Eco Advice Column #3
December 6, 2007

Flipping the Switch to Compact Fluorescent Bulbs

Q  I understand that the new compact fluorescent light bulbs are more efficient than the “old-fashioned” kind of light bulb, but they are also more expensive. Is it true that they really last longer? Are they worth the extra money?

San Jose, California

A  Dear Gayle,

Compact fluorescent bulbs do last much longer and they are definitely worth the extra up-front cost.  Initially it may seem that the compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) is more expensive than the “old-fashioned” incandescent bulb, but when you compare the lifetime performance of the two, you’ll find that the savings make the CFL a bright idea.

Although a CFL may cost seven times as much as an incandescent – $3.50 instead of 50 cents – it uses much less energy and lasts far longer. For example, a 23-watt CFL gives the same amount of light as a 100-watt incandescent bulb. A key benefit is that the CFL uses about one quarter of the energy, so it costs you roughly the same amount of money to run the CFL for four hours as it would to run the incandescent for one hour.

Additionally, CFL bulbs have a much longer life than incandescents. Given that CFLs last 10 times longer, you’ll need to buy and change them far less often. When you factor in the cost of buying 10 incandescent bulbs for every CFL, the CFL is clearly more cost-effective.

Early CFLs were often criticized for producing a harsh light unlike the effect of incandescent bulbs, but given diverse choices in CFLs, this is less of a problem today.  Be sure to purchase a CFL that creates the same type of light as the incandescent bulbs you typically use, such as soft white or cool white, and with the same number of lumens.  For insurance on light quality, look for bulbs that are qualified by Energy Star, a program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy that is focused on energy efficient products and practices. Energy Star-qualified bulbs meet stringent comparative standards and come with a minimum two-year warranty.

There are still some differences between the two kinds of bulbs. CFLs are most effective when the bulb is on for at least 15 minutes, because turning on and off frequently shortens the lifespan. Extreme temperatures, humidity (such as in a bathroom), or vibrations (such as from a ceiling fan) can also shorten the lifespan. There are special bulbs available for use with dimmer switches and three-way fixtures.

Since CFLs contain a small amount of mercury, the bulbs can’t be tossed in the trash.  You can take old bulbs to your local Hazardous Household Waste facility.  (See to find one near you). Some stores that sell CFLs will also recycle them for you. Keep in mind that disposal will be far less frequent with CFLs than with incandescents.

Some 135 years after the invention of the incandescent light bulb, we now have a readily available cost-saving, energy-saving alternative in CFLs.  By making the switch, you’ll save time and money.

Click here for Digging Deeper, which contains more information about compact fluorescent and incandescent light bulbs.


University in Indiana Goes Green
with David Letterman and Park Buildings

Q  Recently, Ball State University was recognized as one of the nation's top green universities.  Two buildings were referred to as "soon-to-be-LEED certified."  What does LEED refer to?  The article did not explain.  By the way, the two buildings are the David Letterman Communication and Media Building and Park Hall.  They are the first university buildings to pursue the certification in the state of Indiana.  Thanks! 
Yorktown, Indiana

A  Dear Barbara,           

LEED is to eco-friendly buildings what Dave is to late night television: it’s the gold standard.  The acronym stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. LEED is a rating system devised by the U.S. Green Building Council, a non-profit organization that sets voluntary standards for the design, construction, and operation of high-performance, ecologically sound buildings. The idea is to use all the tricks of the architectural trade to build people-friendly structures that are as easy on the environment as possible and that result in lower operating costs. 

According to the U.S. Green Building Council, buildings use one-third of the total energy consumed in the United States, two-thirds of the electricity and more than 12 percent of water that is suitable for drinking.  Roughly 40 percent of the nation’s globe-warming greenhouse gasses are emitted from buildings.  LEED certification, for which a developer, architect, contractor or owner may apply, aims to mitigate these environmental impacts. The six LEED criteria are: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, indoor environmental quality and innovative design.

Components of a LEED-certified building can include everything from super-insulating double-paned windows to energy efficient solar panels to water-saving toilets.  The results can be quite impressive: these structures use far less energy and water than comparable non-green buildings, and as a result have lower operating costs. For example, Ball State’s Park Hall, located in Muncie, Indiana, is a residence for more than 500 students.  Operation of the new dorm is expected to save around 1.3 million gallons of water each year and use 35 percent less energy than a standard building of its size. The David Letterman Communication and Media Building, dedicated in September, was named for Ball State’s most famous alumnus who is also a generous donor to his old school. Ball State officials say that during construction of the Letterman Building, 85 percent of scrap and waste material were recycled. Among other green qualities, the building features flooring made out of bamboo, which grows much faster than trees.

Building to LEED standards helps feed a growing wave of sustainable construction.  In the not-so-distant future, green buildings may be considered as quintessentially American as apple pie, baseball and a certain late-night television icon. 

Click here for Digging Deeper, which contains more information about LEED certification and the Ball State buildings

A Capitol Idea -- Did you know that strands of light-emitting diode (LED) holiday lights use 90 percent less electricity and last more than 20 times longer than their mini-incandescent counterparts?  The LED lights cost more to purchase, but the savings mount up over time.  No wonder the tree outside the U.S. Capitol Building switched to all LED last year.