By Barbara Kessler

Changing your light bulbs to compact fluorescent lights may be the single easiest, most cost-efficient way to begin moving your household toward a more green existence.

While some green conversions — like solar water heaters or hybrid cars — can cost a lot of money, bulbs require only a modest outlay upfront.

And with CFLs using one-third the energy of your average incandescent bulb, the energy savings should be noticeable on your electric bill. Of course, you’ll have to change out more than one bulb to realize significant savings, but that is becoming more appealing as CFLs are better able than ever to replicate incandescent light.
“Lighting accounts for about 20 percent of the average home’s energy use,” says Wendy Reed, a lighting expert with Energy Star.  “That’s a lot of energy. So you cut that down across the board and that’s a lot of savings.”

Ms. Reed heads an Energy Star initiative called Change a Light, Change the World which encourages people to replace at least one light bulb and preferably a batch of bulbs that they use the most in their house or apartment, such as those in kitchen fixtures and other main gathering rooms.

“We tell people to replace the bulbs in the five fixtures you use the most. It might be in a chandelier or a table lamp,” she said.

Because they use fewer watts of electricity, burn cooler and last longer (up to 10 times longer than incandescents), each CFL saves about 450 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions over its lifetime by Energy Star calculations.

The government agency likes to sum it up this way: “If every American home replaced just one light bulb with an Energy Star, we would save enough energy to light more than 2.5 million homes for a year and prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of nearly 800,000 cars.”

How can you say no to that?

Well, hardly anyone does in official circles. There have been noises from some environmentalists that we don’t want to be filling the landfills with too many incandescent bulbs that still have life in them. But that’s been a relatively minor fray.

The bigger criticism has come from consumers who’ve tried CFLs and been disappointed that the lumens or light they produce seems diminished compared to their incandescent equivalents. Those who’ve tried CFLs have also taken issue with their required ramp up time and the colors they produce, with complaints arising about the greenish or bluish cast of the lights.

It’s true, say lighting experts, that once upon a time not so long ago, CFLs could not be trusted to produce a pleasing or even predictable color.

“One of the problems with CFLS early on was the color of them. They weren’t very consistent. Some were blue and not very homey, but some were yellowish and some were pinkish,” says Keith Toomey, director of communications for the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York.

But no longer do you have to be green — or pink — to be green.

Today, the Lighting Research Center tests Energy Star-labeled lights for consistency and colors and it’s finding that the bulbs produce more consistent and satisfying lumens.

The center is working on plans to help educate consumers on how lights are rated for color output using the Kelvin temperature scale.

(Some online bulb retailers shed light on this issue with explanations of the Kelvin scales. See the color chart at

But Ms. Reed says that Energy Star has concluded that the general public may have better things to do with its time than to study such minutiae. They’ve decided to make things easy by requiring all Energy Star bulbs to de facto fall within the customary “warm” or “soft” color range. If they deviate, to say, a more blue or “daylight” hue, which some people like for task lighting, then they must be labeled as a “cool white” or daylight light.

Other problems with CFLs have been mostly solved. Rarely do CFLs produce the low-level buzzing sound that annoyed some consumers, and those who are still worried can look for the stamp of approval from Energy Star, which doesn’t qualify buzzing bulbs.

The look and size of the bulbs is being streamlined, with some CFLs mimicking the pear-shape of incandescents and coming in a sub-compact size so that buyers no longer have to install extra-long coiled bulbs that stick out of lamp hoods.

And people with dimmers on their lighting circuits can finally buy dimmer-adaptable CFLs, albeit at a noticeably higher price than regular CFLs. Not many of the dimmable CFLs are available at the moment in stores, but they are at online sources like and

Another CFL solution has arrived in the form of can lights that can function within the partially enclosed can ceiling fixtures.

In fact, about the only trouble remaining with CFLs is their temperature sensitivity –“ they don’t like cold weather and will burn dimly in your yard light in cool weather — and the small amount of mercury that they contain, which requires careful disposal and care around children.

Gathering a groundswell of support seems at this point to be a matter of lassoing consumer lassitude by re-introducing the latest generation of bulbs and hammering home their value, says Ms. Reed.

Her campaign has been working with retailers to increase the availability of CFLs and also with citizen groups. Already nearly 400,000 individuals and 600 groups are working at the community level to convert their associates and neighborhoods to CFLs. Groups like scouts or neighborhood associations can sign up online with Energy Star and get a url and website to track their progress.

Studies show that CFLs, for all their benefits, still comprise only about 5 percent of the residential lighting market. Yet, a recent survey found that 30 percent of Americans say they are using them. To Ms. Reed, that means a critical mass of the public is open to the idea, though they’re probably just using one or two CFL bulbs at the moment.

She expects that will change dramatically this year as the good news about the improvements with CFLs travels and big-box Energy Star partners like Wal-Mart, Lowes, Costco and Home Depot sell and promote the energy-saving bulbs.

“It’s not just for the tree hugger or the penny pincher anymore,” she said.