Why Are Eco-Facists Trying to Ban Incandescent Bulbs?

Image: liquidleds.com.au

My feelings are split over how I feel about the United States Congress delaying their phase out of incandescent light bulbs here in the good old U S of A.  They will be effectively banned beginning in October of this year.

The scientist in me realizes that the incandescent light bulb is one of the least energy efficient products available today.  A pathetic 5-8% of the energy it uses is given off as visible light.  The rest, as you will realize if you’ve ever tried to unscrew a bulb that was recently on, is given off as heat.  Lots of finger scorching swear inducing heat.  Easy Bake ovens used to use a 100 watt bulb as their source of heat.  I say ‘used to’ because I read that they have been re-designed due to the upcoming ban.

The rest of me really resents the government telling me what kinds of light bulbs I have to use.  I know it seems like a small thing, but what will they go after next?  Our toilets?  Dammit, I’ve almost forgotten about the whole “low-flow” fiasco.  I view both instances of governmental intervention as intrusions on my personal rights.

But that is not what I’m writing about today.  Among the replacements for the venerable incandescent bulbs are halogen bulbs and compact fluorescents (CFLs).  The latter are the ‘pigtail’ appearing light that you have undoubtedly seen at your hippy neighbor’s house, or maybe in a public building.   Halogen lights boast the fact that they are about 30% more energy efficient than incandescents.  So what?  Thirty percent better than completely dismal is still pretty bad.  Up to ninety percent of the energy that a halogen bulb utilizes is given off as heat.  Temperatures can get up to the 700-1000 degree Fahrenheit range.  I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure that could pose a risk of fire.

Judging from what I’ve written above, you might be surprised to hear that I actually like the CFL bulbs.  They aren’t perfect, but what is?  They use only a quarter of the energy of the old incandescent bulbs to produce the same amount of light and they give off far less heat.  Supposedly, they last eight to ten times longer than their old-fashioned counterparts.

CFL bulbs do have their share of drawbacks:  They can take a minute or so to achieve full brightness.  This can be annoying in the early morning hours when you are trying to tell the difference between a pair of blue or black pants.  They also do not perform well in the cold.  During our frigid Pennsylvania winters, in my century-old farm-house, you’d often get more light from a candle.  Failure rates are significantly higher than advertised.  I’ve read numerous complaints about bulbs in hard to reach places burning out after only a few months of use.

Getting rid of CFL bulbs is a pain.  You can’t just toss them into the trash like the good old days.  They contain mercury.  Items containing mercury must be brought to a special recycling facility.  Mercury, if you are not up on your chemistry, is one of the most toxic poisons threatening humans today.  If you happen to break one in your home, there are 19 steps to follow during the clean up procedure according to the EPA.

You might be thinking, “what about LED technology?”  LEDs use even less energy than CFLs, they reach full brightness instantly and last over 25,000 hours.  The downside at this time is the cost.  An LED bulb with the equivalent brightness of a 100 watt incandescent bulb currently costs about $50 US.

How much of an energy savings exactly can we expect to see as a result of eliminating incandescent bulbs?  A spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council says changing bulbs will eliminate the need to build 30 electric power plants. That seems like a lot until you consider that there are currently 5,800 electric plants in the United States.

With the usage of these more efficient bulbs we may find ourselves running up against Jevon’s paradox.  This is the idea that as the usage of a resource becomes more efficient, it effectively becomes cheaper, therefore stimulating greater use.  One example of this is that gasoline usage actually went up after increased fuel efficiency standards were mandated by the US government back in the 1970’s.  Will the same thing happen with the implementation of more efficient light bulbs?  Only time will tell.

Sources:

Phase-out of incandescent light bulbs, Wikipedia

Congress overturns incandescent light bulb ban, The Washington Times

Mercury, US EPA

Why are eco-facists trying to ban incandescent bulbs?, The Straight Dope

Jevon’s Paradox, Wikipedia

About Guy McCardle

Guy McCardle is an American science writer and skeptic. He is a certified Infection Prevention Specialist and served proudly as a Captain in the Army Medical Corps during Operation Iraqi Freedom. A devoted father and husband, he offers his unique viewpoints regarding science and the public interest.
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35 Responses to Why Are Eco-Facists Trying to Ban Incandescent Bulbs?

  1. I shared your concerns about CFLs, but I bought a house almost 3 years ago that had CFLs everywhere. And I have to say, not only is it sufficiently bright enough, but the fact that I’ve not had to change a bulb once (which is surprising, since my wife and I are pretty much homebodies, we have the lights on an awful lot of the time.

    I think you raise some good points, but I wouldn’t discount the fact that once someone gets use to CFLs, combined with the fact that most people will know the layout of their house to an extent that moving around with 60 seconds of dimmer lighting shouldn’t be a problem, then it becomes apparent they aren’t so bad.

    • Guy McCardle says:

      Hi Chris,

      My guess is that CFLs will get better and better with time and eventually we won’t notice any difference between them and the “old” incandescent bulbs. I doubt the mercury issue will be a big concern unless you are breaking CFL bulbs all of the time.

      –Guy
      The Inconvenient Truth

  2. Jeff Grigg says:

    Personally, I like the CFLs in the house, for most uses. They give more light for less energy. They’re great.

    But mandating them is a problem. We have a problem with them in caves, for instance. Caves are rough environments: The bulbs *BREAK*. And CFLs contain mercury. Very very bad for the fragile cave environment. We’re OK with a bit of excess heat in an otherwise excessively cold environment, and a bit of wasted energy. But we CANNOT and WILL NOT live with the very real risk of poisons being released in that environment.

    • Brandon says:

      The new efficiency standards make specific exceptions for special use bulbs, such as those used for heating in chicken coops and dog houses. There will still be incandescent bulbs for your use, although really it sounds like LEDs would be best for your application as they use less energy, last longer, are MUCH harder to break, and importantly, can take up very little space.

      • nichole says:

        Where will one be able to get these bulbs? I use incandescents to heat my vivarium and I’ve been very worried about this ban… We use CFLs throughout the rest of the house, they’re ugly and I’m less than impressed with them but whatever. Incandescents have become difficult to come by already 🙁 I just went through four yesterday that I got at some crummy bargain mart, they all blew and now my lizard is cold.

        • Guy McCardle says:

          Hi Nichole,

          I would assume you could get the non-banned (i.e. special use) incandescent bulbs the same places you could before the ban. Specialty stores, or at least online. Everything is available online. 🙂 Pet shops should carry the lights for your vivarium I would suppose.

          –Guy
          The Inconvenient Truth

    • Guy McCardle says:

      Hi Jeff,

      Great point. I’ve never thought about what mercury could potentially do to fragile environments. I’m glad you did. What about halogen or LED lighting solutions in caves? Expensive, I know. Have you ever heard of heatballs? http://heatball.de/en/ Yes. They are a real thing. Sort of seems like an Onion spoof at first I know. Basically, they are just a clever marketing ploy to get around the ban. They are intended to give off heat, but as a “by-product” they just happen to give off light in the visible spectrum as well.

      –Guy
      The Inconvenient Truth

  3. lighthouse says:

    Overall US energy savings from incandescent ban are a fraction of 1% on Energy Dept stats and surveys
    (as referenced http://ceolas.net/#li171x with much more relevant alternatives)
    This is a token ban that visibly shows “politicans are doing something”, which also satisifies lobbying manufacturers (including GE’s Jeffrey Immelt on Obama’s economic advisory board).
    Why do manufacturers welcome being told what they can make?
    The above site references Leahy and Brandston who witnessed and documented the bulb ban proocess in their 2011 book “I Light Bulb”, along with other documents and references to what went on.

  4. lighthouse says:

    RE other comments, phase 2 of EISA after 2014 effectively bans incandescent technology including touted halogens based on the 45 lumen per W end regulation standard

    Energy savings is not the only reason for choosing a light bulb to use…
    given the superior broad spectrum light quality of incandescents, and their many flexible usage advantages

    Light bulbs themselves don’t burn coal or release any CO2!
    If there is a problem, deal with the problem.

    The overall household energy savings are also very small as referenced earlier.

    “Heat waste”??
    The 95% incandescent heat is supposed to be a waste
    but proven to save room heating costs http://ceolas.net/#li6x
    when it’s dark its often cold, and use with air conditioning cooling
    is of course optional
    – Conversely always “ignored” that CFLs DO waste 80% and LEDs 70% as heat,
    moreover increasing the fire risk with CFLs, as on the ceolas site

    Also
    The so-called Power Factor (not the same as power rating) of ordinary “energy saving” fluorescent bulbs means that they use twice the energy at the power plant than do ordinary incandescent
    bulbs, compared to what your meter says.
    http://ceolas.net/#li15eux, with references,
    – including Osram/Sylvania factsheet admission

    Many LEDs, for domestic users, also have power factor issues.
    Electricity consumers of course eventually have to pay for this “hidden cost” in higher bills.

    Conversely:
    With any electricity saving the electricity companies are expected to make less money,
    and they simply raise the electricity bills, or receive tax payer subsidies (out of citizens pockets) to compensate
    Already happening in California, Ohio and other US states, the UK etc in Europe, BC in Canada, again as described and referenced on the ceolas website.

    Heads they win…tails we lose! 🙁

    • nichole says:

      Light bulbs themselves don’t burn coal or release any CO2!
      QFT

      • lighthouse says:

        🙂
        ….and that’s not all ….

        Coal plants are on all the time at basically the same output level.
        Slow and cheap.
        They can’t really be turned down at night, as it takes too long to power up in the morning – even though little electricity gets used, and to some extent this is true of other base loading power, like nuclear energy.
        Hence, cheap night rates,
        hence a lot of lighting (used when it’s dark, don’t you know!)
        effectively uses ZERO energy with ZERO CO2 or Mercury emissions.

        Not that anyone will ever tell you that, politician or journalist.

        …and that’s not all….

        CO2 and other chimney emissions may INCREASE by switching lights,
        as shown by linked Canadian, Finnish and Icelandic research, independently of one another.
        That is, when the incandescent light bulb heat (95% “waste” as heat, remember!) from a low emission (nuclear, hydro, solar, wind etc) power plant source is replaced by a CO2 emitting heat fuel (coal, natural gas, heating oil, peat, wood pellets).

        But why spoil the fun?

        Let all kids be taught that their parents must switch light bulbs at home,
        to save the polar bears and the planet!

  5. lighthouse says:

    Besides, no major power plants would be saved anyway,
    due to their always on (base loading) requirement.

    It’s a bit like saying “Hey, if we have fewer pupils we need fewer schools”
    But some fewer pupils in any given area still means the same schools have to be built.
    You can’t sum up all the pupils in the land and say
    “Hey, X thousand less pupils in the USA means Y number of schools less!!”
    These sort of dumb arguments are what media keeps falling for

    More on all the deceptions behind the ban
    http://freedomlightbulb.blogspot.com/p/deception-behind-banning-light-bulbs.html

  6. lighthouse says:

    (I am splitting a long comment that seems to have been spam blocked –
    also adding to the heat “waste” issue anyway, if it should appear )

    RE other comments, phase 2 of EISA after 2014 effectively bans incandescent technology including touted halogens based on the 45 lumen per W end regulation standard

    Energy savings is not the only reason for choosing a light bulb to use…
    given the superior broad spectrum light quality of incandescents, and their many flexible usage advantages

    Light bulbs themselves don’t burn coal or release any CO2!
    If there is a problem, deal with the problem.

    The overall household energy savings are also very small as referenced earlier.

    “Heat waste”??
    The 95% incandescent heat is supposed to be a waste
    but proven to save room heating costs http://ceolas.net/#li6x
    when it’s dark its often cold, and use with air conditioning cooling
    is of course optional
    – Conversely always “ignored” that CFLs DO waste 80% and LEDs 70% as heat,
    since the heat is internalized, increasing the fire risk with CFLs, as on the ceolas site
    (incandescent external heat can of course burn lampshades etc but is more predictable).

    (continued)

  7. lighthouse says:

    (continued)

    Also
    The so-called Power Factor (not the same as power rating) of ordinary “energy saving” fluorescent bulbs means that they use twice the energy at the power plant than do ordinary incandescent
    bulbs, compared to what your meter says.
    http://ceolas.net/#li15eux, with references,
    – including Osram/Sylvania factsheet admission
    Many LEDs, for domestic users, also have power factor issues.
    Electricity consumers of course eventually have to pay for this “hidden cost” in higher bills.

    Conversely:
    With any electricity saving the electricity companies are expected to make less money,
    and they simply raise the electricity bills, or receive tax payer subsidies (out of citizens pockets) to compensate
    Already happening in California, Ohio and other US states, the UK etc in Europe, BC in Canada, again as described and referenced on the ceolas website.

    Heads they win…tails we lose!

  8. Spencer says:

    My biggest beef with CFL bulbs is that you can’t use them with dimmer switches (doing so voids their warranty and apparently shortens their life dramatically). You can get specialty dimmer-friendly bulbs, but my local hardware store doesn’t have them and I haven’t really been motivated to look. Every socket in my apartment has a dimmer, so it looks like I’ll just have to start stocking up on incandescents…

  9. LovleAnjel says:

    I like CFLs around the house – I can deal with a little dimness to save a few bucks a month in electricity.

    I teach several science courses at the university level. We use light bulbs a lot for the lab activities. Last year we noticed a lot of the experiments weren’t working the way they were supposed to. Turns out someone had gone through and replaced all the incandescents with CFLs, and they weren’t putting out the heat required. The lab coordinator had to re-purchase “regular” bulbs for all the labs. I suppose this would fall under “special use” bulbs, but that means the supplier could charge us up the whazoo for them.

  10. Steve Mac says:

    Another thing to consider when looking at incandescents, is that in the northern states, the heat given off is not necessarily wasted. Most people have furnaces running through the winter months to heat their houses, the heat given off by the lights helps in small part to heat the house.

  11. Ed says:

    I think the mercury argument is flawed to an extent. CFLs obviously use a lot less electricity. The majority of electricity is generated by coal fired plants, which release mercury into the environment as a byproduct of energy production. In the long run, a lot less mercury is released into the environment by CFL bulbs, because of the lower amount of energy required to run them. Popular mechanics did an article on it: http://www.popularmechanics.com/home/reviews/news/4217864

    • lighthouse says:

      While “2 wrongs don’t make a right” anyway,
      that was never true
      … they forget how coal power generation works

      See other comment,
      re lighting at night effectively causing zero mercury emissions,
      since coal plants can’t be turned down much for operational reasons,
      and much electricity output is therefore not used.
      (which you can easily verify via the utilities themselves)

      Besides, the EPA 90% mercury emission reduction mandate by 2016 – similar in EU and elsewhere also from UN accords – already puts paid to the argument,
      an argument never true anyway (http://ceolas.net/#li198x)

      Among the multitude of deception tactics used by politicians
      – and always swallowed whole by the media –
      is to take OLD CO2 and mercury data, project them forward LOTS of years,
      (read 2030 in the USA) and talk of Billion Savings of this, that, or the other,
      even after the politicians have announced the building of “much more” low emission power plants in the future, including treated coal etc 😉

      Logic, take a bow. Please.

      • Brandon says:

        ‘Clean coal’ plants aren’t much better than regular ones and the energy they produce costs much, much more. The only current methods of making them better are to cut down the need for them, or the building new ones, or for expansion of existing ones. Yes, even though you can’t ‘turn down’ a coal plant, you CAN not build one or not expand one because of reduced top need. That is exactly what these sorts of energy standards are attempting to address. No, the lighting standard alone can’t do that, but it’s only one part.

        You can also reduce the need for dirty coal power by supporting things like nuclear programs.

        I’m not saying that the energy standards are completely justified and useful, but use good reasoning to support it and don’t cherry pick like you accuse them of doing.

        • light house says:

          …thanks Brandon
          The fuller comment I referred to did not appear,
          and guess have enough commenting anyway here

          RE coal plant dimensions,
          it does not take away from the negligible coal use for lighting of what is there, and since only 1% or less of grid electricity is saved from a lighting switchover as reference linked, it does not change much, in my view.

          RE “the energy standards …don’t cherry pick like you accuse them of doing.”
          I would have thought I was doing the exact opposite,
          if you read all the comments here about the many reasons the regulations are wrong 😉

          The Deception behind Banning Light Bulbs
          (10 arguments )
          See freedom light bulb link to it in comment above, cant post here for some reason

          • Brandon says:

            I tend not to read through everything someone going by a sudonym posts and links to on the internet especially when it’s mostly to one blogger dedicated to that one issue, who could be the person posting under the sudonym in the first place. However, posting a lot of information is not a defense from cherry picking. Your criticism that one cannot turn down a coal plant ignores that you can do other things through reduced demand. No, the lighting standards alone can’t do that, but there is basically nothing alone that could. I can’t change a tire with only a wrench, but that doesn’t mean a wrench can’t help me change a tire.

            I’ve read many of the arguments both for and against by sources I can verify easily over on the JREF forums. I’m not ignorant of the topic nor the supporting/critical math underlying it. I’m impressed by neither the effect of the standards, nor the criticisms of it.

            You’re obviously very passionate about the topic, but that can easily introduce as much a bias as those eco-warriors who believe the standard must be good.

  12. William Baker says:

    The Law of Uninteded Consequences:

    The notion that users will comply with disposal of CFLs via recycling centers is absurd. Into the trash with the house hold C D A AA AAA AAAA batteries as is current – onto the landfill with unintended consequences. Human behavior is more potent that elitist “thinking”. And in retrospect take a look at the cost of production and usage without the rose glasses. There should never be CFLs in any place where children play. Advanced Skeptoid 101.

    • Guy McCardle says:

      Hi William,

      I have to agree with you in regards to what most people will really do to dispose of the new CFL bulbs. They will just toss them in the regular trash like we do now with batteries. When I first read about the special disposal regs I thought to myself, “yeah, right, that’s gonna happen”.

      –Guy

    • EAPellow says:

      While I agree with both of you that CFL’s just end up in the trash – and they do, when you have to change just one in a blue moon or two, I’ve seen many people just toss them – I have to challenge the basis of your argument likening their disposal to regular household batteries. I’m assuming you mean non-rechargeable alkaline batteries, which are biodegradable and meant to be tossed. Granted, the metal tube around them could probably be recycled, but the cell themselves is safe to toss. Rechargeables, on the other hand, are a completely different story. Those contain heavy metals that do pose environmental threats if not disposed of properly.. but with most electronics having lithium cells in them, I doubt many actually remove those batteries to have them properly disposed of.

  13. James says:

    I believe that the primary motivation with the change away from incandescent bulbs is that there is money to be made. We can argue the merits of each kind, but the bottom line is that more money can be made with the new devices, so money flows to politicians to pass the laws.

    In Freakonomics, chapter 4, it is pointed out that the primary motivator behind child car seats is financial, not safety. I think the same forces are in action hear.

  14. Cato says:

    CFL’s suck. The light they give off is dim and pathetic. I use halogens (i’m in a country where they’ve banned incandescents already, dammit) and they also do not meet my expectations as someone who grew up with incandescent lights. They’re terribly bright to look at yet try working under one, its quite hard to get a good view of things. Also as i age my eyesight is failing a bit, so i find these alternatives hopeless and depressing. And all of us will have failing eyesight eventually. Its only young people that can see in dim light, really. I can no longer read by a lamp comfortably as its all just too dim when lit by these alternatives. But not exactly dim in candlepower terms – just things look indistinct.. its hard to work out why. Maybe the yellowness of the incandescent helped to give form to things. The “cool” coloured bluish light of CFLs is very flattening. The shadows sort of aren’t there.

    But generally with CFLs, they are the worst. We have them in our workshop complex to light the passageway at night, and i swear it is all pitch black out there save a small patch of light around the CFL globe that extends less than a foot. So they do not even light the ground beneath them, they only help you orient yourself in the passageway! Unbelieveably poor, i think a candle would work better. Halogens are better, but not good enough IMHO.

  15. Brandon says:

    With regards to the ‘not all heat is waste heat’ line of reasoning, I believe that it’s a basically flawed premise. The only time that the heat is not waste is in the most northern reaches. Even here in western New York where it’s cold for a large chunk of the year, it’s warm part of too. If what you want is heat and don’t need the light, then the light is the waste part.

    If you want heat, you should use something dedicated to that. If you want light, use something dedicated to that. That way you can have heat with light, heat without light, or light without heat, and you can change it on the fly. There are cases where tying heat and light together do make sense, like with lizards. However, ‘it gets cold here’ is not sufficient as ‘it gets warm here’ is almost always the case as well.

    Not that it’s the only criticism of these standards.

    • lighthouse says:

      Standards are all well and good.
      But industry standards are not the same as government imposed bans.

      Therefore, the importance in this context is that the choice of use of a light bulb is voluntary (or getting it imported, or made for you).

      It is therefore also a poor argument to say that incandescent heat is not always useful.
      No-one forces you to use incandescents with air conditioning cooling,
      and you might prefer it anyway for light quality or other reasons.

      Similarly the “well I don’t want to heat my room with light bulbs”
      or “light bulbs near the ceiling are irrelevant for heat” type argumemts do not apply.
      Often enough, when it’s dark it’s cold, and if bulbs are poor heaters, well then it’s not an issue either.

      Besides, what product gives purely what you want?
      A washing machine might be too noisy etc.
      But you mght prefer it anyway – for its other qualities.

      • Brandon says:

        It’s a government imposed standard, like there are for a lot of things. That it effectively bans some horridly inefficient technology doesn’t make it technically a ban. That it is government imposed is not evidence that it’s a ‘bad thing’.

        It’s a perfectly fine argument to show that incandescent are very often not useful. Many of the situations people claim are best with incandescent are simply not so for any technical reason. I’m sure some people preferred leaded gas too, but that’s not evidence that the ban on leaded gas was wrong.

        Your line starting ‘Similarly’ doesn’t make much sense. Separating heating and lighting gives ALL the benefits of the other way and removing the waste. It would be a higher initial cost, but I can see room for a product that uses a small quartz heating element for example that would last far longer than a bulb.

        Your argument is an ideological one, that the government doing it is what makes it wrong. The government does a lot of things wrong, but that doesn’t make any given thing wrong.

        And again, I don’t actually support the standard as it’s almost a moot point, but dislike many of the arguments both for an against. Especially the ‘government can do no right’ craziness.

  16. Henk v in the "bat cave" watching the niners v saints AGAIN! says:

    Just as a brief review od the above and my experience…

    A lot of the above is faux philosophy and what anyone outside of the US would say was “religion”..

    Yes, the halogen replacements are a dud as far as economy may indixate..

    As to mercury for mini fluoros, guys you are barking..

    Sorry, do the mechanics..

  17. Henk v in the "bat cave" crying over the dragon capitulation against the bulldogs. says:

    Ps..Guy and Brian Rock..

    Just because I derive at the starting block doesnt mean that they are wrong..

    I think they are great..

    Hey, I have hung hell on Dr Karl. Because he forgot to include a few things in his arguments. Dr Karl is one unbelievably great a science communicator.

    All hail to tacet honesty and admitting fault!

    Its called science!

  18. Henk v..without a need for his prescription spectacles..yet! says:

    Guy said in his article..

    “You might be thinking, “what about LED technology?” LEDs use even less energy than CFLs, they reach full brightness instantly and last over 25,000 hours. The downside at this time is the cost. An LED bulb with the equivalent brightness of a 100 watt incandescent bulb currently costs about $50 US.”

    Were that the case Guy, that would be a raging profit for the same devices in oz.. I’ll go check the Lighting shop next outing

    • Mark D. says:

      Actually, they are a lot cheaper than I thought. A 65W replacement LED bulb is running $15.95 USD on Amazon. A 100W replacement for flood lights or track lighting is ~$35 USD. I hadn’t realized they had come down so far in price. I might have to get a couple for my most used lights and try them out. Check out Amazon, you’ll find the pricing quickly. But in general, I would hold off on any LED purchases for a year or so to let the technology catch up and improve.

  19. Mary Ann says:

    Writing this in the middle of 2017, and currently am using an 800 lumens (!!) LED bulb outside as a floodlight to deter predators from my bird flocks, which is weather-resistant and suitable for outside use. We spent only (If memory serves) U.S. $7.50 or thereabouts for it. For an extremely bright and extremely efficient outdoor light, that’s comparatively even with what I would have to pay for an incandescent, and it should last a whole lot longer. I’m satisfied!

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