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New Light Bulbs Don't Impress

By Tuesday, 20 October 2009 03:16 PM Current | Bio | Archive

The new mandated light bulbs don't save as promised. They may use less electricity, but savings disappear if the bulbs don't last as long as claimed, since they cost so much more.

The dim bulbs aren't just in public office; now they're also in our homes. Their light usually is dimmer and of inferior quality, as researchers confirm.

At least most of our old incandescent bulbs were made in America — most compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs are made abroad.

The light-bulb mandate, passed in December 2007, has led to General Electric's recent announcement that it is shutting down its incandescent bulb factories in Kentucky, Ohio, and Virginia. GE announced that a plant to make the new bulbs is being opened in China, where most of the new CFL bulbs are made.

It's not your imagination that the performance of the new bulbs doesn't usually match what Congress promised. Light bulb researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute confirm that "A CFL can appear dimmer than expected." It's because the information on the packaging usually overstates the amount of light they put out when compared to supposedly equivalent incandescent bulbs.

They report that you usually need a third of the old wattage, rather than only a fourth as advertised.

But it’s not just about brightness. The quality of light also determines how well you can see. As one example, purple and brown can appear alike under poor quality light. Using many of the CFL bulbs is almost like going color-blind. Rensselaer's guide declares that most CFL bulbs fall short of the needed color rendering index (CRI) of 85 to 90, with such a poor CRI that most bulb packages don’t even display the information.

The new bulbs are "falling short" according to director Michael Siminovitch of the California Lighting Technology Center at the University of California, Davis. And Siminovitch has been an advocate of the gizmos. He admitted to The New York Times, "In the pursuit of the holy grail, we stepped on the consumer." The CFLs, he confessed, are "not lasting quite as long as consumers have been led to believe."

No matter what laboratory tests may claim, many Americans believe the lifespan is shorter in real life. But who keeps a record of every bulb they buy and how long it lasts? If a seven-year bulb burns out in a few months, can you find your receipt and convince a store to give a refund?

I recently paid about $5 for a CFL bulb advertised to last seven years. It burned out in three weeks.

Early burn-outs aren’t so bad if a bulb costs a quarter. But when they cost several dollars, it adds up quickly, especially since a normal home has dozens of lamps and light fixtures.

That huge price differential motivates manufacturers and retailers to phase-out the old and phase-in the new even before the legal deadline hits in 2012. Since a typical markup is said to be 30 percent for the wholesaler and another 30 percent for the retailer, there is a lot more money to be made by selling bulbs that cost 20 times more than the old ones.

The difference is already obvious as new bulbs crowd out the old ones on store aisles (often filled with shoppers trying to decipher the small print to make decisions about the new bulbs).

Even electric companies are accused of taking advantage of consumers. Ohio's First Energy had ordered millions of new CFL bulbs to deliver to its customers, but had to back off when its plan to bill them $21 for a pair of bulbs was reported by the media.

The whole premise was that consumers would pay significantly more to buy bulbs, but ultimately would save on electric bills. But the lifespan and energy figures touted by Congress don't match up with many products.

Other problems include the warm-up time for CFLs that make them impractical for quick on-and-off circumstances. Aesthetics suffer in fixtures intended for shaped bulbs, such as flame or globe shapes. It’s touted as a benefit that the new bulbs don’t radiate much heat in addition to light. But in wintertime that was an advantage. And now who will save the Easy-Bake Oven from extinction?

And never forget that the EPA has issued special guidelines on how to handle the breakage of a CFL bulb, due to the mercury it contains.

Is there another option to the CFL or the incandescent? Not one that’s affordable. LED (Light-Emitting Diode) bulbs are said to offer the energy savings of the CFL with brightness and color that exceeds the incandescent. But LEDs cost, at least for now, some $50 or more per bulb.

You may want to stock up on the incandescent bulbs while you can, before their mandatory phase-out starts in 2012.

Congress has made a major mess by redesigning something as simple as a light bulb. Just imagine the chaos they can create if they now redesign our complex healthcare system.

Rather than changing light bulbs, wouldn’t changing how Congress works be a brighter idea?

Ernest Istook, a former U.S. congressman from Oklahoma, is a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

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The new mandated light bulbs don't save as promised.They may use less electricity, but savings disappear if the bulbs don't last as long as claimed, since they cost so much more.The dim bulbs aren't just in public office; now they're also in our homes. Their light usually...
Tuesday, 20 October 2009 03:16 PM
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