How much does it cost to change a halogen light bulb?

This may sound like a light bulb joke, but Winnie Anne Imperio isn't laughing. Several months ago, she bought a Westinghouse Halogen Torchiere Lamp from Linens 'n Things. "I wanted a halogen because it provides the best light, and the Westinghouse lamp was the least expensive," the Washington-based medical writer says of the $19.99 floor lamp. "Now I know why."

Imperio soon saw her purchase in a new light when the bulb burned out. According to the box, she needed to replace it with a "borosilicate double-encapsulated 250 watt halogen bulb." When she returned to Linens 'n Things, the store didn't have the bulb in stock. She called Home Depot, but it had that particular two-pin halogen bulb only in 50 watts or less. Next stop: Reed Electric Co., a lamps and light fixtures specialty store in Georgetown. The salesman told her she'd have to order a replacement from the manufacturer--and it would cost about $25.

"I thought that was ridiculous. A replacement bulb that costs more than the lamp!" says Imperio, who decided she would buy a new $38.95 halogen floor lamp that takes a less expensive and easily available bulb.

But Imperio wonders if she did the right thing--or is she, and are other consumers, in the dark about buying halogen lamps and bulbs?

Eight metropolitan area Linens 'n Things stores confirmed they carried the Westinghouse Halogen Torchiere Lamp. Five of them reported they did not have the bulbs in stock; three put the caller on eternal hold. The price when they had it? Answers ranged from $20 to $30.

Robert Hersh, CEO of Catalina Lighting Inc., a major lighting fixture manufacturer that makes torchiere floor lamps, dismissed Imperio's light bulb ideas. "We can manufacture that product for a very low price," says Hersh. "But when you buy a $19.99 lamp and you've got to pay even $5 for a bulb, it seems expensive."

But Hersh adds that "there is an endless supply of Chinese-made replacement bulbs in various brands" for torchiere lamps for under $5 at stores such as Home Depot and Wal-Mart. "If you go to a fancy electrical distributor and buy a GE bulb," he says, "you probably could pay a lot more for it."

But local Home Depot and Wal-Mart stores carried the bulbs only at 50 watts or lower. Prices for a GE replacement were about $8, an import about $4.

Sandy Gentry, spokeswoman for Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL), the leading product safety testing and standards developing organization in North America, consulted UL's engineering department. "As affordable as the lamp was, engineering recommended [Imperio] purchase a new lamp that takes the standard halogen bulb configuration. She did the right thing."

Consumers should also know that revised safety requirements for halogen torchiere lamps kicked in this past summer, says Gentry. They require, among other things, that torchiere lamps manufactured after June 1, 1999, come with wire guards affixed over the hot-light halogen bulbs to reduce the potential of fire hazards. New models also come equipped with a tip-over "turn off" switch.

"Manufacturers are allowed to clear out their inventory, so folks may actually see older lamp models on store shelves," she says.

Consumers who own older halogen torchiere lamps can obtain free wire guards from retailers such as Ames, Home Depot, Lowes, Target and Wal-Mart. Or, send a postcard with name, address and number of guards needed to: Dana Lighting, 55 Norfolk Ave., Easton, Mass. 02372, Attn: Consumer Services.