By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 30, 2007
NESKOWIN, Ore. -- Alex and Sara Sifford, who live here on the Oregon coast, want to do the right thing to save a warming world.
To that end, Alex Sifford, 51, has been buying compact fluorescent light bulbs, which use about 75 percent less power than incandescent bulbs. He sneaks them into sockets all over the house. This has been driving his wife nuts.
She knows that the bulbs, called CFLs, save money and use less energy, thus cutting greenhouse gas emissions blamed for climate change. She knows, too, that Al Gore, Oprah Winfrey and the Department of Energy endorse them. Still, the bulbs, with their initial flicker, slow warm-up and slightly weird color, bug her.
"What really got me was when my husband put a fluorescent in the lamp next to my bed," recalls Sara Sifford, 53. She said she yelled at her husband for "violating the last vestige of my personal space."
Experts on energy consumption call it the "wife test." And one of the dimly lighted truths of the global-warming era is that fluorescent bulbs still seem to be flunking out in most American homes.
The current market share of CFL bulbs in the United States is about 6 percent, up from less than 1 percent before 2001. But that compares dismally with CFL adoption rates in other wealthy countries such as Japan (80 percent), Germany (50 percent) and the United Kingdom (20 percent). Australia has announced a phaseout of incandescent bulbs by 2009, and the Canadian province of Ontario decided last week to ban them by 2012.
The relatively glacial adoption rate of CFLs in most of the United States suggests continued stiff resistance on the home front, despite dramatically lower prices for the bulbs and impressive improvements in their quality.
"There is still a big hurdle in convincing Americans that lighting-purchase decisions make a big difference in individual electricity bills and collectively for the environment," said Wendy Reed, director of the federal government's Energy Star campaign, which labels products that save energy and has been working with retailers to market CFL bulbs.
"I have heard time and again that a husband goes out and puts the bulb into the house, thinking he is doing a good thing," Reed said. "Then, the CFL bulb is changed back out by the women. It seems that women are much more concerned with how things look. We are the nesters."
A key to the abiding grass-roots resistance to CFLs, Reed and other experts said, is indelible consumer memories of the hideous looks and poor quality of earlier generations of fluorescent lights. They were bulky. They were expensive, as much as $25 each. They had an annoying flicker and hum. They cast an icky, cold-white light that made people look pale, wrinkly and old.
"People remember them from 20 years ago and they are not going to forgive," said Dave Shiller, vice president of new business development for MaxLite, a Fairfield, N.J., company that manufactures CFL bulbs.
A new breed of bulbs solves most, if not all, of the old gripes. The bulbs are smaller and much cheaper -- often selling for as little as $1.50 each at big-box stores. Most bulbs pay for themselves in reduced power consumption within six months. They last seven to 10 years longer than incandescent bulbs. The hum and flicker are long gone, and many bulbs are designed to mimic the soothing, yellowish warmth of incandescent bulbs. (Most, though, still do not work on dimmers.)
"The new fluorescent bulbs aren't just better for both your wallet and the environment -- they produce better light," declares the May issue of Popular Mechanics, in an exhaustive comparison test of the new breed of CFLs against incandescents.
Still, many consumers -- especially women -- do not seem to be buying in.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week showed that while women are more likely than men to say they are "very willing" to change behavior to help the environment, they are less likely to have CFL bulbs at home. Wal-Mart company research shows a similar "disconnect" between the pro-environmental attitudes of women shoppers and their in-store purchases of CFL bulbs.
Wal-Mart launched a campaign last fall to sell 100 million CFL bulbs a year and is prominently displaying them in all its stores. That campaign, Wal-Mart says, has more than doubled the share of CFLs it has sold.
"Attitudes don't always reflect behavior, and that is what was most surprising to us," said Tara Raddohl, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman. "Customers may have in mind, yes, they want to support environmentally friendly products, but when they come to the shelf to buy, the data shows they are not always buying them."
Utility company surveys show the same gender-based bulb-buying pattern in the Pacific Northwest, which has the highest CFL market share in the nation, about 11 percent. Men have been aware of CFLs longer than women, have bought them earlier and have installed more of them in the house than women, according to surveys that the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance has been conducting since 2004.
In groceries and drugstores, where 70 percent to 90 percent of light bulbs historically have been sold and where women usually have been the ones doing the buying, CFLs have not taken off nearly as fast as they have in home-improvement stores such as Home Depot and Lowe's, where men do much of the shopping.
"My gut feeling is that the last remaining factor that we have not cracked in selling these bulbs is the 'wife test,' " said My Ton, a senior manager at Ecos Consulting, a company in Portland, Ore., that does market research on energy efficiency.
After a decade as a researcher in residential lighting, Ton said he has concluded that a major part of the CFL problem in penetrating the American home "is a lack of communication between the sexes."
"The guy typically brings a CFL home and just screws it into a lamp in the bedroom, without discussing it with his wife," Ton said. "She walks in, turns on the light and boom -- there is trouble. That is where the negative impressions begin, especially when the guy puts it into the bedroom or the bathroom, the two most sacred areas of the home."
Ton advises husbands and wives "to talk about it before the light bulb is screwed in."
For Alex and Sara Sifford, the time for talking seems long gone.
Over the past nine years, Alex Sifford, who once worked for a utility as an energy-efficiency expert, has replaced nearly every incandescent bulb in the house. If his wife removes a new CFL, he simply waits a few weeks and screws it back in. As the bulbs have improved, he insists, his wife can no longer tell the difference.
Sara Sifford says that is ridiculous. But she has lost the will to fight. She also said she believes that using CFLs is "the moral, ethical and environmentally correct thing to do."
"He has worn me down," she said. "Honestly, the fluorescent bulbs still bug me."