Friday, July 25, 2008

Info: the lightbulb ban

I'm curious to see what will happen with light bulbs in eight years, after we've all (theoretically) made the switch to compact fluorescent bulbs. Congress is mandating the switch, banning the most common incandescent light bulbs starting in 2012, and phasing out other bulbs by 2016. This will promote energy efficiency, make consumers more planet-friendly, and piss off a lot of people. But it's good to know about, so here's a summary of our upcoming light bulb issues.

First, the ban itself. As far as I can tell, the ban applies to standard screw-base lamps from 40 to 150 watts (technically, 310 to 2600 lumens). It does not affect three-way bulbs, large globe lights (like I've got above my bathroom mirror), candelabra-base lamps up to 60 watts, colored lights, rough-service bulbs, and plant lights. The ban apparently doesn't affect halogen bulbs either, but I can't find confirmation of this.

Second, the short list of actual problems with compact fluorescents:
  • They don't work in the cold.
  • They don't like being on for short periods of time.
  • They're a miniature toxic waste spill when they break.
  • They're not natively dimmable.
  • The special (more expensive) dimmable fluorescents suffer from problems; they don't dim fully, they're choppy, and they're not as bright as their wattage rating would suggest. And, while I've heard about them, I haven't seen them on the shelves of any local hardware store.
  • They flicker. I've got proof of this -- I was using a die grinder by the light of a CF worklight, and I saw strobe effects on the spinning cutoff wheel. The flicker is worse immediately after you turn the light on. And they say the flicker causes eye strain.
  • They're picky about lamp orientation and ventilation. Deviating much from the ideal can scrap your bulb in a hurry (or, fast enough that it no longer saves you money).
  • CF reflector lamps suck by design. An incandescent bulb's filament is a relatively small light source, so its light bounces off of a mirrored reflector in pretty uniform ways. CFLs produce light from the entire surface of that spiral tube; putting it inside a reflector housing doesn't produce a nice bounce pattern, and the resulting light output is neither pretty nor directional. And this is a matter of optics, not design; they can't fix this problem.
  • You can't throw them in the trash.
Next, the short list of things people complain about that aren't actually problems:
  • Cost. CFs pay for themselves in extended lifespan and energy savings.
  • Light quality. They now make CFs in a bunch of color temperatures, and the warm whites (I've seen Sylvania's in use) look nice.
  • They interfere with AM radio. Come on -- it's AM radio! Wake up and live in the new millennium!
And, a list of issues you'll have when you upgrade to CFLs:
  • Because CFLs don't like the cold, your incandescent porch lights will have to stay incandescent, or switch to low-wattage bulbs or halogens. Ditto, your attic light.
  • Unless dimmable CFLs become a practical, aesthetic reality, you'll have to replace your dimmer switches with standard switches or put up with bad dimmable CFLs. You shouldn't put a standard CFL in a dimmed socket, even if you only ever switch it to FULL or OFF.
  • If you've got can lighting or track lighting that takes incandescent reflector lights, try a CFL reflector bulb while you can still buy incandescents. If you don't like the look, stockpile some incandescents.
  • They sell CFLs with the fluorescent helix encased in a smooth plastic housing; they look remarkably like incandescents, and I'd recommend them for anywhere you can see the bulb (like tulip-glass sconces on ceiling fans).
  • You'll also need these faux-incandescent bulbs if you've got lampshades that clip onto the bulb.
Finally, a list of predictions:
  • The people who'll really be hosed by the transition: small-business owners. That extremely trendy Soho clothier that just opened uses about 600 light bulbs, half of which aren't esthetically replaceable with CFLs.
  • Restaurants, too; I can't remember the last time I was in a non-fast-food restaurant that didn't have most of their lights on dimmers.
  • Cheating. Adapters that let you put a candelabra-base lamp in a standard fixture will be hot sellers, since the ban doesn't kick in until roughly 60 watts for lamps with a candelabra base.
  • More cheating. At least one manufacturer will make bulbs that are just below or just above the lumen-output cutoff points (40-watt bulbs are about 30% above the cutoff).
  • LED lighting will become the new cool thing for commercial and residential lighting in 2012, just like it was the new cool thing for theatrical lighting a few years ago. Color-changing LED ceiling cans with convenient wall controls will drop in price to the point where they can be used residentially, not just in extremely high-end restaurants and clubs. These will, of course, require new wiring.
  • No presidential candidate will in any way reference any potential problems with the CFL switchover.
  • In 2012, we'll start to see news articles about illegal bulbs being brought across the border from Mexico and black markets in banned incandescents.
  • We'll also see hand-wringing news articles about people blatantly disregarding the package labeling (and the law) by tossing old CFLs in the trash. And a news flash-mob when a 90-year-old grandmother on a fixed income is slapped with a $800 fine for inappropriately disposing of her old CFLs.
Thus do I predict. We'll see what happens. In a lot of ways, this looks a lot like the last time I remember Congress banning a whole class of home fixtures: the high-capacity toilet ban (links are to Dave Barry's columns on the issue). For a while, the low-flow toilets were a serious step down from their predecessors. Then competent designers started working on the problem, and now low-capacity toilets work (mostly) as well as the old ones did, and we're saving well over a billion gallons of water a day*. I suspect the light-bulb ban will be similar: a rough transition period, followed by actual efficiency and energy savings.

In the meantime, for me, switching entirely to CFLs will require rewiring our house; dimmable CFLs suck, and every non-dimmed light fixture in our house already has a fluorescent in it. And I'm not rewiring; by dimming my incandescents and halogens, I'm already cutting energy use and extending lamp life. I've heard much talk about efficient incandescent designs that will meet the new energy-saving requirements, but none are available yet. If none are available by 2012, I suspect I'll buy a case of bulbs to store in the basement before the ban goes into effect....
* Math based on 300 million people, each flushing three times daily, saving 1.5 gallons per flush.


David Lapham said...

The incandescent ban is something that gets tossed about here in Europe, but it hasn't actually come in to effect except in one or two northern countries (Scandanavia or Benelux) as far ass I know. But I will find out soon, as I will begin working for an architectural lighting consultant in about a month. In London, there's a push from the mayor's office to make London theatre "green," and of course the first thing anyone points to is the lighting, even though the stage lighting systems typically only account for about 25% of any theatre's power consumption. Since most moving lights, and even many European-made "conventional" lights are HMI there's a lot of encouragement from people who don't know how it works to make theatres switch over. not dimmable? That's why they come with DMX shutters! But at a workshop I went to last year someone from Selecon (who do make HMI versions of their fixtures) pointed out that what they are asking us to do is replace our halogens with HMIs that may only use a third of the power, but have to be switched on for four times as long because they are powered up before the house opens and stay on till the end of the show, compared with a halogen that is only on for exactly as long as it's needed. Plus, when you "dim" an HMI with a shutter, it's still burning at full power. you just can't see it. I know the mayor's office has good intentions, but I hope they don't decide to move forward with knee-jerk proposals just so they can be seen to be doing something.

rldavis1613 said...

What about the folks with migraines, that seem to be triggered by flourescents?

Anonymous said...

The light quality is a real issue for people who invest in decorating their homes. Even thought the light temperature may be fine the light is still monochromatic and therefore distorts the colours badly (try sorting your blue/black socks). If you have invested some money in a painting or an oriental rug, like I have, the light quality issue is very, very real. And I assure you, I am not alone. There will always be a market, black or legit, for incandescent sources. Well, unless they come up with a real alternative.

Johan, Sweden.