Our Dim Future

The US and Brit governments have mandated the replacement of our incandescent bulbs by Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs). That will probably save energy, so is a Good Thing. But CFLs are awful lamps, so that’s a Bad Thing.

The UK ban:

On the 27 September 2007, the government announced plans to phase out the sale of incandescent light bulbs by 2011. Retailers will not replace 150 watt bulbs from January 2008, 100 watt bulbs from January 2009, 40 watt bulbs in 2010, and all remaining high power bulbs by 2011. These plans are voluntary…

This agreement between vendors is a cartel – common in the collectivist UK. But even in the non-collectivist US:

On December 19, 2007, Congress passed an energy bill that will see the incandescent light bulb phased off the U.S. market beginning in 2012.

The WSJ calls this dirty pool (my ellipsis):

…if you’re GE or Philips or Sylvania, the demise of the plain vanilla lightbulb is less a threat than an opportunity–an opportunity, in particular, to replace a product that you can sell for 50 cents with one that sells for $3 or more.

Yes, the $3 bulb lasts longer. Yes, it cuts your electricity bill. (The manufacturers lobbyist) says that when every one of those four billion light sockets has an energy-saving bulb in it, the country will be saving $18 billion a year on its electric bill. That’s $4.50 per bulb–and the bulb makers are standing by to make sure a substantial portion of those “savings” get transformed into profits for them.

Now it may be that those bulbs are worth more–because they last longer, etc. But some of those bulbs, like compact fluorescents and Philips’ new “Halogena-IR” bulb, are already available. Currently they command all of 5% of the lightbulb market. That means that, whatever value proposition GE and Philips are selling, consumers aren’t buying…

Note that the lightbulb makers didn’t need a ban to convince consumers to “upgrade.” Microsoft, Dell, Apple and any number of other companies manage to convince the Joneses that they need a better “one”–whatever it is–every few years. If Philips wanted a Halogena-IR bulb in every socket, it had only to put them on the market at a price that made them irresistible compared to the 50-cent bulb of yore.

The 5% market penetration is caused by the 6* price differential with incandescent plus three other negatives.

Health hazards:

The Migraine Action Association (MAA) said some of its members alleged the fluorescent bulbs had led to attacks of the powerful headaches…

The Lighting Association, which represents manufacturers, denied that modern designs produced a flicker.

A spokesman said: “A small number of cases have been reported by people who suffer from reactions to certain types of linear fluorescent lamps. These were almost certainly triggered by old technology.”

Since the “old technology” CFLs harmed people, and that doesn’t bother the suppliers, we can reasonably assume there are more negatives in store.

Poor function

CFLs give poor light, as measured by Color Rendering Index:

…a measure of the ability of a light source to reproduce the colors of various objects being lit by the source.

Incandescents have almost perfect CRIs – over 95, while the best CFL is 87 and the typical is a nasty 80.

CFLs are bigger then incandescent, so don’t fit in many light fittings, and they burn out if heated, so you can’t recess them in ceiling cans. The need for new light fixtures can make switching to CFLs uneconomic.

If you don’t run CFLs for at least 5 minutes they burn out in 15% of their intended life. That makes them unsuitable for intermittently used rooms such as bathrooms.

The CFLs we use in Italy take about 1 second to light from cold – very annoying if you’re in a hurry.


CFLs contain mercury, which in all other contexts is regarded as a poison (the EU just shut down the Brit weather center industry since it used mercury thermometers). But there’s an argument that because CFLs use less power, we burn less coal, and produce less mercury vapor from that.

Popular Mechanics makes that case, but comments suggest its analysis is wrong, and CFLs will add to the mercury in our environment.

Bottom Line

There are good reasons why CFLs have only 5% of the market – they give lousy light, are expensive, often require pricey new fitments, and have limited application.

And, now our governments have killed their competition, it’s unlikely CFLs will get any better.

That leaves the LED lamp as our only hope for good lighting after 2010. The colors and brightness aren’t quite right yet, but otherwise they’re great replacements for halogen lamps.

But if the LED doesn’t come good, we face a dim future.


One Response to Our Dim Future

  1. nygiantstalk says:

    http://www.nygiantstalk.wordpress.com for a great new upcoming site

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