Love them or loathe them, we're all going to have to start using low-energy bulbs. They're good for the planet, but not everyone is seeing the light. Kate Watson-Smyth illuminates a domestic dilemma

So that's it then. The end of light as we know it. Shops have stopped replenishing their stocks of traditional tungsten light bulbs, and expect to have run out by the end of the week. But to judge from the hoo-ha surrounding this announcement, you could be forgiven for thinking that Britain is about to be full of very cross people sitting in the dark.

The withdrawal of conventional bulbs is the second part of a government campaign to force people into buying low-energy fluorescent bulbs, which started with the scrapping of the 150-watt equivalent last year. The powers that be say the switch to low-energy will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by around five million tonnes a year.

Stocks of 100W and 75W bulbs will be run down now while 60W bulbs, commonly used for table and reading lamps, will be phased out this time next year. All incandescent bulbs will be banned by 2012.

So from now on, whether we like it or not, we will all have to use eco-lights. First, the good news. An energy-saving bulb uses one sixth of the electricity and lasts 12 times as long as a conventional one, which means an annual saving of around £90 over the life of the bulb, which is not to be sniffed at in the current climate.

But eco-lighting is not without its critics. Have you tried energy-efficient bulbs? Did your heart sink as you stood in a dim, dreary glow while the bulbs warm up? You're not alone. In addition, they contain mercury, which means you can no longer chuck them in the bin but have to dispose of them responsibly. And you have time for that? That's not all. Some medical charities say the subtle flicker of these bulbs can trigger migraines and epilepsy attacks, so they're lobbying the Government for an opt-out for people with health problems, to allow them to continue using the old-style bulbs.

But for every surly critic there's a passionate fan. Oliver Heath, the designer and enthusiastic promoter of all things eco, whose book Urban Eco Chic (Quadrille, £19.99) promotes green design of the kind that doesn't make the heart sink. "I've just changed all my bulbs to CFLs [compact fluorescent lamps] and saved around four-fifths on my electricity bill. It really is quite staggering that so many people are still using Edison's light bulb which was invented in 1879. It's 130 years later and people are still using the same technology – that just doesn't happen in other areas of our home and lives."

But even Heath acknowledges that – while the new-style bulbs (or CFLs as he calls them) have come a long since they first arrived – many of them still don't give the quality of light we're used to. Still, he has some suggestions for those who complain about greyish glows.

"First you really need to maximise the amount of natural light coming into your home. Use reflective surfaces to bounce the light around and choose the right colour schemes to throw the light back into your space."

If the walls around the windows are painted in pale colours, the light will be drawn into the room. "CFLs do take time to reach their optimum brightness so are not ideal for use in a hallway, for example, where you may well be out of the room by the time they are fully functioning," he admits. "but they can now be dimmed and come in different shades. And the elements are often encased in rubber-coated frosted glass so they look more like the conventional tungsten bulbs. If you really don't like the look of them, then put a large shade over – perhaps made of felt or paper as the bulbs give out so little heat."

Patrick Hudgell, managing director of Lightbulbs Direct, says: "I think the unilateral ban is ridiculous. There are cases where the incandescent bulb is right for the job. What happens to the person with a beautiful 1930s Art Deco lamp? There is no energy-saving bulb for them – and that renders the lamp useless."

But they are getting better, and the usual CFLs are not the only option. Try the buyer's guide on this page – you should find it illuminating.

Stockists

www.lightbulbs-direct.com ; 01494 723 286

www.ecocentric.co.uk ; 020-7739 3888

www.johncullenlighting.co.uk ; 020-7371 5400

Lighting: Need to know

LED spotlights

LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, are very energy efficient, but expensive. (The cheap ones in garden lights give off a nasty blue glow – no good for living rooms.) Lucy Martin of lighting design firm John Cullen says that one in seven will have a grey light, and that you can't tell which ones do so until you've turned them on. And each bulb costs up to £25. Yet bulbs can last for up to 100,000 hours, so in effect never need replacing. But as ambient lighting for the home, LEDs aren't there yet. Price: From £7 to £25

Halogen energy savers

These are probably the way forward for most of us. Use them to replace all those halogen spotlights in the kitchen or hall for instant light. Or put them into reading lamps. They last two-thirds of the time of compact fluorescent lamps, so are less of a bargain, but the quality of light is warmer and brighter. If you are replacing a 50W bulb, choose a 35W halogen energy saver. They are fully dimmable. Price: Around £4 each

Fluorescent tubes

There's nothing new about strip lights – but they are incredibly energy efficient, if ugly. Lucy Martin suggests fitting them along the top of kitchen cupboards, with a small facing to hide them. They will push a bright light up to the ceiling which will softly light the rest of the room. Price: From £1.50 to £6

Compact fluorescent lamps

These are the most common eco bulbs. They give out five times more light than traditional bulbs, so if you want to replace your 100W bulb, you need to buy a 20W CFL. For a 60W, buy a 12W CFL, and so on. In terms of your bank balance, they make sense – but they're detested by many. That said, quality brands (Osram, Philips and Megaman) make CFLs that reach full brightness in two to three minutes, and some can now be dimmed, too. The best advice is not to rush out and buy a houseful of CFLs, but look instead for halogen energy-savers described below. Price: Around £9 each for good-quality bulbs

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