Sometimes we need to turn on our intellectual light bulb to illuminate the smartest spending decisions that aren't obvious. Such is the case with the light bulb itself - specifically, compact fluorescent bulbs.
Using compact fluorescent lamps, or CFLs as the energy-efficient bulbs are called, in home light fixtures is absolutely a good idea. You'll save money, both on the bulbs and on electricity costs. In fact, each bulb will save you at least $30 over its life compared with incandescent bulbs, according to Department of Energy estimates. It's a saving that adds up fast.
Although using CFLs is mostly a no-brainer, for the uninitiated, it requires using your brain.
Many a consumer has stood in the lighting aisle of the hardware store with a CFL in one hand and, in the other, an incandescent that costs five to seven times less. The immediate thought is, "Sure, the CFL will save money on electricity, but will it save enough to make up for such a higher initial price?"
The short answer is yes. With traditional incandescents, cheaper isn't really cheaper. The bottom line is that consumers are wasting money by purchasing traditional bulbs for all their fixtures. In fact, it can pay to remove perfectly good incandescent bulbs and replace them with CFLs.
Note that this is not the environmental argument for using compact fluorescents to save energy. This is the cold, hard cash argument.
Here are financial reasons to buy compact fluorescent bulbs:
Savings math. Every product that runs on energy has two price tags, the upfront purchase price and the operating cost. CFLs win on both counts.
CFLs last eight to 15 times longer than incandescents. Although one CFL might cost $3.50 and one regular bulb is 50 cents, you would have to buy, say, 10 regular bulbs at a cost of $5 before one CFL goes dark. So, over time, CFLs win on initial purchase price.
Second, throughout its life, the CFL uses a quarter of the electricity of a traditional bulb. If bulbs were cars, that's like replacing a car that gets 20 miles per gallon with one that gets 80 mpg.
That translates to real money. If you swapped in five CFLs for fixtures used six hours a day, you would save $172 over the life of the compact fluorescents. Those figures are according to the federal government's EnergyStar program, which has a spreadsheet calculator to figure out your savings. Go to www.- energystar.gov and search for CFL calculator.
In this example, even though you would shell out $17.50 instead of $2.50 for the bulbs, you would break even in about three months and then start saving for the remainder of the life of the CFL. And that excludes the few bucks extra you'd pay to buy eight or 10 more incandescent bulbs during the lifetime of one CFL. If you swapped in 20 CFLs instead of five, your savings grows to nearly $700
"Within a year's time you'll make back what you spent, and the rest is gravy," said EnergyStar spokeswoman Wendy Reed.
Return on investment. Spending money on CFLs provides a great return on investment. In this example, you're spending an extra $15 to buy five CFLs instead of traditional bulbs.
If that investment saves $172 over seven years, that's an investment return of 43 percent per year on your money. And because the return is in the form of savings, instead of earnings, the windfall is not taxed like a regular investment would be.
Not your father's fluorescents. Years ago, the high cost and lower quality of CFLs discouraged consumers. The bulbs didn't come on right away, and when they did, they flickered and hummed while giving off an unappealing color. And they were too large for many fixtures. Overall, it was an expensive, inferior product.
But during the past two years, the cost of CFLs has plummeted. Today, they are smaller and of better quality. Some countries and the European Union are considering banning incandescent bulbs and turning on CFLs.
"It took them a while to get this technology to a place where it is now," Reed said. "I can see why consumers didn't adopt them wholeheartedly before. But those who were dissatisfied before should try it again."
Side benefits. The CFL's longevity means you will have to replace them less often, which is a convenience for hard-to-reach places, including ceiling fans and outdoor fixtures. Because CFLs have such low wattage, you can produce a much stronger light in the same fixture. And CFLs stay cool, which can cut air-conditioning costs in the summer. They also come with long warranties, often five years or more.
Here are a few drawbacks to CFLs:
Dimmer limitations. You probably can't use regular CFLs in every fixture in your house, including those on dimmer switches. You can pay a premium for dimmable CFLs, but you might be dissatisfied with them for some uses.
For example, dimmable CFLs have a narrower range of dimming and might be unsuitable for a very dimly lit home theater. Three-way CFLs are also more expensive but will still save money over the long term.
Other limitations. Many CFLs have a slight, but perceptible, delay in coming on. You might find that either annoying because it's different or enjoyable because it's less abrupt than an incandescent's instant-on.
Gregory Karp writes for The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa.