CUB's Guide to Energy Efficient Lighting

Has the Government Banned Incandescent Light Bulbs?

The 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act did not ban incandescent light bulbs, but it required bulbs to use about 25 percent less energy by the close of a three-year transition period that ended on Jan. 1, 2014. By 2020, all bulbs must be 65 percent more efficient than they are now. An analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council estimated that the new standards could save the nation $12.5 billion a year beginning in 2020.

Traditional incandescent bulbs could not meet these standards, but there are new incandescent bulbs—halogens—that do. So, your three main bulb choices now are: incandescents that meet the new standards, compact fluorescent lights (CFL), and light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

Some incandescent bulbs are exempt from the new law, including three-way lights, colored party lights, appliance bulbs, and plant lights. The Energy Star website,, can help you find bulbs that meet the new standards.

What are Halogen Incandescents?

These are the incandescent bulbs that meet the new federal efficiency standards. Traditional bulbs used only 10 percent of their energy for light, with the rest wasted on heat. (Have you ever brushed up against an incandescent light bulb that had been on for hours? Ouch!) The new incandescents look like the old ones and even have the tungsten filament in the middle. But the filament is surrounded by halogen gas that helps the bulb provide better efficiency. The new bulbs still get hot, but they use less energy. Your top two other bulb options are even more efficient: CFLs can last up to a decade and LEDs more than 20 years.

What are CFLs?

CFLs, or compact fluorescent light bulbs, are used just like ordinary incandescent light bulbs and can be screwed into regular light sockets. Don’t let the word “fluorescent” turn you off. CFLs can produce many different shades of light, including the soft white of incandescent bulbs. Look for CFLs labeled “warm white” or “soft white” for traditional home lighting.

What are the Benefits of CFLs?

CFLs use 75 percent less energy than traditional light bulbs and can last up to 10 times as long. Each bulb can cut your electric bill by up to $10 a year. CFLs also generate 75 percent less heat than incandescent bulbs, which really makes a difference in the summer.

Because CFLs use less energy than ordinary light bulbs, they reduce the amount of pollution created by coal-fired power plants. While CFLs contain a small amount of mercury, a traditional 60-watt incandescent bulb causes more than three times the mercury emissions of a CFL—even if that CFL is mistakenly thrown in a landfill, according to If you do recycle your CFL and keep it out of a landfill, says, it’s about five times better than an incandescent in terms of mercury emissions. So CUB urges everyone to recycle CFLs!

How much mercury is in a CFL?

Manual thermostats: 500X mercury in a CFL
Freezer switch light: 200X mercury in a CFL
Old-style thermometer: 100-200X mercury in CFL
Dental fillings: 60-200X mercury in CFL
Watch batteries: 5X mercury in CFL
CFL: 5 mg mercury
*Information from the Natural Resources Defense Council

How do I Dispose of a CFL?

Like batteries, CFLs should not simply be tossed in the garbage, but should instead be recycled.

Here is how to get rid of your CFL:

1. Unscrew the bulb by the base, not the glass.

2. Recycle it. Most Ace Hardware, Home Depot, Lowes, and IKEA stores have special containers to recycle CFLs. For locations visit these web sites.

3. If you can’t find recycling near you, seal the bulb in two plastic bags and put it in the outside trash. Never put a CFL in an incinerator.

What are the Benefits of CFLs?

CFLs contain less than five milligrams of mercury—what you could fit on the head of a ballpoint pen. That’s about 100 times less than old thermometers. CFLs do not emit any mercury unless they break, and a broken CFL can be cleaned up safely by taking simple precautions recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency:

1. Open a window and air out the room.
2. While wearing disposable gloves or using a damp paper towel, carefully scoop up the large pieces with a stiff piece of paper or cardboard and place them in a sealed plastic bag.
3. Wipe the area clean with a damp paper towel or disposable wet wipe and place them in the bag also.
4. Sticky tape may be helpful when picking up smaller pieces and those lodged in carpeting.
5. Place all clean-up materials in a second sealed plastic bag and throw it in the outdoor trash.
6. Don’t use a vaccuum or broom on a hard surface. On carpet, if you vacuum remove the vacuum bag afterwards or empty and wipe the canister clean. Put the bag or vacuum debris in a sealed plastic bag.
7. Wash your hands when finished.

Don’t kill your CFLs!

Before you get mad at your Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) bulbs because they don’t last as long as the package says, check out this list of CFL killers from the public utility, Seattle City Light.

  • Dimmer Switches—Reduces CFL life 85 to 100 percent.
    Unless your CFL specifically states that it can be used with a dimmer, it won’t last long—even if you leave the dimmer switch up all the way.
  • Recessed/enclosed fixtures—Reduces CFL life 15 to 25 percent.
    CFLs are sensitive to extreme temperatures, so unless the package says the bulb can be used in enclosed fixtures and recessed cans, the heat build-up will cause early failure. (Note: Use reflector CFLs for recessed cans.)
  • Motion sensors—Reduces CFL life 25 to 35 percent.
    A CFL usually has about 7,000 on-off cycles in it, so motion-sensor and photo cell fixtures can be hard on CFLs. If your fixture turns on and off more than 20 times in 24 hours, it’s going to give your CFL an early death.
  • Poor quality CFLs—Reduces CFL life 25 to 75 percent.
    Look for bulbs with the Energy Star label, which shows that they have met Energy Department testing requirements.

What are LEDs?

LED stands for light-emitting diode. Traditionally used in electronic indicator lights, LEDs are now being rapidly adopted for larger-scale residential, commercial and industrial lighting.

While more expensive than incandescent and CFL bulbs, the cost of LEDs is declining rapidly as the technology advances. Considering an LED can last more than 25,000 hours—roughly 25 times the lifespan of an incandescent bulb—the cost per hour of usage is actually less.

And, unlike CFLs, LED bulbs contain no mercury and are more durable.

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that rapid adoption of LED lighting in the U.S. by 2027 could:

  • Deliver savings of about $265 billion;
  • Avoid 40 new power plants;
  • Reduce lighting electricity demand by 33 percent in 2027.
Did you know?
The LED was invented on Oct. 9, 1962 by University of Illinois scientist Nick Holonyak Jr.

How do I Pick the Right LEDs?

Unlike incandescent and CFL bulbs, which spread light spherically, LED bulbs spread light directionally. While this is good for recessed or track lighting, directional lighting is not ideal for table lamps. Well-designed LEDs tackle this problem by using special lenses and reflectors to disperse light like a traditional bulb.

LEDs come in many different shades and levels of brightness. “Cool” LEDs are better for task lighting, while “warm” shades are better for lighting general living spaces.

Always look for LEDs that are Energy Star-certified to ensure that the bulbs meet quality and efficiency standards. The Energy Star label requires that LEDs last at least 25,000 hours (or 22 years) before they begin to dim, and have lighting quality equal to or greater than other types of bulbs.

How do Bulbs Compare?

Projected life (hours)25,00010,0001,0001,000
Watts per bulb (60-watt equivalent)11134360
Cost per bulb $15$1.25$1.50$1
Electricity used over 25,000275 kWh325 kWh1,075 kWh1,500 kWh
Cost of electricity per 25,000 hours (10 cents per kWh)$27.50$32.50$107.50$150
Bulbs needed for 25,000 hours of use12.52525
Cost of bulbs for 25,000 hours of use$15$3.13$37.50$25
Total cost for 25,000 hours$42.50$35.63$145$175

Light Bulb Shopping Guide

Many of us are used to associating a light bulb’s wattage with a certain level of brightness. But watts are actually a measure of power output, not brightness! Newer, energy-efficient bulbs, like CFLs and LEDs, will have a lower wattage for the same level of brightness.

Look instead at the measure of a bulbs lumens to determine brightness. Lumens measure how much light a bulb is emitting. More lumens signify a brighter light; fewer lumens signify a dimmer light. You can find this information on the side of a bulb’s package.


Light color is measured in a scale called “Kelvins.” Use the chart below from to help you pick the appropriate color for your living spaces.