CFLs for Free

If you haven’t heard about the Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) by now, then you haven’t been paying much attention. They’re talked about on billboards, the television, radio, magazines, and in stores. In fact, it seems as if you can’t escape the CFL. Yet, many people are still buying the old incandescent bulbs created many years ago by Edison. Yes, incandescent bulbs were a marvel at the time, but today they’re costing you money.

A CFL is basically a fluorescent tube light put into a compact form. They consume considerably less energy than incandescent bulbs and last longer too. When I talk to people about CFLs, the biggest complaint I hear is that they cost so much money to buy. (The second biggest is that CFLs output harsh light or that the bulbs have a short life expectancy, neither of which is true any longer.) Of course, the expense is a legitimate complaint—one that I plan to address in this post.

Rebecca and I have switched our entire house to CFLs. When we first moved into our home, our average monthly bill was over $120.00 a month. Today, due to a number of energy saving techniques, we often get by for $50.00 a month despite a lot of price increases over the years. CFLs are a big part of that savings.

There are some tricks you can use to make the changeover a lot more palatable. Start by investing in high quality CFLs. Avoid the cheap Chinese knockoffsget a good bulb from GE or Sylvania, even though the initial cost is higher. Track the amount the bulb saves you each month. You can do that quite simply by checking your bill for a reduction or you can do things more scientifically. Keep a log of how long you use the bulb each day for a monththis represents the hours you use the bulb, then use this equation:


Savings = ((Bulb Watts / 1000) * Hours) * KWH Rate

Let’s say that you replace a 100 watt bulb with a CFL equivalent and you use the bulb for 4 hours each evening for a 30 day month. Your KWH rate (available from your electric bill) is $0.12. The new bulb takes only 26 watts. The original cost of using that bulb is:


((100 / 1000) * 120) * 0.12 or $1.44 per month

The cost of the new bulb is:


((26 / 1000) * 120) * 0.12 or $0.37 per month

Your savings are $1.07 per month from just that one bulb. OK, you can pocket that $1.07 and buy half a cup of coffee with it, or you can put it aside. In one year you’ll save enough money to buy a 12 pack of 100 watt CFL replacements for free (at least, you will if you shop smart).  Now you can replace 12 incandescent bulbs and it won’t cost anything.

Here’s the payoff. Each of those replacements will also save on your electric bill. If you use each of those bulbs for the same amount of time each day, your savings increase to $13.91 each month, which means that you can buy the next package of CFLs in a month and end up with around $1.47 in change.

As you get new bulbs that haven’t cost you a penny because you would have spent that money on incandescent bulbs anyway, you can quickly replace all of those incandescent bulbs with CFLs that last longer, produce the same quality of light, and reduce your electric bill.

Now you can move onto other things. Start with a programmable thermostat. You’ll find that it saves you money each month as well. If you use your CFL savings to buy the thermostat, it won’t cost you anything. You can extend this to weather stripping and all kinds of other energy saving additionseach of which provides a payoff—an incentive for using it.

It took us about 5 years to replace everything we could in our house that would readily provide a payoff and achieve that energy savings that I talked about earlier. Now, we’re pocketing that extra money. The cost savings will help keep our costs low (and in this economy, who can afford to turn away extra cash).

Eventually, we’ll look at other technologies to reduce our carbon footprint. There are many technologies now that we’ve looked at carefully that don’t actually put any money in your pocket. For example, we looked at windmill technology. By the time you pay for your own personal windmill, not to mention batteries, inverter, and other requirements, you’ll have to wait way too long for payback. Hopefully, this technology will improve with time. The same problem occurs with solar power and some other promising technologiesthey have no payoff right now (they don’t put money in your pocket).

The next technology that does look promising is solar heated hot water. Right now you still have to replace the system before you get a payoff (the longest lasting setup I could find is about five yearsnot long enough for payoff), but I think this is going to change in the near future. As the reliability of these systems improve and more people use them, but the cost will come down and there will be a payoff for those of us who have to be concerned about payoff.

There are also some changes we’ll make simply because we have to, even if there isn’t a payoff. For example, we’re going to have to replace our windows at some point. The old wooden windows are literally rotting in place. When we do make a replacement, we’ll look into buying a higher quality window that will at least partially pay back its installation cost in reduced energy costs. What I’ll try to do is balance the expected energy savings against the additional cost to find that magic point where I get a payback of a sort (the windows won’t ever pay for themselves, but the energy savings will ultimately make the windows less expensive than if I had bought cheaper windows).

Do you often find that the people selling energy saving devices miss the point? I find that the brochures stop short of telling people what the payoff is and how to obtain the devices without spending anything. There is usually some message about doing the planet some good and saving it for our children. These are certainly laudable goals, but the question that concerns me most is, “What’s in it for me?” In our case, it has turned out to be about $70.00 per monthwell worth the effort involved.  Let me know your thoughts on using energy saving devices at