Student group 'makes the switch' for the environment

One light bulb at a time, small changes are adding up to big savings

How many Virginia Tech undergraduates does it take to change a light bulb?  How about 25,000 light bulbs?

For a group of more than 30 young women who are members of IDEAS (Interior Designers for Education and Sustainability), that’s just what they intend to do: 'Make the Switch' throughout the campus community and beyond.

IDEAS is comprised of undergraduate students enrolled in the Interior Design Program in Virginia Tech’s College of Architecture and Urban Studies. In collaboration with faculty advisors, the group has been encouraging students, faculty, and staff members — and even residents of the town of Blacksburg — to change their conventional, incandescent light bulbs to more energy efficient, compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs — those odd shaped bulbs you might see at home improvements stores that tend to cost just a little more.

    A member of Make the Switch (right) reaches for a bulb in a room full of boxes of the CFLs.

Members say the ultimate goal of the Make the Switch team is to help the campus community become “greener” by finding and maintaining a better way of conserving energy that may lead toward a more sustainable way of life. The women also say they are hoping that their project will raise awareness about the importance of energy conservation.

Energy conservation movement

Richard Hirsh, director of the Virginia Tech Consortium on Energy Restructuring; the Department of Apparel, Housing, and Resource Management; faculty members; and graduate students have been helping the university pursue its strategic plan initiative on energy through research on various energy technologies and energy efficiency.

“The members of Make the Switch teach us that saving energy can not only be good for the environment, but good for the pocketbook as well," Hirsh said. "Using just one CFL bulb prevents the release of large amounts of pollution and can save consumers about $40 in electricity costs over the bulb’s lifetime. That’s not a bad deal, and I applaud the group's efforts."

    Four group members knealing next to a wheelbarrow filled with coal, one holds a CFL

In fall 2006, the Dean’s Task Force on Energy Security and Sustainability was established as a Virginia Tech priority to make the campus more energy efficient. Just a few examples of the ways to create a more energy efficient campus include recycling construction debris when practical; improving the quality of indoor air with the use of paints, adhesives, and sealers with less fumes; and using energy-conserving lighting.

Environmental quality and related health effects are a critical issue of our time. Virginia Tech students have long been known as some of the best in the country, and as the future leaders they play a pivotal role in establishing sustainability standards for the world.

“Students, as well as faculty and staff, typically do not think about how much energy they use, how this energy is generated, or what environmental impacts are associated with energy use," says Sean McGinnis, director of Green Engineering at Virginia Tech. "The more we can get people to consider all the impacts in using energy, the more likely it is that we can help them make better choices.”

Make the Switch is born

    A close-up of the Make the Switch t-shirt with logo of a CFL with a plant growing out of it on the left side

The notion of creating a “green” university setting originated in 2006 when the undergraduate student organization submitted the film they had written, produced, and starred in to the MTV-General Electric (GE) Ecomagination Challenge. 

The members of Make the Switch had bigger plans and decided to take their idea of a "greener" university community-wide.

The women set out in search of support from the campus community and beyond. Quickly they found it – Virginia Tech Facilities donated $5,000 toward the purchase of CFL bulbs, the Sylvania Company donated 1,000 CFL bulbs to kick-start the effort, and Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger offered his support. Additionally, a multitude of other organizations pledged their support for the project through energy conservation awareness and literally swapping their light bulbs.

IDEAS is well on its way to fulfilling its goals of education and sustainability when it comes to conserving energy at Virginia Tech and throughout the town of Blacksburg.

  • For more information on this topic, contact Meghan Williams at, (540) 231-4754, or (540) 231-7930.

Did you know?

    A Make the Switch group member (right) holds a compact flourescent bulb (left)
  • Using a CFL will translate to at least $25 savings over the life of the bulb.
    Source: Energy Star
  • CFLs emit 90 percent less heat than incandescent bulbs, last 10 times longer, and use only one-quarter of the energy.
    Source: U.S. Department of Energy
  • CFLs can be recyled to prevent mercury inside from becoming a pollutant.
    Source: The EPA factsheet
  • The amount of mercury in a CFL is smaller than the amount of mercury released into the environment through the burning of coal needed to power regular incandescent lights.
    Source: The EPA factsheet

Conversion table

Worried that the CFL won't be the same as a traditional bulb?

Here's a bulb conversion table to help you make the right wattage choice for the same amount of light.


Source: Conversions table at GE

Recycling is vital

As with all mercury containing objects, it is highly important to properly dispose of your compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs at the end of its lifecycle. That means, your CFL bulbs MUST be recycled.

All around Blacksburg, merchants are collecting bulbs for recycling. IKEA and The Home Depot are collecting CFL's nationwide for recycling.

For more in-depth information about the proper disposal of CFL bulbs or to find a CFL recycling location near you, visit

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