CFL bulbs cutting energy costs despite higher price

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - It's a common household product you use every day, but probably don't buy very often.

It seems there are more and more options in the light bulb isle at your local store these days than ever before, each claiming to be the best, and some types make pretty bold promises.

WMBF News Anchor Paula Caruso looks at one type of bulb that is getting a lot of attention lately.

CFL stands for compact fluorescent light bulb. If you haven't heard of CFL bulbs, you've certainly seen them in stores. The twisty design and slightly higher price tag is hard to miss.

In fact, the typical CFL bulb price tag is usually double what an incandescent bulb costs. But, does the investment really pay off with lower energy bills?

Consumers are told the uniquely shaped bulbs are better for the environment and they'll help save on energy costs. The leaders at Santee Cooper seem to agree, providing customers with free bulbs as a part of their "reduce the use" campaign.

Marc Tye, Vice President of Conservation and Renewable Energy estimates in the one year of the program customers have saved 50 million kilowatt hours.

"Enough power to power 3,700 homes for a year," explains Tye.

Tye says the company started a CFL trend with its residential customers, sparking a positive change.

"We've actually done surveys of people we've given bulbs to and the good news is out of the 12 bulbs we've given out [per customer], people installed 80 percent of them. That's good," Tye reassures.

Good news because power prices are only going up, adds Tye.

As Hiren Shah with the U.S. Green Building, South Carolina puts it, "Why wouldn't you want to save money?"

In the last six months Shah replaced the majority of bulbs in his home with CFLs.

"If you have a 100 watt bulb and replace it with a 60 watt bulb, you're going to save one-fourth of the energy," states Shah.

Shah says he's seen a nearly 20 percent savings on his electric bill, something he attributes to also changing to a programmable thermostat.

Shah sits on the South Carolina Board of the U.S. Green Building Council and hopes other homeowners will not be discouraged by sticker shock at the store.

"They are a little bit higher," admits Shah. "I'd say double the cost of incandescent bulbs, but still, it saves a lot of money in the long run so it's worth spending that money."

Bruce Carrell is President of the Carrell Group, a home building company.

Carrell says switching to CFL bulbs can be a huge savings if a homeowner fully commits to the change and uses them throughout their home.

Carrell says, "We find the CFL is a very inexpensive way to do something that's green friendly."

Something that's not green friendly? Throwing old CFLs in the trash can. The make-up of the bulb isn't exactly environmentally safe.

The light from a CFL comes from the glow of phosphorous gas, and like regular fluorescent lights, a small amount of mercury can be found in every bulb.

"There is mercury, probably 4 mg to 5 mg depending on manufacturer," explains Shah.

In some states it is actually against the law to throw out a CFL bulb.

That's why major retailers like Home Depot and Lowe's encourage recycling the bulbs. They even put kiosks in their stores to make it easy for you to drop the bulbs when you're done with them.

Shah says the environmental effects of the mercury in CFL bulbs are small compared to using an incandescent bulb.

"If your electricity comes from coal, it's going to use at least 3 to 4 times more; it's going to basically make more mercury, or introduce more mercury into environment, 3 to 4 time more than using CFL bulbs," Shah states.

As CFLs become the standard, the industry will focus on a new form of lighting your home.

"What you will start seeing are the LEDs, which are even more efficient than CFLs," predicts Tye. "But more pricey, so you know, people are probably a little hesitant… It's a new technology so let it mature a year or two and it'll become, the cost of those will be coming down also."

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