Nancy Finkelmeier tried to make the switch more than a year ago. After hearing that the long life of compact fluorescent bulbs would help her avoid changing the lights in her 4.5m ceilings so often, she got rid of her incandescent bulbs in favor of the new ones.
However, there was a problem.
“I don’t like that cool blue light that it emits,” said Finkelmeier, a retired nurse from Cincinnati.
So she made another switch, to bulbs using a different technology — LED. It is a change that regulators and manufacturers, frustrated by consumer rejection of compact fluorescents, hope others will make as well, especially the millions who have stuck with their energy-guzzling incandescent bulbs, even hoarding them as stricter efficiency standards phase out most of them.
For several years, manufacturers have been making LED lights that increasingly mimic incandescents, while steadily bringing down their prices. Big-box retailers like Wal-Mart are jumping into the market, offering their own brands of the bulbs for US$10 or less.
Regulators are getting involved, too. The US Environmental Protection Agency recently finished overhauling lighting standards for its Energy Star program, making it easier for more LEDs to qualify for generous discounts. And California, a leader in all things green, is going even further, with elaborate new requirements to control not just how much electricity the bulbs use, but how the light feels.
“We want a lamp that people fall in love with,” said Gary Flamm, supervisor of the building standards development unit at the California Energy Commission, adding that with compact fluorescents the push toward low prices and high efficiency had sacrificed light quality.
“Once they fall in love with it, they can all save significant energy over the incandescent,” he said.
Nationwide, incandescent bulbs, including newer, more efficient halogen models, accounted for roughly 75 percent of general lighting sales this year, according to the trade group National Electrical Manufacturers Association, with compact fluorescents making up most of the balance.
Manufacturers concede that early versions of the compact fluorescents did not meet expectations for light quality and longevity. Despite advances that have improved their performance, consumers still tick off a host of complaints about the squiggly bulbs: They take time to light up, they do not dim smoothly, they don’t fit with clip-on shades and, worst of all, they cast a harsh and unflattering light. They also contain mercury, raising concerns about breakage and disposal.
“I would, in a way, pay anything to avoid fluorescent,” said Laura Stein, an artist who was picking up several different LEDs to try from a Manhattan Home Depot last week. “I can’t stand them — I’ve always hated them and I will not use them.”
Millions of consumers have come to the same conclusion, even though compact fluorescent bulbs use about 75 percent less electricity than standard incandescents.
LEDs offer a different proposition. Until recently, customers like Stein could pay about US$30 for a bulb — a significant premium even though electricity savings and a life span that extends into the decades can make up the difference in the long run. However, several manufacturers — including well-known brands like General Electric, Osram Sylvania and Philips, and newcomers like Cree — began offering bulbs for about US$10 or less this year.
The drop in price has helped increase demand, retailers and manufacturers say, although they still represent only about 1 percent of the bulbs in US homes, according to industry estimates. LED sales over the past few years have doubled at retailers like Home Depot and Bulbs.com, company executives said, reaching roughly 20 percent of their total lighting sales.
LED sales are expected to grow sharply, especially given the steep subsidies utilities pay manufacturers and distributors to bring prices even lower by the time the products reach the lighting aisle.
“We want to invest heavy now because we feel this is where the future is going to be,” said Caroline Winn, vice president for customer services at San Diego Gas and Electric.
The subsidies — which are ultimately paid by ratepayers — generally go only to lights carrying an Energy Star designation. To get it, compact fluorescents and LEDs must use only a certain amount of energy and meet a variety of other requirements, like dispersing light in all directions and accurately rendering the color of objects they illuminate, that make them seem more like conventional bulbs.
California is taking the color requirements, among others, for LEDs even further. The specifications are voluntary, but only bulbs that meet them can qualify for utility rebates, potentially giving them a price advantage over other bulbs, even those that meet Energy Star guidelines.
“We’re not going to spend public dollars on a lamp that doesn’t meet this, but people can still sell a noncompliant lamp in California,” Flamm said.
In the end, consumers now face a bewildering choice. Customers who once walked into a store looking for a familiar measure of wattage are now being confounded by a dizzying array of technologies, shapes, brand names and hard-to-translate measures of brightness, energy consumption and appearance.
“I actually start hyperventilating in the light bulb department in Home Depot: sooooooo confusing,” Finkelmeier wrote in an e-mail.