August 30, 2006


How Many Lightbulbs Does it Take to Change the World? One. And You're Looking At It.: For years, compact fluorescent bulbs have promised dramatic energy savings--yet they remain a mere curiosity. That's about to change. (Charles Fishman, September 2006, Fast Company)

Compact fluorescents emit the same light as classic incandescents but use 75% or 80% less electricity.

What that means is that if every one of 110 million American households bought just one ice-cream-cone bulb, took it home, and screwed it in the place of an ordinary 60-watt bulb, the energy saved would be enough to power a city of 1.5 million people. One bulb swapped out, enough electricity saved to power all the homes in Delaware and Rhode Island. In terms of oil not burned, or greenhouse gases not exhausted into the atmosphere, one bulb is equivalent to taking 1.3 million cars off the roads.

That's the law of large numbers--a small action, multiplied by 110 million.

The single greatest source of greenhouse gases in the United States is power plants--half our electricity comes from coal plants. One bulb swapped out: enough electricity saved to turn off two entire power plants--or skip building the next two.

Just one swirl per home. The typical U.S. house has between 50 and 100 "sockets" (astonish yourself: Go count the bulbs in your house). So what if we all bought and installed two ice-cream-cone bulbs? Five? Fifteen?

Says David Goldstein, a PhD physicist, MacArthur "genius" fellow, and senior energy scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council: "This could be just what the world's been waiting for, for the last 20 years."

Swirl bulbs don't just work, they pay for themselves. They use so little power compared with old reliable bulbs, a $3 swirl pays for itself in lower electric bills in about five months. Screw one in, turn it on, and it's not just lighting your living room, it's dropping quarters in your pocket. The advantages pile up in a way to almost make one giddy. Compact fluorescents, even in heavy use, last 5, 7, 10 years. Years. Install one on your 30th birthday; it may be around to help illuminate your 40th.

In an era when political leaders and companies are too fainthearted to ask Americans to sacrifice anything for the greater good, the modern ice-cream swirl bulb requires no sacrifice. Buying and using it helps save the world--and also saves the customer money--with no compromise on quality. Selflessness and self-satisfaction, twirled into a single $3 purchase.

So far, the impact of compact fluorescents has been trivial, for a simple reason: We haven't bought them. In our outdated experience, they don't work well and they cost too much. Last year, U.S. consumers spent about $1 billion to buy about 2 billion lightbulbs--5.5 million every day. Just 5%, 100 million, were compact fluorescents. First introduced on March 28, 1980, swirls remain a niche product, more curiosity than revolution.

But that's about to change. It will change before our very eyes. A year from now, chances are that you yourself will have installed a swirl or two, and will likely be quite happy with them. In the name of conservation and good corporate citizenship, not to mention economics, one unlikely company is about haul us to the lightbulb aisle, reeducate us, and sell us a swirl: Wal-Mart.

In the next 12 months, starting with a major push this month, Wal-Mart wants to sell every one of its regular customers--100 million in all--one swirl bulb. In the process, Wal-Mart wants to change energy consumption in the United States, and energy consciousness, too. It also aims to change its own reputation, to use swirls to make clear how seriously Wal-Mart takes its new positioning as an environmental activist.

It's a bold goal, a remarkable declaration of Wal-Mart's intention to modernize and green up a whole line of business using market oomph. Teaming up with General Electric, which owns about 60% of the residential lightbulb market in the United States, Wal-Mart wants to single-handedly double U.S. sales for CFLs in a year, and it wants demand to surge forward after that.

Nothing costs more than it used to....

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 30, 2006 11:33 AM

Of course, instead of replacing 60-watt incandescents with equivalent 11-watt fluorescent bulbs the way he wants, everyone will replace the 60s with 20-watt fluorescents and get brighter lighting.

It's still all good, though.

Posted by: Mike Earl at August 30, 2006 11:55 AM

Yeah, well I've tried fluorescents many times over the years, and mostly still don't like them.
1) They flicker.
2) They cost a lot to buy--$4 vs $0.25 per bulb.
3) They don't come on instantly.
4) When they are cold (I live in Chicago), they take a looooong time to come on, and flicker really bad.
5) They deliver a light spectrum that is distincly different than a standard incandescent bulb. Maybe I'm an old fogie, but I find that most flo bulbs have an "unfriendly" spectrum.
6) They tend to hum.
7) You can't dim them.

Posted by: fred at August 30, 2006 11:57 AM

Like the electric car, compact fluorescent light bulbs have a long way to go to overcome the bad reputation that the first-generation models had. My housmates got fluorescent bulbs for our apartment bak in '92 and, man did they stink. they cast a dim little sickly light (I never thought light could look infected) and took a good 30 or 40 seconds to glumly flicker to life (that was because of the undersized ballast used to same space). In an apartment with only two windows to begin with, I seriously thought I was going to get rickets.
Now, in our glistening technologically advanced 21st century these "swirl" bulbs are really great. They cast a frosty white light, bright enough to shave by or practice amateur gynecology and they pop on with little or no delay. So, it seems that the technology has made great progress in the last 15 years, but still has that original reputation of sucking to overcome.

Posted by: Bryan at August 30, 2006 11:59 AM

In the bad ol' days, one of the dangers of fluorescents was that they contained bad chemicals that you didn't want to get loose when you broke them. (Beryllium comes to mind.) Is that still the case? What other "environmental" problems are there in their production? Can't help but wonder if the National Resources Defense Council types are just pushing these things so they can push to ban them later.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at August 30, 2006 12:09 PM

1) New ones don't
2) They last a lot longer than incandescents - the old ones I was referring to were still going strong after 15 years when we threw them out.
3) New ones do.
4) I live in a house with wood heat in Vermont, so I know cold mornings and these come on just as fast as incandescents.
5) New ones have a different light spectrum than old ones.
6) New ones don't
7) How many bulbs in your house are on dimmers?

Posted by: Bryan at August 30, 2006 12:13 PM

I bought a couple at the dollar store...put them in...they don't hum, or flicker, or take too long to come on. That's the old fluorescent. These are a new breed. Got 'em on a timer... they come on every day at 6 or so.

I'm going to replace my entire bulb force with 'em.

Posted by: Brian McKim at August 30, 2006 12:14 PM

a remarkable declaration of Wal-Mart's intention to modernize and green up a whole line of business using market oomph

By helping ease the energy crunch and lowering energy prices, they'll save themselves boatloads with lower transportation costs.

Posted by: nobrainer at August 30, 2006 12:28 PM

You guys don't see the politics in this?

The dems are trashing WM - can you picture their ads?

Posted by: Sandy P at August 30, 2006 12:29 PM

Slowly but surely as the incandescents quickly burn out we've been replacing them with swirlies.

Posted by: Bartman at August 30, 2006 12:29 PM

Since I do energy management for a living, I have to comment here.

1. These numbers are vastly overstated. Consider: Swapping 60W incand for 15W CFL
Assume: 24/7/365 runtime
kWh savings for year: 45W*24*365/1000 = 394 kWh
BTU Conversion: 394 kWh*3412 BTU/kWh = 1,345,010 BTU
Gasoline Comparison: 1,345,010 BTU / (125,000 BTU/gal gasoline)

Gasoline Savings/Year: 11 gallons

I have no idea where this yutz gets the "1 bulb - 1.3 million cars", though I suspect he multiplied by 1,000 when he should have divided to get his kilowatt-hours.

2. CFLs last longer than incandescents and are much cooler.

3. I use CFLs at home myself.

4. Best way to save energy: Turn off the damn light in the first place.

Posted by: Dreadnought at August 30, 2006 12:31 PM

I use them where possible. I also use L.E.D. flashlights and lanterns. Like the natives in New Guinea, I can tell that a steel axe beats stone for building canoes and that a shotgun beats a blowgun for shooting monkeys.

Posted by: Lou Gots at August 30, 2006 12:32 PM

I use them where possible. I also use L.E.D. flashlights and lanterns. Like the natives in New Guinea, I can tell that a steel axe beats stone for building canoes and that a shotgun beats a blowgun for shooting monkeys.

Posted by: Lou Gots at August 30, 2006 12:32 PM


If you consider the gas savings ~11 gal/bulb/year multiplied by ~110,000,000 bulbs and divided by 600 gal/year/car (rough estimate average gasoline use per car), you get ~2 million cars.

So 1.3 million correlates to a daily lightbulb use of about 16 hours.

Posted by: nobrainer at August 30, 2006 12:48 PM

That's the law of large numbers--a small action, multiplied by 110 million.

As a probabilist, I cringe. The Law of Large Numbers has a meaning. This is not it.

Posted by: John Thacker at August 30, 2006 1:14 PM

That's exactly my point. For the numbers to work out, you have to assume run times that are unrealistic for a residential application. Far better to concentrate on turning off the lights.

Additionally, less than 2% of electricity generated in the USA is oil-sourced, so the entire "taking cars off the street" argument is absurd on its face, anyway.

Posted by: Dreadnought at August 30, 2006 1:34 PM

Building compact fluorescent bulbs is something the "ancients" didn't know about.

Posted by: Joseph Hertzlinger at August 30, 2006 2:04 PM

Yes buy them up. My cousin’s husband along with a partner developed the bulb. They did it on the side and brought it to their boss who passed on it so they patented it themselves and were approached by GE. He gets a very nice check every month. More than I’ll make in life time.

Posted by: Buck at August 30, 2006 3:25 PM

We could argue about the big numbers all day. But a complete swap out delivers an energy savings that is clearly measurable on your monthly power bill. Period. I've seen it first hand.

The only non-flo bulbs at our house [inside and out] are the full-spectrum reading lights on the nightstands. And, since I started reading Orrin's book, the run time on my nightstand bulb has dropped dramatically.

Posted by: John Resnick at August 30, 2006 3:32 PM

I've been using fluorescents since 1997 and have had no complaints. There's a reason offices run fluorescents and not incandescents. The reasons homeowners haven't switched before is due to inertia and complacency than anything else.

If every household could have some sort of energy audit and be shown how much they could save without reducing their benefit, it would be amazing.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at August 30, 2006 4:14 PM

Just to get this straight, a fluorescent light bulb will work in any old lamp. How about 3 way lamps?

We have a wonderful swinging arm lamp over our desk that takes a fluorescent bulb. When we replaced it, by dumb luck we picked up one that said "day light." It's fantastic. Really sharp and bright, no glare, no flicker and it comes on before the computer does.

Buck, Congrats for having one smart cousin who knows how to pick husbands with the smarts and the courage to use his head and make his fortune.

Posted by: erp at August 30, 2006 4:17 PM

I must buy the wrong type of CFLs. The ones I buy (some within the last year) give clearly inferior light, burn out just as fast as incandescents, take 30 seconds or so to fully turn on, and cost a lot more. I can't see the energy savings compensating for the increased replacement cost. Is there some CFL technology that's come on the market in the last year? I have some swirly CFLs and long loop CFLs and they don't seem any different.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at August 30, 2006 5:49 PM

I switched almost every bulb in my house to low watt types and everything works great. I rarely, almost never, notice flicker with them (keep in mind I change friends computers who have screens set at 60 hz to 85hz because I cannot stand monitor flicker).

Posted by: abc123 at August 30, 2006 6:39 PM

I've had the swirlies in my bathroom bulb sockets for several years now, since I first saw them at Sam's Club. But many of the ones on sale right now are too wide to fit into the lamp bulb slot allowed by lampshades -- you either have to stay with the standard incandecent bulb shape, find a new lampshade with a wider bulb profile or get out the pilers or hammer and start bending the interior wire frame of the shade so the swirlie will fit into the spot.

Posted by: John at August 30, 2006 11:01 PM
Additionally, less than 2% of electricity generated in the USA is oil-sourced, so the entire "taking cars off the street" argument is absurd on its face, anyway.

Huh? Surely Orrin burns coal in his Stanley Steamer. And don't get him started on locomotives, either...

Posted by: Kirk Parker at August 31, 2006 2:33 AM

I've found that Sylvania and Philips fluorescents barely outlast incandescents. I've probably gone through a dozen of each brand, and they just don't last.

I stick with GE and Lights of America these days. They seem to have good reliability.

Posted by: BrianOfAtlanta at August 31, 2006 10:49 AM