“They look the same,” he said.
“They’re not,” I replied. “Look closely.”
I brought him shopping with me because he’s a smart, handy guy who’s always on the lookout for environmentally friendly products. If anyone would know the secret to finding the greenest, most efficient light bulb, I thought, it would be Ted.
I was wrong: He took the packages from me and scrutinized them, even reading the fine print on the sides. “All I can see is this one lasts 10 years, and that one lasts 13.7 years,” he said. “Otherwise, they’re identical.”
Can you spot the differences? Slide the handle right to left to check your work.
Ted wasn’t sure which to pick, but I knew which bulbs were better: I just looked for the ENERGY STAR label.
ENERGY STAR Education
ENERGY STAR is the Environmental Protection Agency’s seal of approval for energy efficiency. The ENERGY STAR program has been certifying products, appliances and buildings since 1992. Anything that bears the ENERGY STAR logo has been tested and evaluated by third-party experts who have verified that it meets safety, quality and efficiency standards.
It used to be that if you purchased an LED light bulb, you were buying one that was ENERGY STAR certified. But about 18 months ago, that changed. Manufacturers started introducing lower-quality LED bulbs that don’t qualify for the ENERGY STAR rating. The packaging of these “imposter” bulbs is so similar to the higher quality ones that it can be difficult to tell them apart.
In fact, when Ted asked a lighting clerk to explain the difference between his two packages of bulbs, she glanced at them and said they looked the same. It wasn’t until she scanned their bar codes that she realized they were two entirely different products.
And she confirmed that the higher quality ENERGY STAR bulbs cost nearly three dollars less.
“I’m confused,” said Ted. “Why are the better bulbs cheaper?”
- 7D Brand Studio
At Efficiency Vermont, I met with Efficient Products Program Manager Jenna Pugliese, a self-described “light bulb geek,” who wore a gold necklace with light bulb pendant.
She explained that light bulb manufacturers aren’t necessarily trying to pull a fast one. ENERGY STAR-rated bulbs are generally more expensive to buy, because they’re a higher quality product.
That’s not the case in Vermont, though. To help consumers buy the best, most efficient lighting solution, Efficiency Vermont discounts the ENERGY STAR-rated bulbs, ensuring that customers will have a high-quality experience with efficient lighting — if they buy the higher-quality bulbs. “We’re really fortunate that we’re able to provide Vermont customers with $.95 LEDs,” Pugliese said.
The money comes from an energy efficiency charge on Vermonters’ electric bills; the Public Service Board approves that amount to help Vermonters reduce energy usage. But not all states have programs like Efficiency Vermont.
“Manufacturers’ overall intention is to be able to provide a lower-cost option to those customers,” Pugliese told me. Unfortunately, that creates confusion in Vermont.
A Better LEDBecause consumers don’t always recognize the difference between ENERGY STAR bulbs and imposters, they sometimes get burned.
Imposter bulbs are not tested by a third-party lab to verify marketing claims. Sometimes the imposters don’t last as long as advertised, or don’t work with dimmer switches, or don’t give off the right color or amount of light. They might provide directional light, pointed in one spot, rather than omnidirectional light that illuminates the entire area.
Once consumers have a bad experience with an imposter bulb, it can turn them off to LEDs in general. “We hear complaints that LEDs are too bright or that they burn out quickly,’” said Pugliese, of Efficiency Vermont. “If you buy something that doesn’t meet your expectations, you’re never coming back to the product.”
In the spring of 2016, Efficiency Vermont did focus groups with shoppers who said they’d purchased LEDs in the past six months. The results showed that these customers weren’t thinking a lot about ENERGY STAR as part of the purchase — they were just looking for LEDs.
“You see a bulb, it’s a 60-watt replacement, it’s from a trusted manufacturer,” Pugliese said. It might say LED, it might say “Saves Energy” — “That’s already a lot to look at if you’re buying a $1 product,” she said.
That’s why reminding people to look for the ENERGY STAR logo is so crucial. Efficiency Vermont is able to help consumers get a better bulb, at a better price, but only if they buy a bulb that carries that ENERGY STAR label.
After our shopping excursion, Ted thanked me and said, “I know what to look for now.”