adheres to the glass and does not disperse into the air.

Fact: Coal-fired power plants are the nation’s most significant source of airborne mercury.

Focusing on the link between airborne mercury and coal-fired generation of electricity, the truth is that reliance on inefficient incandescent lamps as “freedom of choice” is unacceptable. If my neighbor decides to hoard 100w incandescent lamps and keep using them, my neighbor causes unnecessary generation of electricity. The unnecessary generation of electricity forces me to inhale mercury that would otherwise not be there. What happens to my freedom of choice? What happens to my family’s freedom of choice? It’s like being forced to inhale second-hand cigarette smoke simply because some people equate freedom of choice with doing what they prefer to do even if it harms others.

The new lighting-efficiency targets require people to give up nothing in terms of lighting quality, convenience, and versatility. The only thing they really require people to do is decide about the kind of lamp they want to use and how much money they want to save, and that is not a bad thing.

Scott Raybin @greensavingsco

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  • Mike

    Fluorescent bulbs literally drive me crazy, and I’ve heard that some autistic people have serious reactions to the flicker that fluorescents inevitably produce. I have invested in a couple LEDs, and they seem a bit better, but Halogen is just so warm.

    I want to save the planet, but fluorescents make me anxious! What do I do?

    • That’s very weird. Modern CFLs don’t seem to be any different from incandescents in light quality. And as far as I’m aware (and I use many), they no longer flicker.

  • baby2000

    Interesting video:
    I have a lot of CFLs; however, The non-dimmable aspect makes them less useful. Also, a higher wattage is required for garages, closets, outdoors, or other situations where you need immediate light rather than waiting for a warmup. They have a short lifetime if cycled frequently. They do produce RF noise; an incandescent, unless being dimmed, will not. Finally, it’s been found that people who have more efficient lights leave them on longer.
    All in all the push to go to them–it took a lot of time and energy (literally energy to manufacture them)–was probably ahead of it’s time and it would have been better to wait for LED technology to become viable. Nonetheless, since they’re being subsidized, I’ll save money and buy them even though I don’t agree with the plan.

    • Bob_Wallace

      There are dimmable CFLs. And startup time is pretty quick.

      Don’t forget that incandescents start losing brightness from the beginning. You might get speedier times to full brightness, but full brightness drops over time.

      I watched your video. It shovels a large dose of BS. IMHO.

      It makes a huge deal about using CFLs in places where they are going to get turned on and off a lot and barely mentions how much energy save in “normal” use.

      It seems to assume that all the mercury in the bulb will be release into the environment rather than recycled.

      It makes crazy claims about the price of CFLs rising to $12 each when there are no more incandescents to provide competition. I don’t believe there are any US federal government subsidies for CFLs and I can buy them for less than $1 each without any utility company subsidy. Just look on Amazon.
      I’d say that your video was funded by someone with an agenda and is significantly short on science….

  • AP Jones

    At least 75% of my house utilizes fluorescent and LED lighting. I simply cannot accept cold light in my living room. Nothing better than incandescent lighting in these areas.

  • Electric38

    Why use a 17watt when an 8 watt will do? Also, the incandescent and CFL replacement cost (labor) is eliminated with the 50,000 hour lifetime of the LED.

    Another hidden benefit… those switching to a consumer owned solar PV rooftop will find they can use the “extra” watts to charge their electric vehicle battery. Leaving much more power to sell back to the utility.

  • I will stop using incandescent bulbs when they pry them from my cold dead hands. The truth is the lower wattage bulbs are no longer produced in this country. Although congress included language that allows these bulbs to be sold, they did not eliminate the ban on manufacturing them. So, US companies are focusing on CFLs and LEDs. China and Mexico will be more than happy to manufacture and sell incandescent bulbs here for many years.

    • Bob_Wallace

      There are so few people like you that you won’t have a noticeable impact on our future electricity use. Most people aren’t going to be willing to waste money just to make a political statement.

      So, go ahead, smuggle your precious light bulbs back from wherever you can find them.

      Fact is, much of the rest of the world has already given up on incandescents. I can’t say that I’ve seen a single incandescent bulb in Asia during the last 10+ years. Same is true for the parts of South and Central America I’ve visited.

      The handful of folks like you aren’t likely to keep anyone manufacturing alive for long.

      Sooner or later you’ll die. Whomever takes your place on Earth is not likely to be as much of a dunderhead….

    • Luke

      You’re like an old grandma who insists she keep her computer stuck on Windows 95 and using ‘the Internets Explorer 5.5’.

      In other words, you’re ignorant and unaware of the awesome new LED lights on the block.

      • Undecider

        There’s no need to have the latest and greatest garbage. When you get older, you’ll understand what it means to use what you’re comfortable with.

        CFLs and LEDs are overrated. And in terms of older versions of Windows, the NSA has a lot less connections to them.

  • Hope

    I have LED lights throughout the house. I completely retrofitted throughout the house circa 9 months ago. No dropouts, no problems, and a very clean light. At under 175w for my entire house versus 1000w, not a bad saving.

    I installed them after being wildly impressed by the waterproof tape light I used in my bathroom installation about 18 months ago. It uses under 50w, puts out almost 1500 lumens, and not a single person walks in and doesn’t say my bathroom lights look cool.

    CFL if you must, LED if you can, but incandescents are just last century’s tech.

  • CFL’s and LED’s DO NOT necessarily last ten years or even ten months.
    Also, there are about 4 billion bulbs in the US. that is 4 billion potential sources of mercury contamination.
    It is not trivia. A tiny amount of mercury can ruin your brain/nervous system.
    There are many other factors to consider. Some people can not tolerate fluorescent light of any kind. Halogens produce tremendous heat.
    Also the current offering of alternative lighting is often inadequate, confusing and expensive.
    This is from someone who uses NO incandescent bulbs anywhere.

    • Altair IV

      “CFL’s and LED’s DO NOT necessarily last ten years or even ten months.”

      Weasel words. What is their actual average lifespan? As with everything, there’s a probability curve. There are also bulbs that last much longer than the average. Certainly if you buy cheap, low-end stuff you’re bound to have more early failures.

      “Also, there are about 4 billion bulbs in the US. that is 4 billion potential sources of mercury contamination.”

      Potential ≠ actual. How many CFL bulbs actually get broken? How much of that mercury actually ends up in the environment?

      “It is not trivia. A tiny amount of mercury can ruin your brain/nervous system.”

      It’s certainly trivial compared to the amount spewed out by coal-burning power plants. reducing the need for coal will remove far more mercury from the environment than CFL’s add, even accounting for a percentage that get broken or not not recycled properly. And if you’re really worried about your own personal safety, there’s always LED’s.

      “There are many other factors to consider. Some people can not tolerate fluorescent light of any kind. Halogens produce tremendous heat.”

      Then the very small percentage of the population who have those concerns should buy something else. The vastly larger regular population can use CFL’s with no problems.

      “Also the current offering of alternative lighting is often inadequate, confusing and expensive.”

      Inadequate? Maybe. I suppose it depends on the area and the actual needs of the individual consumer. Confusing? Certainly. But that’s because it’s a relatively new area of technology. The standards are still being worked out and consumers still need to be educated.

      Expensive? There’s a whole article right at the top of the page demonstrating where the real costs lie.

      “This is from someone who uses NO incandescent bulbs anywhere.”

      If that’s true, from the tone of your post, it appears that you like sitting in the dark. 😉

  • Guest

    You’re missing a couple things. Incandescent bulbs don’t last ten years – so you need to also factor in the cost of buying additional bulbs. Your LED figure seems high – the typical figure I’ve heard is a 90% reduction over an incandescent bulb. One of the commenters below also mentioned, LED’s last the longest – so a 10 yr timeframe for LED’s is limited. Also, the CFL price you give here is too high. You can buy a four-pack from Lowe’s for $8.

  • Luke

    Good article. Firstly, I would like to point out freedom of choice doesn’t actually exist. There is no such thing as freedom of choice in this country. There’s only a handful of banks, and only a few oil companies – but you can always buy a bagel in 19 different flavors. It’s an illusion of choice. Freedoms are nothing more than temporary privileges.

    Secondly, I always get sick of hearing the argument that “CFL’s produce a poorer quality of light”. I’ve never noticed it, and even if they do (apparently), why should we have to stop the progress in increasing our energy efficiency if the light isn’t as warm/cool as you’d like it? It’s an argument made by selfish idiots.

  • Ross

    Just playing devils advocate here but the icon indicating incandescents are forbidden probably doesn’t help the more nuanced message you’re trying to get across.

  • PRei

    Good point of course, that people tend to forget usage costs,
    though whatever any savings, bulbs are bought for light quality and other reasons too

    There is a particular irony about how some legal incandescents
    waste a lot more energy and money in usage than the banned types

    • Undecider

      There will be no cost savings. Once the power companies notice a dip in earnings, they’ll raise the rates.

  • Please correct the cost comparison table. It is disingenuous to imply usage 0.4 (40% of something) for a 17wLED lamp as only a whole lamp is the minimum which one can purchase. If you want to do a 25 year comparison fine, however do not make any point using a nonsensical narrative as it undermines your credibility.

    The people you are fighting need only one thing, point, error, hyperbole or whatever, to tear apart common sense to justify their own ignorance.

    Additionally, cost benefit tables would better serve math impaired highlighting the most benefit. By defining time used per application. For instance, an incandescent in a closet which is used an hour-ish per week; LED overnight outdoor lighting, etc.

  • spiders

    You can dim most LEDs, they work quite well, and they have good light characteristics. I haven’t run into the RF noise that Buddy mentions (yet). Up front cost is coming down, and I do agree with Buddy that hopefully there will be some better quality controls put into place.

    I did just have two CFLs fail after about a year (purchased at the same time, though used in different fixtures), and while it was a pain to have to replace them, the warranty did cover replacement of both bulbs (Earthtronics bulbs sold by True Value as their store brand, “Westpointe”).

    I had some really old CFLs (some of the originals) that lasted 15+ years, and still have some that are still going after 5-6 years, but the new ones are cheaper and don’t seem to last as long.

  • Buddy

    IF a CFL bulb would last 10 years, I’d agree with your assertions. LED lights are a better choice, except for their obnoxious habit of generating radio frequency noise when poorly constructed (way too often). There needs to be a check and balance on the production of both of these devices to ensure they are economical replacements for the consumer, not just a ‘do this because it’s good for you’ scenario.

    • Bob_Wallace

      My CFLs are lasting more than ten years. My oldest is over 15 years old.

      LEDs will likely replace CFLs within the next few years, but at the moment CFLs are a good option. They save almost as much power and they cost far less.

      BTW, I have one CFL that produces RF noise. It’s not a big problem, only noticeable if I’m tuning in a distant station.

  • Can’t dim CFLs. Even the ones that are supposed to be dimmable, aren’t.
    That’s a deal breaker.

    • Luke

      LED lightbulbs are a good choice then. Plus they produce a much more technically accurate light than CFL’s or even incandescents.

    • Dcard88

      Mine works great and I only buy the cheap ones at HD.
      And the 13w CFL comparison is wrong becuase you need a 16w to repace a 60w incandescent, but they cost less than $2 at HD if you buy a 4 , 6, or 12 pack

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