In December 2007 President Bush signed an energy bill that included a provision to phase out the use of incandescent light bulbs by 2014.
For Al Gore and fellow environmentalists this was huge victory in their war on global warming and the greenhouse gases that they see as destroying our planet.
But all is not well in enviro-bulb land according to an article in last Saturday’s New York Times.
Buyers are finding that the energy saving bulbs aren’t living up to their claims and are leaving a lot of customers to wonder what went wrong.
Take for example the case of Karen Zuercher and her husband who live in San Francisco an environmentally progressive city if there ever was one. According to the Times they were so inspired after watching Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” that they decided to replace nearly every incandescent bulb in their home with the supposedly energy efficient money saving compact fluorescents or CFL’s.
The result was a box of non-working bulbs that Mrs. Zuercher showed the Times reporter that she kept in a box. The bulbs either didn’t work straight out of the box or they failed within hours of being screwed in. This is for a bulb that is supposed to burn for 10,000 hours and last for years.
Manufacturers acknowledge that there have been problems in producing the CFL’s for the mass market to make them more available as well as more affordable.
When the bulbs were first introduced they cost as much as $15 a piece and the utility companies offered hefty rebates to entice customers to buy them. Since that time the cost has dropped to about $3 on average which is still six times as much as a traditional bulb. That price differential though is supposed to be recovered and then some by the energy savings of the long lasting bulbs. But as the Zuercher’s have discovered the savings evaporate if the bulbs don’t work or burn out early.
Then there is the assumption that all homes are wired equally. How about those people that live in older historic homes where the wiring hasn’t been updated for decades? Many of the light sockets that fit a traditional bulb will not accommodate a CFL bulb. The phase out of incandescent bulbs will eventually force many homeowners into costly rewiring projects. How that saves the homeowner money is a question that needs to be answered.
Another problem not directly addressed by the energy bill is how consumers are supposed to dispose of burned out CFL’s. Each CFL bulb contains a small amount of mercury which is a hazardous material. Sealed in the bulb it is perfectly safe. But throwing them in the trash as has been the practice with regular bulbs in many cases would be a violation of environmental laws. Many jurisdictions want homeowners to bring used CFL’s to a facility for proper disposal. How much energy will be spent doing that if you can get anyone to comply to begin with?
I have a lot of sympathy for the Zuercher’s since I have replaced many, but not all the bulbs in my home in an attempt to reduce my energy bill over the objections of my wife. The result is a generally dimmer lighting experience but also all too frequent replacement of the bulbs in my kitchen. Yet as I have just discovered the probable cause for this is that the kitchen lights are frequently being turned on and off as the room is one of the most heavily trafficked in the house. It turns out that CFL bulbs really need to be on for 15 minutes otherwise they could fail prematurely. I don’t recall that being on the packaging material or ever hearing Al Gore state that. Could it be that Al didn’t know? So instead of saving money I was wasting it.
My advice is that you buy every 100 watt incandescent bulb you can before 2012 and every other wattage bulb you can find before 2014 lest you spend the rest of your life in a dimly lit house with bulbs that aren’t designed for your lifestyle.
UPDATE: Both Sam’s Cluba nd Costco now only carry CFL bulbs. Retailers may be starting the phase out earlier than necessary forcing consumers into using an inferior product.