The light bulb wars

The light bulb wars
Picture by Philip Friedman
Date:3 October 2011 Tags:, , , , , ,

As eco-conscious lawmakers prepare to consign energy-gobbling incandescents to the scrapheap, we consider the alternatives
By John Herrman

The question is no longer If, but When. Energy-guzzling incandescent lightbulbs are on the way out. But as legislators prepare to consign Edison’s design to the scrapheap, an increasingly energy-hungry world is becoming wise to the fact that all may not be as it seems.

What was initially perceived as a mildly controversial step forward for energy efficiency has since faced growing criticism, morphing into a potent symbol of nanny-state interventionism. Here in South Africa, consumers are simply continuing to buy the “old” technology in preference to more energy-efficient alternatives for a simple but compelling reason: cost. Elsewhere, there has been a political backlash: in the US, countermeasures to anti-incandescent legislation have been introduced at both the state and federal levels. While those anti-ban bills swirl around in committee, another technology that has been hailed as the next step in lighting for well over two decades is on track for an abrupt coming-of-age. Compact fluorescent lamps (CFL), enthusiastically touted by industry advocates and environmentalists, are accused by critics of being aesthetically inferior, impractical – and even dangerous.

It was CFLs that formed the centrepiece of what has been described as the world’s biggest single energy-saving campaign when, between 2004 and 2010, Eskom distributed more than 40 million CFLs free nationwide at a cost of nearly R600 million.

Then, in June this year, Energy Minister Dipuo Peters made the intention plain: in accordance with rules under the National Regulations for Compulsory Specifi cations Act, she told Parliament, incandescent lightbulbs are to be banned. That will happen despite consumers, fed up with CFLs’ high price and poor colour rendering, simply continuing to buy incandescents. To help reverse this trend, expect to see new quality standards for even more efficient CFLs that will offset the cost factor.

As usual, when technology intersects with political debate, the ratio of rhetoric to science is woefully out of whack.

So POPULAR MECHANICS launched an investigation into the policy and technology of modern lighting. We talked to the experts and advocates on both sides, and tested the various types of bulbs in our labs, all with an eye on the question: what does it take to change a lightbulb?

The brewing battle

Paul Brewer’s perspective on lightbulbs is well illuminated. As the electrical department manager at Solenberger’s Hardware in Winchester, Virginia, Brewer has overseen 34 years of light-bulb buying and selling for the store, witnessing first-hand every modern trend in lighting – and not just through his inventory. Solenberger’s Hardware is 10 kilometres from the site of GE’s Winchester Lamp Plant, which the company shuttered in September 2010 after 35 years of operation, citing a “profound transformation” in the lighting business. It was GE’s last American plant producing traditional A19 incandescent bulbs.

If the dark plant at 125 Apple Valley Road is a looming icon of the technological and economic changes occurring in the world of household lighting, some subtler cultural side effects are manifesting themselves in the lighting aisle at Solenberger’s. “There was a gentleman in here recently,” Brewer says. “He bought two cases of incandescent bulbs – 240 lights.” If this sounds like hoarding, that’s because it is. “He’s just used to them,” Brewer says. “He knows what he likes.”

Solenberger’s stockpiler isn’t paranoid; he’s just been reading the news. On 1 January 2012, key provisions of the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007 – a sweeping, 300-pluspage energy bill passed by the US Congress – will effectively ban the 100- watt incandescent bulb in that country. And this date is only the beginning of a two-year phaseout that will impose new efficiency standards on US household lighting.

Why should a select few legislators in 2007 be able to tell hundreds of millions of people what lightbulbs are best for them? That question has helped propel a public backlash, fuelled by suspicion of government motives and mistrust of compact fluorescent lighting.

The first commercially available singlepiece CFL was the Philips/Norelco SL-18, released to moderate fanfare in the early 1980s. Intended as a screw-in substitute for 100-watt incandescents, the SL-18 promised comparable brightness at just 18 watts, with a life span of 5 000 hours. A POPULAR MECHANICS 1986 article on CFLs reads as though it was written yesterday: “Despite its spendthrift performance, incandescence remains the illumination of choice for most households… This may be about to change.”

It would be a stretch to call the first CFL a runaway success. The lamp took about 3 minutes to reach full brightness and cast a sterile blue light that flickered noticeably. Priced at about R200 in today’s money, and weighing half a kilogram, the bulb was a tough sell. These downsides were profound enough to blunt sales of the SL-18, along with other early CFL products. Worse, they left a lasting impression.

Building a better bulb

Modern CFLs bear only a passing resemblance to their early forebears. For one, they’re significantly more compact, having shed the outer cases and bulky bases common in early models.

Overwhelmingly, they’ve adopted a spiral bulb shape. The replacement of magnetic ballasts with electric ones has stopped the flickering and reduced overall weight considerably, while advancements in phosphors and glass treatments have given manufacturers finer control over light colour. Confront an industry expert about the light quality of CFLs and he will likely issue the Lampshade Dare: behind two identical screens, it’s difficult – even impossible – to tell a CFL from an incandescent.

Most importantly, prices have plummeted. Quality CFLs can be purchased for about three times the cost of an incandescent, a premium that can easily be paid back in saved energy costs. Over its 10 000-hour life, a 14-watt CFL will consume about a quarter of the electricity used by a 60-watt incandescent over the same period. However, the incandescent would need replacing 10 times.

Yet the reputation persists. It can’t have helped that reaching these price and performance levels took three decades, during which time perceived – and actual – shortcomings of CFLs became an inextricable part of their identity. Dave Geraci, CFL product manager for bulb manufacturer TCP, explains, “Once this stuff is ingrained in people’s minds, it’s not going to change.”

The perception of the CFL as a flawed technology has allowed some pernicious ideas to take hold:

  • Mercury contained in CFLs offsets their environmental advantage (generated by coal, the power required by a less efficient incandescent bulb would result in a greater release of mercury into the environment than an improperly disposed-of CFL).
  • The bulbs are dangerous when broken (if government or manufacturer disposal guidelines are followed, they are not likely to cause harm).
  • They produce poor-quality light compared with incandescent bulbs (while our lab testing confirmed objective differences in the bulbs’ light, surveyed testers’ preferences were divided among bulb types).

These beliefs have proved resilient, which is unfortunate not just because they’re misguided, but because they draw attention away from better-founded concerns. That is to say: CFLs aren’t as bad as you may have heard. But they’re not perfect, either.

Behind the curve

Michael Siminovitch, director of the California Lighting Technology Centre at the University of California, Davis, and a supporter of CFL adoption, says that the technology earned its reputation: “Incandescent lights have well-defined performance and expectations. CFLs are a departure.” Years of focus on reducing cost and maximising efficiency, he says, relegated concerns such as light colour, reliability and startup time to secondary importance. The product suffered, and by extension, so did its users.

Today, the gap between expectation and experience still exists in the world of CFLs, which don’t always live up to manufacturers’ claims, particularly in life span.

Other issues persist, none of which are fatal, but all of which are notable. CFLs achieve full brightness faster than ever before, but this can still take up to 60 seconds. Dimming functionality usually requires specific bulbs and entirely new lighting fixtures and, in the end, produces a less appealing cool light at low brightness. (When an incandescent bulb is dimmed, its light gets warmer and redder; when a CFL dims, its colour stays the same.)

POPULAR MECHANICS’ testing also revealed deep differences in the spectral power distribution of CFLs and incandescents. Rather than following a smooth curve, fluorescent light shows severe peaks and troughs of power throughout the spectrum. The light of CFLs is a result of engineering, calculation and compromise. It’s different both objectively and subjectively: Some testers noted that CFLs produce a sickly skin tone, cast greenish hues or simply feel fluorescent.

The end result, which CFL supporters are hesitant to acknowledge, is that to use CFLs is to accept a real, material change in your relationship with lighting. Bulbs won’t flick on like you’re used to; the initial cost of bulbs is slightly higher; and the performance from brand to brand is nowhere near as consistent as it is with incandescents. Switching to CFLs requires effort; sticking with incandescents does not.

Topping it all off is anxiety about safety. Crushing a bulb won’t create a mercurycontaminated site – Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Lighting Research Centre senior research scientist John Bullough famously said, “You (just) don’t want to run over and sniff it up” – but cleaning up a broken CFL is undeniably more involved than sweeping up a shattered incandescent. The mere existence of a new protocol can seem strange: since when is a broken lightbulb something to worry about?

And CFLs require special disposal techniques. Nothing crazy – just recycling at approved waste facilities. But authorities have done a poor job of publicising options where they exist and creating them where they don’t.

It’s not that these problems are catastrophic for the CFL. It’s that consumers are put off by any level of inconvenience, uncertainty and disappointment in a product they’re accustomed to taking for granted. These are still just lightbulbs, after all.

A temporary solution

Assuming the proposed lighting rules have their intended effect, compact fluorescent bulbs will account for a majority of lightbulbs sold, serving alongside the select halogen incandescent bulbs that meet updated efficiency requirements. This hard-earned era of dominance, however, may be short-lived.

The LED sector is white-hot, attracting attention from the lighting industry’s traditional leaders as well as nimble startups, backed by venture capital firms with a history of high-tech investment. One such outfit is California-based Switch Lighting. The company’s lamp has a conspicuous aluminum substructure, which draws heat away from a circular cluster of 10 tiny diodes with metallic protrusions, giving it a weapon-like quality. As an object, it’s muscular and industrial. Above all, it’s strange.

LEDs are at least as efficient as CFLs, are mercury-free, have no startup delay and are easier to tune for colour. They can function with existing dimmers. Their life spans are measured in decades, and they have already proved successful for applications in flashlights, desk lamps and household accent lighting. When Switch’s 60-, 75- and 100-wattequivalent lamps hit stores, they’ll be competing against LEDs from the likes of GE and Philips for what industry insiders agree, often begrudgingly, is the future of lighting. That’s not to say LEDs are ready competitors to CFLs. There are few lamps on the market, and almost none are 100-plus-watt equivalents. Then there is the price: in the world of LEDs, R150 is a bargain.

Everyone agrees: the price will come down. The question is, when? Brett Sharenow of Switch is predictably optimistic, forecasting that a 40-watt-equivalent LED will be on the market for under R70 in less than two years. Gary Trott of Cree LED Lighting Solutions believes his company’s LEDs have already reached a turning point with consumers. “I can’t predict where the price is going to be, but I can say that a year from now, it’s going to be a lot lower,” he says. Nobody is sure how long it will take LEDs to truly dominate the market – the most bullish estimates see widespread adoption before 2015, while more sober evaluations have it creeping well past 2020 – but few doubt it will happen.

Why wait?

Whether the legislation achieves its goals remains to be seen. In one way, however, it has already been a failure. The perception of the ban as a regulatory overreach has merit: it does more than encourage lower energy use; it limits choice in situations where incandescent bulbs might be preferable. Worse, the passionate political backlash inspired by the rules continues to do lasting damage to the reputation of a genuinely good technology, amplifying the shortcomings of CFLs to the point of distortion. In the end, consumers are best served by ignoring the rhetoric and trying new bulbs for themselves. And while an open mind will find a lot to like in the alien lighting aisle of 2011, don’t worry if you feel the lingering urge to stockpile a box or two of those old-style bulbs – just in case.

Rolling blackout
The lighting-efficiency requirements of the USA’s Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 will start requiring consumers to switch from traditional incandescent bulbs on 1 January 2012. So which bulbs get phased out, and when?
2012: 100-W equivalent becomes 72 W
2013: 75-W equivalent becomes 53 W
2014: 60-W equivalent becomes 43 W;
40-W equivalent becomes 29 W

PM Light-Bulb Test

Decoding the science of light

The colour temperature of a light, measured in kelvins, is its most noticeable characteristic. A candle, at 1 900 K, appears orange. Daylight, at 5 500 K, is much whiter and bluer. A 5 500-K bulb, however, will not necessarily produce the same light as the Sun; for the full nature of a light source, one must look to its spectral power distribution (SPD) curve, which describes its irradiance across the entire visible spectrum. An incandescent bulb achieves its temperature by emitting light over a smooth curve, with the balance tilted toward yellow and red. A CFL, and to a lesser extent an LED, mimics incandescents using a different mixture of light, with spikes and troughs of power strategically positioned across the spectrum to create a correlated – or averaged – colour temperature. This results in less faithful reproduction of colours, expressed as a diminished colour rendering index (CRI).

How we tested Readings for colour temperature, colour rendering and spectral distribution were taken with an Ocean Optics USB2000 Miniature Fibre Optic Spectrometer, provided and calibrated by SpectrEcology. Subjective testing was performed by volunteers in PM’s test lab who observed bulbs hidden behind a white shade.

Incandescent bulbs

An incandescent bulb emits light by heating a tungsten filament surrounded by various inert gases to about 4000 F. These bulbs light well and cost little, but die quickly and are highly inefficient, releasing 90 per cent of their energy as heat. In incandescent bulbs, PM’s testers noted yellow hues and warm light.

Compact Fluorescent LAMPS

Inside a CFL, an electric current is driven through a tube filled with argon and a small amount of mercury vapour. This creates invisible UV light, which excites a phosphor coating that reacts by emitting visible light. CFLs are efficient and longlasting, but take time to warm up. With CFLs, PM’s testers noted inconsistent light qualities.

Light Emitting Diode LAMPS

LEDs are composed of two conjoined sections of a semiconductor material. When an LED is energised, movement of electrons across the diode causes emission of photons – or light. LED lamps are efficient, produce little heat and have extremely long life spans, but are costly. In LEDs, PM’s testers noted pleasing light but a lack of power.

How bulbs die

Incandescent: Operating at several thousand degrees, the tungsten filament – up to 2 metres long – evaporates over time. Eventually, it breaks apart because of wear or uneven heat distribution – often popping in a “burnout arc”.

CFL: In most cases, the emissive coating on the bulb’s cathodes is diminished, or sputtered off, and the bulb simply goes out. If the bulb’s ballast fails first, its electronics can overheat, causing audible crackles and sometimes melting the bulb’s plastic base. It may appear dangerous, but don’t worry – CFLs are designed to fail this way.

LED: Over time, the semiconductor materials lose their capacity to transfer electrons, resulting in a gradual loss of brightness.






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