Worth the switch — but which to pick?

Photo: iStockphoto

Part of our work here at Grist is to give advice to curious readers, and one thing we find ourselves saying a lot is, “Change those bulbs to CFLs!” But you can only socket to ’em so many times before such broad advice starts to seem a bit … dim. So I’ve cranked up the Unofficial Grist Wringer and am ready to feed some of these notorious compact fluorescents into it, in hopes that we can offer more specific tips.

Before we get to the bulb testing, let’s talk shop. How easy is it to buy these babies?

Grist’s Pick

Philips soft white
$3.88 for one at Wal-Mart

Vaguely remembering that I’d seen a surprisingly vast display of CFLs at a Home Depot not long ago, and knowing they were pushing their Eco Options program, I hit the DIY megastore first. It took a long few minutes of staring to even be able to tell the difference between the many bulbs available, most of which were made by a company called n:vision. Wattage, light quality, socket size, energy and money savings over the years … it’s no wonder people are slow to cotton to this eco-option. Finally I settled on two “60-watt equivalent” bulbs, one “soft white” ($3.97) and one “bright white” ($4.97).

Then it was off to the Wal-Mart across the street — again, figuring the store’s newfound love of all things green would mean a healthy display of CFLs. The behemoth did not disappoint: I scored a two-pack of GE’s “daylight” 60-watt equivalent ($6.44), a regular old GE 60-watt equivalent ($3.44), and a Philips 60-watt equivalent ($3.88). I nearly missed the last one, as its spiral shape is cleverly disguised by a translucent covering that looks almost — almost — like a regular old incandescent.

My last stop was Whole Foods, in a nearby plaza. My companion argued that the natural-foods giant wouldn’t peddle bulbs, but I found a tiny selection right by the toilet paper. I bought one ($4.99) branded with the “365 Everyday Value” and Whole Foods logos. (After I paid for the bulb, the cashier asked me whether I wanted a bag, and I left the store bag-free. Ding! One eco-point for Whole Foods.)

The bulbs I bought are just a subset of the many available — despite the fact that none of them can be used in dimmers, for example, there are models that can. There are also other shapes, sizes, and purposes, but I stuck with the spirals for now. Because they’re fun!

So let’s see how these suckers — which all bear an Energy Star label and were all, it should be noted, made in China — compare. My unscientific standards: What’s the packaging like? How does the light look on a book page? How does it look through a lampshade? How does it look reflected on the walls and ceiling?

Here are the results:

soft white ($3.97)/bright white ($4.97)
14 watts, 900 lumens (soft)/14 watts, 800 lumens (bright)
life: 10,000 hours
warranty: nine years (based on three hours average use per day)
website/phone for mercury-disposal info? yes
described as: “mini spiral lamp, fluorescent bulb”
smell right out of the package: plastic, hospitals

These eco-options are sheathed in recyclable #3 plastic (eeeeevil PVC). But the graphic design is colorful, modern, approachable — and the whole thing is smaller than the GE and Philips versions. As far as performance, the soft-white version came on immediately, with a tiny flicker. The light it sent through the shade was sort of a tepid yellow, and looked the same on the book page — not displeasing. But the light cast on the wall above was suspiciously “fluorescent.” The bright-white version gave off an awful fluorescent glow — it felt like reading in a doctor’s office.

General Electric
regular ($3.44)/daylight ($6.44 for two)
13 watts, 825 lumens (reg)/15 watts, 900 lumens (daylight)
life: 8,000 hours
warranty: five years (based on four hours average use per day)
website/phone for mercury-disposal info? yes
described as: “self-ballasted lamp”
smell right out of the package: very mild mildew or leather

The packaging is a bit oversized, and the plastic isn’t marked as recyclable — kind of a big oversight for a company with so much ecomagination; also, the visible materials don’t contain info on whether you can use the bulb outside or in a dimmer (that’s explained inside). The regular bulb came on with a tiny hiccup, giving off a nice, warm, yellow light through the shade and onto the page. But the daylight bulb? Help! I’m trapped in the plant-growth room at the biology lab! According to GE’s website, the daylight model is best for retail, hospitality, office, and restaurant use.

soft white ($3.88)
14 watts, 800 lumens
life: 8,000 hours
warranty: seven years (based on three to four hours average use per day)
website/phone for mercury-disposal info? yes
described as: “electronic CFL bulb”
smell right out of the package: no smell detected, but I might have been too busy convincing myself not to bite the outside “bulb” to see whether it was glass or plastic


Being Green Saves Green
Consumer ReportsGreenerChoices.org says changing just five often-used regular bulbs to CFLs can save you about $25 per year on electricity.

The packaging is plastic (recyclable, #1 this time) and the color scheme doesn’t have the “soft” appeal of the others — which is interesting, considering that the bulb seems pretty clearly aimed at average consumers who want a normal-looking product. Though somewhat top-heavy to screw in, this one offered a nice warm glow. It was dimmer than the others, which made it tougher to read by, but easier to look at. The bulb itself stayed cooler to the touch — the others could be handled only by the base after even a few seconds of use. This one would be the gentlest of this bunch for lighting up a room, and presumably higher watts would make for a good reading bulb. A plus: Philips says its CFLs contain the least mercury in the industry.

Whole Foods
soft white ($4.99)
13 watts, 800 lumens
life: 8,000 hours
warranty: two years (lasts seven years, based on three hours average use per day)
website/phone for mercury-disposal info? yes, but tiny
described as: “compact fluorescent bulbs”
smell right out of the package: hint of gasoline

Made of recyclable cardboard with a small cellophane window, this package probably wins the eco-prize. The colorful box also contains a short, clear description of why you’d bother to buy the bulb in the first place: “A Cleaner Choice: Using compact fluorescent bulbs reduces the release of carbon dioxide which has been linked to global warming and sulfur dioxide in acid rain.” It’s also easy to open — out of the whole pile, I went for it first when it came time to hold a bulb in my hands. As far as performance is concerned, this one was comparable to the n:vision soft-white bulb: a nice glow for reading, but a more garish hue coming out the top.

The bottom line: Based on a combination of price, warranty, quality of light, and random fancy, my top pick is the Philips soft-white — and an important tip, whatever the brand, is to choose soft white over daylight or bright white. Shine on, you crazy diamonds.