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Wherein I share my personal experiences with “green” lighting along with commentary on the political aspects of the light bulb ban.

The light-bulb has been banned. In case you hadn’t notice, as of January first of this year, the manufacture of incandescent light bulbs is banned in the United States for 40W and 60W bulbs. Larger sizes have been banned for a year (75W) or two (100W).

My own experience with replacement bulbs is limited to compact florescent (CFL), which still more-or-less represents the state-of-the art in replacements. LEDs are becoming more viable, but they are still far more expensive and are acknowledged to have some development work before they are the replacement-light-bulb-of-choice.

And I don’t like them.

The quality of the light is poor. Replacing my dining room light bulbs with CFLs results in all of my food having a sickly green hue. According to one light bulb maker, who will make an expensive alternative incandescent bulb (complying with the new laws), “We’re addicted to color of incandescents, unless you were born yesterday,” [Larry] Birnbaum continued. “Your body is used to it. When you put on something different, the body reacts to it, and you get irritated.”

For a relation of mine, who has a history of vision difficulties, the light from CFL bulbs cause her pain. Larry Birnbaum’s website, perhaps a little self-servingly, lists a number of health issues caused by exposure to florescent lighting. Which is not even to mention that the light bulbs themselves are hazardous waste.

But it’s all for our own good as well as for the good of the earth, right?

I am not convinced that I am saving any energy.

First, I believe the amount of waste is overstated. The idea is that traditional incandescent convert a significant portion of their energy to heat, which is wasted energy. Living in a northern climate, as I do, the amount of heat wasted is considerable lower than advocates calculate. While keeping warm with light bulbs is hardly an efficient home heating strategy, it’s probably not so much worse in the margins than the alternatives (particularly in older homes). The fact is, during the winter months, much of the energy I would save in converting to CFLs is made up by an increased requirement for heating fuel.

Second, the restrictions on use of CFLs cover nearly all of my uses of light bulbs. They are not to be used in three-way or dimmable fixtures. They can’t be used in lights with motion activation switches. They should only be placed in fixtures where they are held vertically.  This covers 100% of the lighting in my home. But to the extent I am willing to ignore one or more of the rules, they are not to be used in lights that are frequently turned off and on.

As a result, the lights that I do replace with CFLs (mostly in the warmer months), are fixtures that I can leave on all day. So I’ve replaced a 60W incandescent with a 13W CFL, but I’m running that 13W for 10-12 hours per day instead of 3-4. The energy savings is much less than advertised.

But wait, there’s more. As it turns out, I do not replace my 60W incandescents with 13W CFLs.  While the package says the two products put out the same amount of light, my own experience suggests that an incandescent bulb needs to be replaced with about double the “equivalent” bulb to get a similar effect on lighting. I don’t know why this is.  It seems that CFLs are brighter at the source (looking straight into the light, they seem brighter), but the reflected light off of other items in the room is less. It would be interesting to see if my gut feeling can be backed up by measurements, but for now I’m stuck just doubling the “equivalent” light bulb size if I want a similar amount of light (albeit in that sickly green color).

Of course, I can’t just double the size, because that is not how light bulbs scale.   For a 40W bulb, I need to use 23 W replacement (100W “equivalent”). For my standard, the 60W bulb, I need to use a 40W (150W “equivalent”). I also have my concerns on the usage side of this equation. The fixture where I’ve replaced two 60W incandescent with two 40W CFLs should be, despite an increase in light, producing considerable less heat at a 33% reduction in power draw. Yet, when I turn on the lights (particularly if they are already warm), I can hear arcing in the light switch. Even when I tried 100W incandescents in that same fixture (which didn’t work, too much heat) I didn’t have this problem. It seems that they are pulling a lot more current than the bulbs that they replace, or even any traditional bulbs that could conceivably be put into that fixture.

So instead of running 60W bulbs for 3-4 hours per day, I run 40W bulbs 10-12 hours per day. This calculation means I’m doubling the amount of energy that I’m consuming per bulb that I replace with the “green” CFL.

But that’s OK. Why? Because the purpose of the law isn’t really to save the planet, or to save me money. The purpose, according to some, is to help the profit margins the light bulb manufacturers, who had difficulty making money on low-cost incandescent light bulbs. By forcing consumers into technologically more complex products which, by the way, cost a factor of 20X more, light bulb producers hope to increase their profits. This is how the law sailed through congress back in 2007 with the strong support of industry, but attracting very little attention otherwise.

For now, most consumers still have their traditional light bulbs and continue to use them, although perhaps as few as 40% realize that their product of choice has been legislated out of existence. If 100W bulbs are anything to go by, stores may continue to stock 40W and 60W bulbs for up to a year or more as the existing stocks are run down.  Many are hopeful that this additional year will see new advances in LED technology, solving the health issues, the use issues (dimming, on-off cycling, etc.), the light quality, and the cost issues – particularly once consumer spending is pushed into new development.

If not, I hope you have been stocking up.