Your guide to the changing light bulb aisle

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Posted: Monday, January 6, 2014 12:00 am | Updated: 11:08 am, Tue Mar 25, 2014.

Still looking for a New Year's resolution?

Reducing energy consumption in your home might be the easiest one yet, but be ready to first navigate the light bulb aisle in the hardware store. Then be prepared to open your wallet.

On Jan. 1, a new wave of federal regulations targeting improved energy efficiency took effect, prohibiting the import or domestic manufacture of 40- and 60-watt incandescent light bulbs. The regulations are part of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 that was enacted by then-President George W. Bush and called for the phaseout of 100-watt and 75-watt bulbs in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

Replacing common incandescent bulbs are a wide array of products that can cost many times more than their traditional counterparts but use significantly less wattage.

To be sure, there is no ban on the traditional bulb.

Consumers can continue to use and buy 40-watt and 60-watt incandescent bulbs until stores empty their stock, but metro-area store managers said it's best to act fast. Some buyers have been observed filling their carts.

Home Depot expects it will sell out of its stock of 40-watt and 60-watt incandescents sometime in late spring, according to corporate officials.

Kevin Parks, co-owner of Home & Garden True Value at 5312 S. 132nd St., said his store's stock should last only until the end of the first quarter of the year. As of Thursday, Parks had plenty of lower-wattage bulbs in stock — and even a few dozen 75-watt incandescents still on the shelves — but once they're gone, they're gone for good.

“I got all I could out of the True Value warehouse, so that (on the shelves) is all there is,” Parks said.

Some shoppers are doing the same: A survey made public in mid-December by lighting manufacturer Osram Sylvania found 30 percent of consumers planned to stock up on cheaper bulbs before supplies dry up. As long as they're protected, the bulbs will last forever, said Fred Corbino, owner of Ideal Lighting at 4365 S. 89th St.

For some time now, consumers have puzzled among a dizzying selection of high-efficiency bulbs that have filled shelves faster than the old supply has depleted.

“You can't just screw a light bulb in and have it work anymore,” said Lori Stella of the Millard area, who was shopping at True Value on Thursday. “You have this big wall of bulbs when you just want something simple.”

Confounding matters is new packaging and unfamiliar terminology that indicates metrics like a bulb's brightness, which is measured in lumens. A halogen bulb consuming 43 watts, for instance, emits 800 lumens, or as much as the 60-watt bulb being phased out.

Some packages also indicate the temperature of a bulb's light output on the Kelvin scale, with a reading of 2,700 Kelvin to 3,000 Kelvin corresponding to traditional incandescents.

Manufacturers have come up with new bulbs to achieve improved energy efficiency and to deal with consumer concerns about the color of the light, how quickly it turns on and even how it looks.

Compact fluorescent lamps, or CFLs, have been chided for their harsh color — which correlates to a higher number on the Kelvin scale — and the time needed to achieve full brightness after being switched on. Now, manufacturers boast warmer light and “instant-on” models.

Bulbs lit by light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, have been knocked as looking unnatural and lacking the ability to spread light around. Aaron Peck, second assistant general manager at Menards at 7337 L St., said LED manufacturers have “come a long way” in the past couple of years to address these concerns with omnidirectional bulbs and warmer colors.

As a result, consumers are warming up to new products.

According to SEC filings, Royal Philips NV, the largest light maker in the world, grew LED sales 33 percent in the third quarter of 2013. LED lighting technology accounted for 30 percent of Philips' $2.85 billion in lighting sector sales during the quarter.

In stores, the swelling selection has prompted retail managers to beef up training and focus more staff on lighting to turn on more customers to new products.

“Light bulbs tend to be a very self-serve area, but we have shifted more manpower to address more questions,” said Eric Olson, store manager at the Home Depot at 4545 N. 72nd St.

That's a welcome gesture to consumers like Stella, who said seeking help from store employees is now a regular part of her bulb-buying experience.

It could take time for shoppers to adjust to higher prices, though. A four-pack of 60-watt incandescents at True Value costs $2.49, or about 62 cents apiece. A pair of 60-watt-equivalent halogen bulbs costs $4.29, or about $2.15 apiece.

Even more expensive is a 60-watt-equivalent CFL bulb, which costs $9.99 for a model that looks like a traditional bulb. And a single LED replacement bulb costs $23.99.

“People are going to have to get over the sticker shock, and that's the big challenge,” Parks said.

They'll also have to get over some minor frustrations.

“The phaseout really does put me in a hard place,” said Sallie Elliott, owner of interior design firm Inspired Interiors LLC and a real estate agent with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Ambassador. “Aesthetically, the curly bulb in a ceiling fan or a light fixture is not a good look.”

She said clients show “no demand whatsoever” for CFL lighting, which she described as “crummy” and “especially ugly.”

Millard-area resident Wendy Christian said she was “pretty annoyed” the last time she took a trip to a big hardware store and had to buy a six-pack of CFL bulbs because there was nothing else on the shelf. They cost her $17.

“I'm all for conserving energy, but jeepers,” Christian said.

She also said she has replaced bulbs boasting longer lives than traditional incandescents after only a few months.

Those problems could be because many bulbs are now designed for specific applications.

For example, some CFL bulbs won't fit into a recessed fixture. So-called “R-numbers” indicate proper size and are found on new packaging.

Guidelines on packaging indicate others are not compatible with dimmer switches or three-way lamps, which can also cause a new bulb to burn out early. A “dimmable” CFL bulb requires more hardware in its base, Corbino said, which makes it taller and even less likely to fit into an older lamp or an enclosed fixture.

“When we were selling only incandescent bulbs, life was more simple,” said Corbino, who has been in business 22 years.

He focuses mostly on selling bulbs that last longer and are more energy-efficient, which is at the heart of the sea change in the lighting aisle.

In theory, the upside is easy to see.

Data from the Natural Resources Defense Council show a standard, 60-watt incandescent bulb costs a little more than $8 a year to power. A halogen bulb emitting the same amount of light uses only 43 watts and costs about $5.74 to power for a year.

A CFL bulb costs $1.74 per year and consumes 13 watts of power, while an LED bulb consuming 10 watts costs just $1.34 per year.

Those savings are not yet front-of-mind for consumers used to a cheap and easy-to-understand product, however.

“I wish I would have stockpiled incandescents when I bought my house three years ago,” Christian said.

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