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January 1 is Lights Out

That’s right, January 1, 2014 the lights go out… at least for the manufacture and import of household incandescent lamps. Some people are meeting this news with shock and outrage. Others are hoarding remaining supplies. I have a somewhat different approach.

This isn’t really new or newsworthy. It’s a product of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA), passed on December 18, 2007. It calls for the phase out of 100 watt incandescent household lamps on January 1, 2012, and 75 watt versions in 2013. The law doesn’t specifically call for the end of incandescent, just inefficient lamps. It calls for a 27% reduction in energy use based on the output traditionally found in these lamps. If an incandescent technology were to emerge that met these standards, they could stay… for now. There’s another round of bans coming in 2020.

The second part of the law requires that most light bulbs be 60-70% more efficient than the standard incandescent today; this will go into effect in 2020. Many compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) and many Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) can meet this requirement today, being 75% more efficient than standard incandescents.

That being said, let’s look at the realities of incandescent technology. It’s well over 100 years old, that’s a pretty good run for any technology in today’s world. The only other technology as old that I can think of that is in use today with minor modifications is the Westinghouse Brake System used by railroads. “If it aint broke, don’t fix it”, right? The trouble is, it is broke. Most incandescent lamps convert only 10% of the electrical energy they use into light… the remaining 90% is lost to heat. In a world with an expanding population and increased strain on energy resources, that just doesn’t make sense. We demand greater energy efficiency from almost everything we own, including our cars, HVAC systems, water heaters, etc.

Example of LED replacement lamp

There are other technologies readily available to fill the gap. The two most common are the CFL (Compact Fluorescent Lamp… usually found as spirals or bent tubes) and the LED (Light Emitting Diode). By comparison we can see how much more efficient they are.

The standard 60 watt incandescent light bulb provides 13 to 14 lumens per watt.
An equivalent CFL provides between 55 and 70 lumens per watt.
An equivalent LED can range between 60 and 100 lumens per watt.

Call me an early adopter I guess (usually goes along with being a Geek), but I converted my house to CFLs nearly 10 years ago. I wasn’t compelled by the law, simply a desire to save money. With kids that have yet to learn how to use a lightswitch, I’ve noticed a fairly considerable savings. Some complain about the quality and color temperature of the light from CFLs, but if you buy quality lamps and look at the specs, you can find some very pleasing ones. The Federal Trade Commission has made this even easier with a new “Nutrition Label” for lamps.

Light Bulb Nutrition Label (EPA.gov)

Ultimately, it’s not watts that illuminate your house, it’s lumens. The age-old practice of buying a “XX” watt bulb needs to go away. Some good ballpark figures to help you with the transition are as follows:

Incandescent Watts Lumen Output
40 450
60 800
75 1100
100 1600
125 2000

 

These new technologies do have some drawbacks though. LEDs function very well in the cold, but not in the heat. They would make a terrible oven light, and may not survive well as outdoor fixtures in very warm climates. However, today at my house it was -27F (yes, that’s a minus sign in front) and my outdoor LED lamps worked like a champ. For those needing an oven light, notably some specialty incandescent bulbs like appliance bulbs, rough service bulbs, marine lamps, and three-way bulbs are exempt from the ban.

Compact Fluorescents have a few knocks against them too. They contain small amounts of mercury, which means they should be recycled rather than simply tossed in the trash. Care should also be taken when cleaning up a broken lamp. This is really no different than any other fluorescent lamps, which have been in use for over a hundred years as well (early technologies appeared in the 1800s, and commercial use as early as 1904). Widespread use of fluorescent lamps went into effect in the 1930s, one would think by now we would have a handle on that. The EPA has a document covering the disposal of CFLs, found here: http://www2.epa.gov/cfl

Another rub against CFLs is a study that found they may produce UV light and cause cancer. While I’m not a doctor, I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express a few times, so I’m pretty qualified. There is some truth to the first part of the concern, they do produce UV light. That’s the very nature of how they work. They produce a UV light that excites a phosphor coating on the glass, which then produces the white light we use. Tiny cracks or missing patches of phosphor can allow UV light to pass through. However, a study done in 2004 by the Institute of Oncology Sremska Kamenica, Serbia & Montenegro, seems to suggest that you would have to sit very, very close to a CFL for extremely long periods of time to be exposed to the same amount of UV radiation as provided by a few hours of sunlight. Don’t take my word for it though, do your own research. You can find the study here: http://www.doiserbia.nb.rs/img/doi/0354-7310/2004/0354-73100404203S...

If you’re really concerned about the mercury and UV from CFLs, I would give a strong look at LED. The technology is still emerging, but it’s doing so fast. LED lamps cost a bit more (about $12) than their CFL cousins, but they run very efficiently and promise extremely long lives. Over the total cost of ownership, they should be less expensive, plus they’re a great alternative to frequently changing hard to reach lamps.

The last rub is that some of these lamps cannot use existing dimmer technology. Some have a circuit inside that allows them to do so, others require an upgrade. To each their own, but these won’t deter me from using the more efficient technologies, and you won’t find me hoarding incandescent lamps. I’ve been quite happy with CFLs for the last 10 years, and the newer technologies are only getting better.

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