Gallery: ASK INHABITAT: What are the greenest lightbulb options?


With all the recent talk of CFL’s, LED’s, and other fancy-sounding efficient lighting options, we thought it fitting to resolve some of your lingering lighting and lightbulb questions for this installment of Ask Inhabitat.

Q: I want to switch my home to compact fluorescent bulbs and use them in my recently remodeled family room. However, I don’t like the spiral look of CFL’s – they’re rather ugly, and would detract from the newly designed space. Are there CFL’s that are actually attractive, or covers that I can use to hide the spiral?

-George, Kentfield, CA

A: We can all agree that the usual “ugly spiral” compact fluorescent is not exactly the most attractive design, especially for lighting fixtures with exposed bulbs. But never fear- there are a variety of more aesthetically-pleasing AND function-appropriate CFL’s available that work in exposed-bulb contexts with all the energy-efficiency of the common spiral version.

As far as screw-in bases go (the usual configuration for residential applications), your non-spiral options take the shape of candles, globes, reflectors, and covered (or “capsule”) CFL bulbs. Each has its appropriate use- candles for chandeliers, reflectors for recessed “can” lighting found in many a living room, and covered bulbs for outdoor applications. “Capsule” CFL’s are simply the basic spiral version encased in a plastic or glass globe, giving it the more common lightbulb aesthetic. Probably the best family room solution is a reflector CFL, or R-CFL, whose reflective conical shape provides a broader down light than other options. There are even dimmable options available now including flood and reflector CFL’s from both GE and Philips. and Energy Federation Incorporated both have great selections of R-CFL’s in a variety of color temperatures to perfectly complemented your newly-upholstered sofa.

It’s important to understand, though, that while some of the more aesthetically-pleasing CFL’s may look more common, they use the same technology- strategically encasing the spiral to provide light diffusion, reflection, or just a barrier to hide the so-called ugliness. So, a CFL’s spiral form is primarily determined by its function- it needs the tube to work, and the spiral allows the tube to function with in a fairly compact space.

On a related note, the U.S. Department of Energy recently held a competition for the most energy-efficient R-CFL’s. The winners include models from GE, Sylvania, and Philips. All of the winning models are Energy Star qualified and have surpassed a stringent set of standards set by the Department of Energy. They are now available online here, through Energy Federation Incorporated.

Q: Like the good energy-conscious person that I am, I have been replacing my incandescent lights with CFLs, which has left me with a pile of incandescent bulbs that I don’t know what to do with. Being constructed of glass, steel, and tungsten, one would thing these would be an excellent candidate for recycling. Please help me, Inhabitat! What can I do with my pile of bulbs?

-Andrew, Waterloo, Ontario

A: While it breaks my heart a little to provide this answer, it seems there are currently no comprehensive or widely available recycling and/or disposal resources for incandescent bulbs. Despite the fact that incandescents contain hazardous amounts of lead along with recyclable clear or quartz glass, these components are not viewed as “economically-extractable.” The silver lining of all this, if you are an uber-optimist like I am, is that incandescents’ lack of recyclability is just further proof that they are exceedingly un-green, strengthening the argument to switch to CFL’s.

Yes, all types of fluorescent bulbs, including CFL’s, contain hazardous mercury, but there are a ton of recycling and disposal services, programs, and resources available to both residential and commercial markets that make them not just energy-efficient during their lifespan, but easily recyclable and safely disposable. Some states even go so far as to require the proper recycling of all fluorescent bulbs. has a great ship-and-pack recycling program for fluorescents and fluorescent ballasts, and has a directory of local fluorescent recyclers.

It’s worth calling your local recycling center or hazardous waste disposal service to ask them specifically about their incandescent recycling/disposal efforts- you never know! But if all else fails, your best bet is to allow your incandescents to burn out before disposing of them (thereby mitigating the effects of any remaining hazardous metals), place them in a brown bag to keep your local waste collectors’ hands safe, and bid them adieu. Or if you’re the crafty type, paint them red, wrap some wire around their base, and use them to adorn next year’s Christmas tree.


Emily Pilloton is the Managing Editor of Inhabitat, a furniture designer, and freelance design writer based in Chicago and San Francisco. Trained in architecture with degrees from UC Berkeley and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she now designs conceptual and sustainable furniture and writes for print and online publications. She has also taught design in Chicago, given lectures about green design and sustainability, and worked with Chicago-based Foresight Design Initiative, a non-profit organization that supports sustainable design and business practices.

Emily can be contacted at


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  1. Jeff Daigle May 30, 2007 at 9:43 pm

    Sue, would you care to post some data substantiating your claims concerning fluorescent lights and Vitamin D? I was unable to find anything on the subject aside from other unsubstantiated blog posts and comments. However, I did find two studies on concerning the regulation of Vitamin D receptors in mice and rats in which fluorescent light was ascribed a positive role in Vitamin D production (studies here and here).

  2. Libby Curran April 15, 2007 at 10:46 am

    I have air tight recessed cans and bought CF recessed lights but found they are too long to fit in the can. Any suggestions? Is there are shorter CFL recommended for recessed cans?

  3. clark March 24, 2007 at 2:39 pm

    Before everybody goes off to buy LED lights, check out

    Here’s a short bit:

    For comparison, incandescent lamps typically produce 12-15 lumens per watt of electric power. Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) produce at least 50 lumens per watt. Currently available high-brightness LEDs can produce about 30-35 lumens per watt.

    If LED’s produce less light per watt, where is the rest of the energy going? Or, to ask this another way, why do so many LED light bulbs have cooling vanes attached? It may be true that LED’s are theoretically more efficient, but the DOE says that efficient LED bulbs are probably 20 years away.

  4. cally March 21, 2007 at 5:22 pm

    A lot of interesting comments on this post, esp the stuff about Vit D!
    Now, I may be years out of date here, but for the 1st 10years that I bought CFL’s I was told that their energy efficiency was based on them being used for 4+ hours at a time and that if they were switched on and off (like in a bathroom or closet) then they actually used comparatively more energy. Has this changed?

    I currently have CFL’s for rooms thart need constant light in the winter evenings and 5 or 10watt halogens for short term task like preparing food or writing. Should I be changing my ways?

  5. Sue March 14, 2007 at 8:33 pm

    Something else to consider. We are being stampeded into CFL’s by a massive national and local PR and media campaign. Why? Something’s rotten in Denmark as the saying goes. The changeover is going to make some big bucks for somebody. Have the manufacturers of CFL’s seen the superiority of LCD’s on the horizon and are rushing their product(s) to market before the general public and environmentalists get wise. Think about it, research it. Don’t just jump on the bandwagon just because it’s the “in” thing right now. This his how humanity has been rewarded with the likes of Hitler throughout history. Greenies are just as human. So choose wisely what manmade lighting sources you will use when sunlight is not available. Several interior design tips to reduce the need for higher wattage in lamps: use lots of mirrors (the colonials frequently used convex mirrors) and white or pastel colors for walls and reflective surfaces. Also note that as we age, we require much more light to see as well as we did in our younger days. Natural sunlight is a crucial part of that lighting protocol, particularly for senior citizens. When you again consider that CFL’s and traditional fluorescents destroy vitamin D and our senior citizens are at the greatest risk for osteoporosis and broken bones you have a whole new dimension to the CFL issue. The human body requires sunlight to make vitamin D. Also consider the sunlight/vitamin D/CFL-fluorescent impact on children whose bones are developing. Get the picture? Hope this helps your discussion. P.S. I think you will also find a significant connection between CFL’s/traditional fluorescents ( when in use over a period of time in a home or work environment) on depression–another booming market for the healthcare fixit community. I don’t have the stats available for that at the moment.

  6. Sue March 14, 2007 at 8:04 pm

    Sometimes even the greenest of us cannot see the proverbial forest for the trees. The interior lighting solution that is the greenest are skylights during the day, more specifically of the Solartube variety that sends bright sunlight to multiple areas/rooms from just one roof mounted solar tube. Furthermore, there are several health issues with CFL’s and traditional fluorescents. First, fluorescents of any stripe literally destroy vitamin D in your body. There is an explosion of osteoporosis in our nation. Possible connection? Second, where there are faulty ballasts, the fluorescent lamp creates a strobe light effect. For people with a brain/light sensitivity, like myself, this strobe-like sensation can put you into a seizure. For folks like us, driving through a forest with sunlight filtering through the trees, rapidly causing a shadow/light experience has a similar impact. Another similar instance was the strobing effect of the computer screen when used in a dark room by my 13 year old. She went into a seizure twice, two weeks apart from the same scenario. You are playing with health and safety issues beyond traditional environmental issues.

  7. royal March 7, 2007 at 4:00 pm

    I agree with the LED comments. Why not compare the two technologies. LEDs, in my humble opinion wil shortly trounce both CFLs and incandescents. Far safer than all that mercury and far more efficient than an old incandescent. PLEASE compare the techs for us unwashed masses.

  8. Shin February 22, 2007 at 4:57 am

    What about LEDs? Do they come in “not ugly” shapes and isn’t their light focused as opposed to dispersed?
    For all the trumpeting of LEDs, they appear to not be quite there yet. Let’s not even talk about the prices. $35-$45 per bulb? Awesome tech though.

  9. cfls February 15, 2007 at 11:21 pm


    There are dimmable CFL’s. It should say on the package.

    As for flickering, that’s solved by the type of ballast used. If you look at any flourescent lights in a new building, they don’t flicker because just about any new light fixture will have the improved ballast. For CFL’s, the ballast is built in. In short, you shouldn’t have to worry about a flicker.

    Burnign coal also produces mercury. If you look at the amount of extra electricity that you would use to light an incandescent over the life of one CFL, the mercury produced by generating that extra energy will be more than what is contained in the CFL. Also, CFL’s are recyclable.

  10. Anonymous February 13, 2007 at 11:52 pm

    Why do you think letting incandescent bulbs burn out will make them less harmful as trash? Where do you think the lead and other stuff is going? It’s all trapped inside an airtight glass container. Why should it make any difference how long you used the bulb?

  11. Casper February 12, 2007 at 2:37 am

    I just moved to Hong Kong and I’m amazed at the lack of energy conservation in the shopping mindset here. That said you’ll find CFL’s take up the majority of the bulb section of many stores.

    The apartment that my employer chose has two chandeliers (they’re big on them here) in the living room each with 6 bulbs. So that’s a combined 720W each time I turn the lights on! I can certainly see the benefit of CFL just because the power drop. I also have a secondary incentive: the amount of heat they give off!

    I’ve got a a few questions which probably aren’t going to change my mind on making the switch but I’d love to hear people’s comments.

    – Can you dim CFL’s? If not do they just swtich off? so I could run say 2 incandescents in the chandies so you still have some ambient light when dimmed.

    – How do you get CFL’s that don’t flicker? I know straight tube fluro’s are notorious for it, so do CFL’s also suffer from this?

    – Regarding the look of the bulb, the twist shape doesn’t really do much for the aesthetics of chandeliers. They have “candle” CFL’s here which have this silicone/rubber shell around the twist, would this affect the light efficiency or make them run hotter?

    – Mercury? The IKEA catalogue here features a short bit about CFL’s and says the only drawback in their Eco friendliness is the mercury. Are we just propagating a different evil upon the world?

    – Start Up Time. In my past experiences with CFL’s, I noticed that for a place like the bathroom, I’m in and out that quickly that the globe doesn’t even reach 50% of it’s brightness by the time I turn it off. This can be annoying when you’ve got barely any light to see by! Any tips for getting around this (eg. does colour affects the start time).



  12. mark February 10, 2007 at 2:55 pm

    LED’s are now available in screw in spots that are way more effecient than CFL’s….
    Don’t assume CFL’s are the answer till you see the latest LED spots.

    Try spotlighting an entire trade show booth on 60 watts worth of CFL’s or incandescents. Then see what the LED’s will do, you’ll be amazed.

    The other major advantage of LED’s is that they generate no heat, so there’s no thermal energy to offset with air conditioning etc. More $$$ to get started, but way worth it…

    Thanks for the good work Emily!


  13. Sea Wolf February 10, 2007 at 2:11 pm


    Says right on the package of my standard CFL spiral bulb you can’t put it in an enclosed fixutre . . . of course that doesn’t mean it’s true.

    Here’s what GE says on its FAQ page:

    ‘Can I use a compact fluorescent light bulb in an enclosed light fixture?

    Compact fluorescent light bulbs may generally be used in enclosed fixtures as long as the enclosed fixture is not recessed. Totally enclosed recessed fixtures (for example, a ceiling can light with a cover over the bulb) create temperatures that are too high to allow the use of a compact fluorescent bulb.

    Many CFLs can be used outdoors in an enclosed fixture. Check the lamp or package to make sure it is approved for outdoor use, and verify the lowest operating temperature for the area where the product is being used. If the lamp or package does not state it can be used outdoors, then it is not approved for outdoor use, even in an enclosed fixture.”

    Here’s what ENERGY STAR says:

    “Some CFLs have trouble operating in enclosed fixtures. Check the CFL’s packaging for any restrictions on use. . . . For recessed fixtures, it is better to use a ‘reflector’ CFL versus a standard-shaped bulb.”

    That is, for recessed fixtures use a CFL that has the spiral within an outer bulb.

    And, finally, here’s what Canadian electrical utility Manitoba Hydro says:

    “When using a CFL outdoors it should be placed in an enclosed fixture unless otherwise stated on the packaging. When using a CFL indoors, some can be installed in an enclosed fixture while others will have markings on the plastic base specifying that it is not to be used in enclosed fixtures. Some manufacturers do not recommend using them in totally enclosed recessed fixture. Please be sure to read the manufacturer’s instructions on the packaging.”

    So, as with so many things, it all depends. I’m off to buy a few CFLs that don’t say “not for enclosed fixtures” on the package. Thanks, Wayne, for prompting me.

  14. Ecoworrier February 9, 2007 at 8:55 am

    Great article Emily and highlights nicely the many paradoxes of doing the right thing.
    Jen you shouldn’t be using CFL’s with dimmer switches , you’ll have to change back to regular ones and recycle the old ones.
    As for LED bulbs and light fixtures, white light is only a recent development, however there is a gaping hole in the market for any budding designers.

  15. Wayne February 9, 2007 at 12:46 am

    “You can’t put CFLs in an enclosed fixture, so for some of my ceiling fixtures, I left the glass off and discovered that the brass plate that remains above the CFL also helps the bulb throw off a warm glow.”

    Where did you hear/read/learn that? I’ve had a CFL in an enclosed can (frosted glass front) above my shower for the last year with no negatives, as far as I can tell…

  16. Emily February 8, 2007 at 4:18 pm

    You bring up a good point. At the end of the day, it’s bad either way – a very “lesser of two evils” situation. If there is any hard data that compares the damage done by hazardous materials (burnt vs. working bulbs) and continuing to use the low-efficiency incandescent bulbs, I’d love to hear it. You may very well be right, but everything I’ve read indicates it’s better to let them burn out. In the end, I’m betting the actual difference in “green-ness” is minute.

  17. Ron February 8, 2007 at 3:49 pm

    Nice article and great comments. Would like to take issue with one point though: “… your best bet is to allow your incandescents to burn out before disposing of them (thereby mitigating the effects of any remaining hazardous metals)…” With incandescents wasting 90% of the energy they consume, I’m of the opinion the sooner we pull them the better. They are truly dinosaurs of a bygone era. But I guess that’s a good example of the push/pull we constantly face in establishing a more sustainable lifestyle. That battle between least destructive as opposed to most beneficial.

    I do agree though, Emily, that it seems a little absurd there are no comprehensive recycling efforts in place. I wonder how we get that going?

  18. Jen February 8, 2007 at 7:11 am

    My only problem is that I have a lot of dimmable fixtures, and i still hear the CFL buzz (especially on my night stand). Other than that, I have no problem with CFLs, especially not the shape.

  19. Sea Wolf February 7, 2007 at 11:21 pm

    I agree with Eric. Who the heck cares about the look of the bulbs?!? I’ve been waiting (stupidly, I admit) for the LIGHT from CFLs to look better, and now that it does, I switched every last lightbulb in my house to 9-watt and 11-watt CFLs (except for a few 20-watt halogen spots), including the outdoor lights at my front and back door. The light from the latest generation of “soft” CFL spiral tubes looks sufficiently warm and fire-like to me; the only real difference I noticed is the somewhat hyper-green color of greens (i.e. houseplants and vegetables) when they’re very close to the bulbs. But with no more incandescents to compare with, I’ve stopped noticing. On the upside, I’ve been amazed at how much light comes down from 9-watt CFL spirals in ordinary recessed cans; the CFLs are supposed to compare with a 40-watt incandescent, but I swear in the ceiling cans we have, they glow like the 75-watt bulbs we used to have in there. The key to getting a warm glow from CFLs is the fixture and shade. Put a CFL behind the orange glass of a mica lamp (even a fake mica lamp) or amber art glass, and the lamp glow orange, just like it did with incandescents. Or go with paper shades in the yellow color range. You can’t put CFLs in an enclosed fixture, so for some of my ceiling fixtures, I left the glass off and discovered that the brass plate that remains above the CFL also helps the bulb throw off a warm glow.

  20. Eric February 7, 2007 at 6:47 pm

    If someone comments on the ugliness of your lightbulb, simply turn it on. They’ll stop looking.

  21. Brett Forsyth February 7, 2007 at 2:06 pm

    So what about LED lights. Am I wrong in assuming they are more energy efficient then CFL lights? Do they contain harmful heavy metals?

    Everyone seems to focus on the mercury content of CFLs but don’t the circuit boards used to control them contain lead? Making recycling even more important.

    I guess in the end the argument comes down to the energy savings out weigh the negatives of CFLs.

  22. Ryan February 7, 2007 at 12:56 pm

    I don’t think I’ve ever noticed the shape of someone’s light bulb in my life. Who spends that much time looking at them? The way I see it, the spiral CFL sends its own visual cue that says, “Hello. I’m the way of the future, and my owner is energy concious.” Don’t be afraid. Let that little spiral glow.

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