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The 125-year-old incandescent light bulb gets a facelift

Noah Horowitz

Posted January 19, 2011

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Earlier this month, Representative Barton reintroduced his bill to “save the 125-year-old incandescent light bulb,” which I blogged about when it was first introduced in the last Congress. Given the reintroduction of the bill, I thought it would be a good time to revisit the details on the lighting efficiency standard as well as point you to NRDC’s new fact sheet that provides more detail.

In 2007, President Bush signed a law that requires the 125-year-old light bulb to be more energy efficient. The first phase of the energy efficiency standard for light bulbs takes effect January 1, 2012, and requires new bulbs to use 25 to 30 percent less energy starting with the conventional 100-watt bulb. The second phase will go into effect in 2020 and requires new bulbs to be at least three times more efficient than today’s incandescent bulbs, which means they will save 65 percent energy. This standard will lead the way to a new generation of energy-efficient light bulbs and save consumers more than $10 billion annually, avoid the need for 30 new power plants, and decrease CO2 emissions by 100 million tons per year. To put the national savings numbers in perspective, repealing the standard would effectively cost each household $100 to $200 or more every year in increased home energy bills

The lighting efficiency standard is technology neutral in that it sets a requirement for how much energy a bulb can use to produce a given amount of light (lumens), but does not specify what technology can be used to meet the requirement. For instance, while traditional incandescent bulbs waste 90 percent of the energy they use as heat and therefore won’t meet the standards, there are new more efficient incandescent bulbs that do meet the standards (such as the new energy saving halogens shown below, which are a type of incandescent and look and perform the same as conventional incandescent bulbs). These products were developed and are being introduced by lighting manufacturers like Osram Sylvania, GE, TCP  and Philips in direct response to the standards.3 light bulb packages_LARGE.jpg

An important point to note is that since the standards are technology neutral, consumers will still have a wide array of choices when it comes to buying a light bulb. This means there will be bulbs that fit in every socket and application. Consumers will be able to choose from bulbs of various shapes, sizes, technologies brightness levels, and color temperatures. In addition, many of these new products would not have been introduced in the absence of the federal standards set by Congress. While compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) currently offer consumers the biggest bang for their buck, the standard does not require them and consumers will still have plenty of other options.

The national lighting efficiency standards are also providing certainty and uniformity to manufacturers who would otherwise face a patchwork of varying state regulations. For instance, California has already begun to implement the lighting standard a year in advance of the federal standard and without federal regulation other states would likely implement their own standard. The lighting industry unanimously supports the standards, in part because the standards provide companies the certainty they need to invest in new manufacturing facilities, many of them in the United States, which is exactly what they have been doing. For example, Cree, Lighting Sciences Group Corp, and Philips have created several thousand American jobs producing the next generation of efficient LED bulbs. For more examples of how industry is investing in US capacity to meet the standard, see my previous blog and our fact sheet.

The bottom line is the new standards will gradually retire the 125-year-old inefficient light bulb, which is easily the least efficient piece of equipment in our homes. In its place will be a broad suite of new and improved bulbs, all of which use a lot less energy to produce the same amount of light and will save consumers money.  And what could be better than a light bulb that lowers my electricity bill and my carbon footprint? That’s a bright idea in my book.

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Ginny SkalskiJan 20 2011 10:00 AM

Great job on explaining what these new energy efficiency standards actually mean. While some nostalgia for incandescent bulbs is to be expected, it doesn't mean these energy-wasting bulbs needs to be saved. Your energy fact sheet is a great resource and I'm sure I will point people to it quite a few times between now and next year.

Saandra NazzalJan 20 2011 02:19 PM

Thank you for the information.
I was happy to see that you are in the Bay area. Perhaps we'll bump into each other.

Arthur J SoinskiJan 20 2011 11:48 PM

I have used various compact fluorescent light bulbs for 20 years. Only one had a lifetime of 7,000 hours or better--a Phillips bulb I installed outside as a post light in IL 20 years ago.
A recent batch of Feit ESL23TM's doesn't last 1,000 hours--in real world use.
I predict that 10 years from now compact fluorescents will be regarded as an environemntal disaster because of their short lifetime and greater mass of materials compared to incadescents filling landfills.

Barbara BankesJan 27 2011 04:08 PM

What about the high heat in halogens? And the danger of fire when the lamp falls over and breaks the bulb? And do they work with rheostats? And will there be equal brightness for the size of the bulb? And will there be chandelier bulbs? At present equal substitutions are not available, CFL's that say they are equal to incandescent bulbs are not and they do not last as long as they claim to. Also with CFL's, the color is quite altered in reference to natural light. Then there is the problem of recycling as mentioned by Arthur J. and the danger of mercury when a CFL is broken. We use CFL's where we can, but do not like them, nor there dimness, at all. It is difficult to repress the urge to stock up on incandescents which actually fit in our table lamps at the brightness we want and work in our chandelier lamps and not look ugly.

Kevin GrotheJan 28 2011 09:44 AM

Those "high-heat" halogens are off the market and I haven't used the new ones but I bet they are a lot cooler. The answer to your next four questions are; yes, yes, yes and yes.
You need to read the labels carefully for the equivalent brightness. The wattage is far lower on CFLs and the light color is softer even though it projects the same brightness. When you are used to the harshness of a incandescent, the CFL only seems dimmer. As for the life of the bulb, the CFL is as fragile as an incandescent. If it was dropped in shipping or handling it's life can be shortened. you should also be careful not to drop it on the floor (as is the same with incandescents). The CFLs danger of mercury has been overblown. One CFL bulb contains less mercury than the hands on a common wristwatch. If it breaks in your house there is no real hazard, just sweep it up as you would normally do for any lightbulb. A CFL should not go into a landfill and there are many recycling centers all over the US. Would you through your TV set or computer in a landfill? They contain hundreds more hazardous chemicals.
Go to a large lighting store and see the huge variety of CFLs available that are not ugly in the least. Anyway, the new generation of LED bulbs will be replacing CFLs in the next few years. LED bulbs will last 10,000 hours. Watch for them.

Alex CurrieJan 28 2011 01:25 PM

CFL do not, in my experience, last anywhere near the time claimed by the manufacturers.
Many take time to come up to full light output.
Of course nobody wants to talk about the Mercury in each and every bulb.
Recycling is theoretically an option but the reality is that the waste CFLs will find their way into landfills.

John L. CoulsonJan 28 2011 01:26 PM

CFL's: "Green" Neurotoxin Lighting
Due to the recent Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, the federal government is outlawing certain incandescent bulbs starting in less than one year. And in California it has already started.
Starting in 2012, "general service incandescent lamps" (according to the government this means a standard incandescent or halogen type lamp) will have to be at least 30% more energy efficient than today's incandescent versions.
This phase out of existing technology incandescent bulbs will start with the 100 watt bulb on 1/1/2012 (1/1/2011 for California), the 75 watt bulb on 1/1/2013; and the 60 watt and 40 watt bulbs on 1/1/2014. By 2020 all bulbs will have to be at least 70% more efficient than today's incandescent bulbs.
The law was designed to make CFL's the de-facto standard in lighting, and because of this law you've seen the hyping of CFL's like never before. In fact, the 2007 Energy Bill contained $40,000,000 to "educate" you to make "make energy-efficient lighting choices." I've been using CFL's since 2006 when we built our Energy Star compliant home because they were the only commercial technology available for some energy conserving lighting applications. As I used them, then had to replace them years before they were supposed to fail, and then tried to recycle them, I can now say that I view these things in a very dim light (pun intended).
CFL's contain the neurotoxin known as mercury in a vapor form, and are anything but "green." Proponents like to dismiss the "small" amount of mercury in a CFL but I'll get to that misleading argument in a moment. CFL's are not made in the USA. They are almost exclusively made in China with plants powered by dirty coal.
A recent 2009 study by the United States Agency for International Development found that of the 300+ CFL manufacturers in China, only 40% produce CFLs that meet the national standards. China does not regulate the production of its exports. That means laws and regulations the Chinese have for products sold within China do not apply to exported products, and more than 70% of China's CFL production is exported.
So "Green Jobs" get created in China as companies like GE closed their Winchester, VA manufacturing plant in 2010 and shipped jobs to China. CFL's are an environmental hazard from their production, to their breakage in the home, to the waste stream they create. As GE workers ironically joke "It's illegal to dump mercury in the river, but not in the landfill."
CFL's have over 40 different components and electronic parts which are prone to failure and quality control issues, and to this day have had many problems including:
So what about the mercury in our little "green" Neurotoxin Light Bulb? One of the myths in the pro-CFL hype is the lack of danger in a broken CFL because of the "small" amount of mercury it contains. Proponents like to make the apple and orange comparison of a CFL breaking to a mercury thermometer breaking. However there is a big difference between mercury vapor as found in a CFL and liquid mercury in its normal state as found in a thermometer. The EPA itself states:
"It is not uncommon for children to break fever thermometers in their mouths. Mercury that is swallowed in such cases poses low risk comparison to the risk of breathing mercury vapor."
The risk posed by inhaling mercury vapor is real and those who try to pretend the risk does not exist because an unsafe CFL does not fit their narrative or corporate interests are irresponsible at best. The risk is exacerbated when a CFL breaks in an enclosed room, such as a bedroom.
In February 2008 the State of Maine conducted extensive real-world tests on the mercury vapor levels encountered with a broken CFL. They conducted 45 different tests and the results showed mercury levels in the room to be over 300 times the maximum allowable exposure levels, with mercury levels then falling if the room is vented and rebounding again when the room is closed up:
"Mercury concentration in the study room air often exceeds the Maine Ambient Air Guideline (MAAG) of 300 nanograms per cubic meter (ng/m3) for some period of time, with short excursions over 25,000 ng/m3, sometimes over 50,000 ng/m3, and possibly over 100,000 ng/m3 from the breakage of a single compact fluorescent lamp."
You cannot vacuum up the breakage. The study states:
"Cleaning up a broken CFL by vacuuming up the smaller debris particles in an un-vented room can elevate mercury concentrations over the MAAG in the room and it can linger at these levels for hours."
And replacing your carpeting? Well, they leave that up to you to decide:
"The decision on whether or not to remove carpet where there was a broken lamp may depend on a number of factors including the location of the carpet (e.g. where a child plays or where the carpet is frequently agitated), the occupants of the household, or possibly the type of lamp broken."
The EPA has a specific 12-point hazardous material clean-up plan you need to follow if you break a CFL in your home. I outline the steps for you in the tutorial How to Clean Up a Broken CFL.
The process outlined by the EPA for cleaning up one of these "safe" bulbs involves ventilating the room (a problem in winter), duct tape, a glass jar, cardboard, plastic bags, and other extraordinary steps and materials.
So where does that all leave us? Well, beside LED lighting, new lighting technology development continues. One promising technology is the Hybrid Electric Lamp being developed at the University of Rochester which uses a "newly-developed method for nearly doubling the efficiency of an incandescent by blackening the tungsten filament with a short pulse laser."
Other incandescent derivative lighting available today uses deposition coating technology to gain efficiencies, such as with the Halogena Line of lighting by Phillips. These bulbs contain no mercury, are dimmable, last twice as long and produce as much light as today's incandescents but with over 30% less energy.
At the end of the day innovation will prevail and I believe we will end up with an incandescent derivative lamp and not a little "green" Neurotoxin Light Bulb as the solution.
Excerpted from CFL's: "Green" Neurotoxin Lighting
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