RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—It was on this day, October 21, 131 years ago, that Thomas Edison successfully tested the first lightbulb sold to the public. Yet, despite the Industrial Revolution that followed that bright idea, we're still using essentially the same bulb nearly a century and a half later. True, incandescent bulbs are getting more efficient, especially since Congress decreed in 2007 that the bulbs needed a 30 percent improvement in energy use by 2014. But for people who wanted to save money—and protect the environment—by using lower-energy bulbs, the only alternative for the past decade or so has been compact fluorescents. They can be unreliable, and pose a small risk of mercury exposure if broken.
THE DETAILS: Compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) are still a good, energy-saving choice for the budget-minded, says Brian Clark Howard, coauthor of a new book called Green Lighting (McGraw Hill, 2010) and Web editor of TheDailyGreen.com. But early adopters might want to consider light-emitting diode (LED) lightbulbs that are nearly 90 percent more efficient than incandescents and about 40 percent more efficient than CFLs. For a while, they cost more than $50 a piece but they're getting cheaper and better suited to overhead light fixtures and table lamps.
"LEDs have come a long way over the past year," Howard says, "And they come considerably closer to replicating the light quality and output of incandescents" than earlier LED bulbs did. Whereas, earlier versions of LEDs were used in flashlights, traffic lights, and task lamps that required very focused lighting, newer bulbs are better at projecting the ambient light most of us like from incandescents, he adds.
The "color temperatures" (whether a lightbulb puts out a nice warm glow or that cold, public-bathroom-like blue color) of LEDs are still cooler than incandescents, he says, "but I find this newest generation considerably better, and also I prefer it to fluorescents, which I think are harsher.”
WHAT IT MEANS: LEDs are still more expensive than incandescents and CFLs, ranging in price from $20 to $50, but if you don't want to mess with the mercury issue or just don’t like CFLs, they're worth the investment, says Howard. Some LED bulbs can last as long as 19 years. "They will absolutely pay for themselves in a few years with normal home use," he adds.