Compact fluorescents are being shoved aside by LED bulbs

  • Tom Worthington, store manager of Rocky's Ace Hardware, stands where the LED bulbs end in the line of bulb.(GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff) GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Tom Worthington, store manager of Rocky’s Ace Hardware in Concord, stands by the LED display at the store recently. General Electric just announced that it will stop making CFL bulbs to focus on LEDs. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Monday, February 15, 2016
The twisted compact fluorescent light bulb has long been used as a design element to represent up-to-date technology, but at the rate things are going it will soon be representing out-of-date technology.

“Right now, we’re still doing about half and half” of LED and non-LED bulb sales, said Crystal Murray, assistant manager at Lighting Place in Concord. Compact fluorescent and halogen bulbs make up the rest of sales, she said, but LEDs are growing.

“About half of people who come in looking for bulbs are looking for an LED. . . . And if they pick up a fixture and we ask them if they need bulbs to go with it, they almost always choose the LEDs, even with the price point difference,” Murray said.

At Rocky’s Ace Hardware in Concord, 64 feet of shelving is used for displaying light bulbs and about half of that is devoted to LEDs, an amount that “has probably tripled over the past year,” said Tom Worthington, store manager.

“We’re selling LEDs probably 3-to-1 over anything else,” he said.

Most ominously for the technology, General Electric recently announced that it would stop selling the bulbs known as CFLs to concentrate on LEDs (“light-emitting diodes” – but you knew that), and other companies are expected to follow suit.

“Our bulb manufacturer no longer sells incandescents,” noted Murray.

In press coverage, the man in charge of GE’s lighting division said that CFLs peaked at about 30 percent of the market back in 2008, and not even the end of 60-watt and 100-watt incandescent bulbs due to energy-efficiency requirements boosted the figure much. Many people, he said, replaced old incandescent bulbs with halogen bulbs, which are efficient enough to meet new rules even though they depend on heating up wires to create light, as do incandescent bulbs.

Halogens have some advantages over CFLs, including softer light and instant-on capability, which is often judged more important than CFLs extra efficiency and long life span.

“A lot of people aren’t crazy about (compact fluorescents) because they lag, especially in outdoor fixtures,” said Murray. “And now LEDs are coming in a warmer light, which is a light of older generation folks are used to, so they’re making the move.”

LEDs use an entirely different technology, roughly the same as that used in computer chips – in fact, some factories can make both. They create light when electrons move between two types of material, releasing energy as photons, and are by far the most energy efficient way of turning electricity into light.

Fluorescent bulbs create light by using electricity to activate a gas, which makes a coating inside the glass glow. While long, straight fluorescent bulbs have been around since the late 1930s, favored in commercial and industrial settings to save electricity, it took a number of technical improvements to make the technology fit in the same space as an incandescent bulb, especially the development of coatings that could work under different power settings.

The first CFL was sold in 1980 and because they use one-third to one-fifth as much energy as an equivalent incandescent bulb, benefited from a number of rebates and incentives as part of energy efficiency drives.

The biggest drawback to CFLs may be their disposal: Because they contain a small amount of mercury, broken bulbs should not be thrown away in the trash.

LEDs don’t have that problem, and they use about one-third less electricity than CFLs. They also are expected to last even longer than CFLs, working as much as 20 years.

Perhaps more importantly for the consumer market, they can be dimmed and turn on instantly – characteristics shared by halogens – and are more flexible in terms of light output. Specialty LED bulbs can even be controlled by a smart phone to produce entirely different colors of light on command.

The big drawback to LEDs is their cost. They used to be three to five times as expensive as an equivalent CFL. But prices for them are falling fast and rebates are expanding.

“Once they got the LEDs into a price point where everybody could get them, they took off,” Worthington said.

“They’re heavier than other bulbs, but that usually doesn’t bother people,” he said.

The improvement in LEDs is prompting the federal Energy Star program, which provides rebates as an incentive to get people to buy more energy-efficient equipment, to transition away from CFLs over time.

Yet another stake in the heart of the twisty bulb that once meant the future.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)