Caution: Hot -Lighting for a new century

By John Senechal
Published in the WNC Green Building Directory
Issue 1, 2002

I'm standing in a museum in the future, looking at a display of the "Edison Incandescent Lightbulb". The placard says "Elegantly simple, this device was central to the early development and expansion of artificial lighting. Its use was, by the end of the twentieth century, nearly universal in the civilized world. Incandescent technology was replaced in the early twenty-first century by the electronic compact fluorescent bulb."

In the present, my dictionary defines incandescence as "heated to glowing". The fact is, a common incandescent bulb wastes 90% of its power making heat. To make matters worse, electricity that comes to your house has already lost about 75% of its energy through mechanical conversion and transmission losses. Put another way, the Edison lightbulb is only 10% efficient, using a power source that itself is only 25% efficient, for a net efficiency of 2.5%.

There is a railroad crossing in Biltmore where one can get snarled in traffic and count the coal cars as they pass. Our local power plant uses about 100 carloads of coal every 3 days. For every 100 car trainload of coal that passes thru Biltmore headed for the power plant, in terms of lighting by incandescent bulbs, only 2 car loads will be effectively used. If you factor in the extravagant and the unnecessary uses for which electric lighting is used commonly today, "effective use" becomes a stone on the wings of despair, and the figure goes even lower.

Who claims that we as a species are sentient? Enter the electronic compact fluorescent (CF) light bulb, uncertainly in ring three of this circus we call modern living. Has mankind ever invented a good thing, this would be it, rated on par with fresh bread and flush toilets. With little fanfare and much stumbling, this little invention has, so far, fooled the world into indifference. And yet we see the beginnings of wisdom, which will rise up and smite us, and save us from ourselves.

Ten years ago, I started giving electronic compact fluorescent (CF) bulbs as gifts at Christmas. They cost about $22.00 per bulb, and they made sense then. Now they are commonly at $12.00, and sometimes lower. They use less power, typically 1/4 the electricity. And they last a lot longer, averaging 10,000 hours, compared to 1,500 hours for the incandescent bulb. If you figure the power savings over the lifetime of a CF bulb, and the cost of power, it suddenly hits you in the forehead: These new bulbs will pay for themselves in just a few years. The return on investment is much higher than the stock market. One light bulb changed might seem like a drop in the bucket, but as the scale gets larger, so do the savings and so does the environmental impact.

In fact, the environmental cost of incandescent bulbs should give anybody reason to pause and consider. According to Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute, replacing one single (average) incandescent bulb with one compact fluorescent bulb will save about 130 pounds of carbon dioxide annually from being dumped into the atmosphere by your local coal burning power plant. Think in terms of CO2 emissions next time you string your house with tiny incandescent bulbs for Xmas. Santa cringes when he flies over, seeing the landscape lit up all night long with incandescent 'heated to glowing' light strings. Where can I buy a reindeer nose that glows?

Natural light from the sun is hard to duplicate. Artificial light is considered good when it is comparable to sunlight As our technology becomes more sophisticated, we are more able to imitate daylight. There are several factors to consider. Straight tube fluorescent lighting has a bad reputation for flickering. The older fixtures that I grew up under were all magnetically ballasted at 60 cycles per second. You can see the flicker if you look for it. A ballast is a small transformer that boosts electricity to a voltage high enough to make a spark jump from one end of a gas filled tube to the other. Electronic ballasts avoid the flicker by operating faster. Much faster. Sunlight, of course, has no flicker at all. Early CF bulb manufacturers like GE thought they could capture the market with magnetic CF bulbs because they were cheap. The magnetic CF bulbs gave a poor reputation to all CF bulbs, which was not exactly fair to the electronic CF bulbs. Philips has been the electronic leader with an excellent variety of electronic CF bulbs. Philips' bulbs are nicer and sold better than GE's magnetic bulbs. So GE is finally making a comeback with electronic CF bulbs; and now electronic CF bulbs are rapidly becoming the standard for all brands. Some makers, however, do not tell on their packaging what kind of ballast is incorporated in their bulbs. Magnetic bulbs are heavier, though, that's the giveaway. Or if a package says "flicker free" you'll know that it is electronic.

With the larger straight tube commercial fixtures, you can get electronic ballasts with a wide range of tube styles. When ordering and installing those fixtures, you must specify electronic ballasts, or you will get the old default magnetic ballasts. There are many styles of tubes available with different color balances and varying in quality. Straight fluorescent tubes sometimes have a poor reputation for light quality because of cheap tubes, whereas better quality tubes matched with electronic ballasts can give a superior high quality light.

Color is not a factor with compact fluorescent bulbs. They are typically all color balanced the same, imitating the standard warm color given off by incandescent bulbs. There are full spectrum bulbs available through specialty retailers.

My own house has been converted to electronic CF light bulbs for about 10 years now. The whole house is changed over, except the refrigerator and microwave, which require special size bulbs. I have regular CF bulbs in lamps and fixtures, in the 15-22 watt range, that are equivalent to incandescent 60-100 watt bulbs. I use 3-way bulbs for reading rated at 15-22-30 watts, ceiling fixtures with built in 30 watt bulb-and-ballast, and a 17 watt bug-away porch light. I also have two light pipes that bring light from the roof to the dark center of the house, that use daylight only. And then there are the LED lights. Light Emitting Diodes (LED) use almost no power and last nearly forever. They are available in stores as nightlights. A specialty company called Ledtronics makes a cluster bulb that is brighter, but is not yet bright enough compete with CF bulbs.

So here we are in the new century already, and the Edison incandescent light bulb still dominates the shelves in the local grocery store. The stores, of course, stock what people demand. I can think of only two reasons why electronic CF bulbs have not taken over: cost and inertia.

Cost would be a real issue if you have no money. Say you're a gypsy hobo, or living on the edge from day to day, and maybe driving an old clunker for a car or have no car at all. Then you have a good excuse for using old fashioned, cheap incandescent bulbs (even though they cost more in the long run). But if you have money in the bank, a nice car, buy things in bulk to save money, or have investments, there is no good excuse to hide behind. Think of the future. Of course, if you have any concern at all for our long term sustainability on this planet, then you should run out right now and replace some bulbs. Question: how many children-of-the-light does it take to change a compact fluorescent bulb? Answer: I don't know; I've never had one burn out.

Ten pages in my Webster's separate the words "incandescent" and "inertia". Inertia is described in one usage as "indisposition to motion, exertion, or change". Ignorance is a big part of inertia in this case. Force is generally required to overcome inertia. As with automobile pollution and appliance efficiency, our governments may one day get involved to push for higher lighting efficiency. It shouldn't be hard, because a superior bulb is already mass produced and is sitting on shelves. The ubiquitous incandescent light bulb, which some consider to be timeless, will indeed disappear. They will be relegated to museums as relics of primitive times, alongside whale oil lamps and typewriters and slide rules. In that future museum, I hope to be standing and contemplating the past. I may even be writing the placards. I'll put one in front of the 'Edison Incandescent Light Bulb' that says "Caution: Hot" to warn children who won't know that a light bulb can burn fingers.