published Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

New light bulb standards flash point for controversy

  • photo
    Fluorescent lights make up a flower. Incandescent bulbs are soon scheduled for retirement. Illustration by Laura McNutt and Tracey Trumbull.


President George W. Bush signed the Energy Independence and Security Act in 2007. Part of the act requires that, between 2012 and 2014, all light bulbs gradually use 30 percent less energy than today’s bulbs based on wattage. By January 2020, bulbs must be at least 70 percent more efficient. Compact fluorescent lamps already meet the 70 percent efficiency standards.

Source: U.S. Department of Energy


Light bulbs account for less than 10 percent of the average home’s electric bill. Here are some tips to save more:

* Weather-strip around doors and windows to keep warm air in during the winter and cool air in during the summer

* Install a programmable thermostat to keep heating and cooling to a minimum when out of the house

* Cook with the microwave more than the stove — it uses less energy

* Regularly change air filters

* Keep the water heater thermostat low

* Let dishes air dry rather than dry with a dishwasher.

Source: Electric Power Board

New light bulb standards set to take effect next year should make America’s energy consumption lighter, but some complain the green initiative isn’t such a bright idea.

The federal regulation will likely reduce the average home’s lighting costs by about 79 percent, according to EPB spokeswoman Lacie Newton. While lighting accounts for less than 10 percent of the average power bill — heating and air conditioning take up more than half — Newton said every bit can help.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, if each American home used just one approved bulb, the country would save enough energy to light 3 million homes for a year, save about $600 million in annual energy costs and annually prevent the emission of greenhouse gases equivalent to about 800,000 cars.

But those energy savings aren’t enough to persuade some to throw out the familiar incandescent bulbs for the compact fluorescent ones that are 70 percent more energy efficient, eight to 15 times longer-lasting and also meet federal regulations.

And their curlicue design turns off a lot of people.

“We’ve had a lot of people who can’t stand these,” said Chip Conerly, head of the electric department at the Commons Boulevard Home Depot. “A lot of people think they’re really ugly.”

Conerly said he’d heard several complaints about fluorescent bulbs taking too much time to warm up, then giving off a too-intense glow when they do. New bulbs are regularly being released to address those problems, he said.

Steve Powell, owner of Chattanooga lighting retailer Let Us Light Your World, has heard complaints about fluorescents in his shop, but said he’s used them in his home for a year and thinks others will quickly adapt.

“It’s something we’re not used to,” he said. “It’s new to use. We’re all creatures of habit.”

An alternative — LED bulbs — turn on instantly but draw similar complaints about light intensity.

Though the bulbs are supposed to last 10 years, the LED price tag is another sticking point. Home Depot sells an LED bulb for about $15 compared to between $5 and $8 for a four-pack of fluorescents and $3.50 for a six-pack of incandescents.

Incandescents last between 750 to 1,000 hours, while fluorescents run about 10,000 hours.

Today, about 22 percent of his bulb sales are fluorescents and 3 percent are LEDs, Conerly said. Those numbers will probably shoot up when incandescent producers either stop making bulbs or find more energy-efficient — and likely more expensive — ways for people to use incandescent lights.

“I figure by 2012 there’s going to be an all-out war between LEDs and [fluorescents],” he said.

Powell said fluorescents are an early favorite.

“I don’t see LEDs really taking off,” he said. “The fluorescents are more popular and doing a good job, really.”

As the technology develops, issues with turn-on time and glow intensity can go away. Powell said his biggest concern is that the toxic mercury contained in fluorescents will contaminate homes through bulb breaks and through improper disposal at landfills.

“Everyone is concerned about the mercury content,” he said. “You take all the bulbs that are thrown out in the country and put them in a landfill, that’s going to get in the water table.”

Exposure to enough of the mercury found in fluorescents over a long enough period can cause symptoms such as tremors, mood swings, insomnia and life-threatening kidney damage.

The Tennessee Valley Authority recommends recycling fluorescents at stores such as Home Depot and Lowe’s.

If a fluorescent bulb does break, TVA recommends leaving the room for 15 minutes to let mercury vapor air out, sealing all the broken fragments in a plastic bag, then sealing that bag in another to take to a recycling center.

Still, others say health, environment and light quality are all moot points. The real issue is the federal regulation itself.

“It’s a matter of freedom. It has nothing to do with economics, it has nothing to do with the environment, but it has everything to do with control,” said Chattanooga Tea Party spokesman and former light fixture manufacturer Gregg Juster. “To save energy? Great idea. To make us save energy? Bad idea.”

Juster said he’s used fluorescents for decades and thinks they’re a great way to save energy and money, but the government should leave people the option to use whatever light source they want.

“You’re stupid if you don’t use a fluorescent bulb when you can use it, but it’s not my choice,” he said. “It’s their choice.”

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inquiringmind said...

These bulbs an the equivalent of an environmental atomic bomb. Mercury is poisonous, especially to the fetus of pregnant women, and young children at extremely low concentration (parts per trillion). Break a bulb in your house and the mercury does not just evaporate in 15 minutes, it stays in the carpet or cracks in the floor and slowly evaporates. Who is closest to the floor? Small children who crawl. It damages male reproductive organs and mental capacity, and appears lead to later life heart conditions, especially in males.

Who saves fluorescents now and recycles? Very few. When these bulbs start showing up in landfills we are creating a long term hazard inside your house. Mercury is very heavy and sinks into the ground getting into the water table and moves to the streams and eventually into the food chain.

Compact Fluorescents have turned the ecological movement on its head, creating an environmental disaster to save energy. It is like living in Alice's wonderland where everything moves backwards instead of forward.

April 20, 2011 at 6:59 a.m.
lkeithlu said...

The mercury impact is reduced by the bulbs. It's the lesser of two evils. The main source of Hg is coal burning power plants. See:

April 20, 2011 at 7:11 a.m.
bpqd said...

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

CFLs reduce, not increase, the amount of mercury in the average household lightbulb.

Trying to misuse science to scare people, above. Give me a break. CFLs have less than 25% of the mercury found in incandescent bulbs.

Incandescent light bulbs, known popularly for their tungsten, contain 5.5 mg of mercury. CFLs contain 1.2 mg of Hg.

Above, the comments cite "15 parts per trillion" as being poisonous. Hogwash. Every single kind of fish tested by the FDA shows levels of mercury much higher than that. No one drops dead from eating a shrimp.

CFLs mean a reduction, not an increase, in the amount of mercury in the average household light bulb's mercury content. And, those levels are safe. Please check your facts before posting them in an article or comments. Thanks.

April 20, 2011 at 7:37 a.m.
dao1980 said...

Inquiring mind, do you eat lightbulbs?

Or break them up and roll around in them?

Most of the industrial manufacturing facilities that you drive by on your way to work produce more hazardous chemicals in one day than all of the light bulbs you will use in your entire lifetime.

So you should just be honest, and say that you simply don't like them.

If you don't like the progress of technology in light bulbs, that's ok.

I know allot of old lady's that can't understand many new things.

Oh! And I almost forgot, if you are really that terrified of the possible existence of mean ol' mr. mercury.... don't eat any fish.

April 20, 2011 at 8 a.m.
Leaf said...

L4F said, "I'm so sick of the greens destroying our lives." . . . Um, destroying your life via light bulbs? Okaaay. Someone is off his meds.

Anyway, the CFLs I've bought in the last couple of years turn on instantly, put out light with a warm glow like an incandescent and save me money so I don't see a downside. It's easy enough to put them back in the package they came in when you replace them and return them to Lowe's to recycle once a year. And since I don't juggle them or change my lightbulbs with a hammer, breakage just isn't a problem for me.

April 20, 2011 at 9:16 a.m.
lkeithlu said...

A lightbulb is a far cry from a hybrid, L4F. And the $ you save on your electric bill pays for the difference in the cost of the bulbs quickly.

April 20, 2011 at 9:42 a.m.
rolando said...

Fluorescents last no longer than incandescents when used in such short term on-off lighting as a closet, a pantry, a bathroom, a back get the idea. They are not designed for such destroys them. Minimum "on" time for these things is about 15-20 minutes to get the 10,000 hour lifetime cited above.

As to mercury content and its effect on the human body, google "Minamata disease". Note the federally required mercury content labeling on the fluorescent box -- and the total absence of the labeling on the incandescent box. You can bet the rent that if the latter contained mercury at the former's level, the EPA control freaks would clamor for the warning.

It appears we will end up opening our frig, our dryer, our freezer, etc then wait for the bulb to light [blinding us] get what we want then close the door...using more electricity cooling/warming the box down again than an ordinary bulb would use. [The Law of Unintentional Consequences.]

That and the destruction of our lightbulb industry and the loss of even more jobs to China.

April 20, 2011 at 9:42 a.m.
Leaf said...

Yeah, new things are really scary all right. Like light bulbs. Ooooooh. Scary.

Aaaaah! This lightbulb is killing me! It only saved me $50 over it's lifetime instead of $68! Then it magically broke and I accidentally snorted it! It's a Chinese conspiracy! Oh the horror!

April 20, 2011 at 10:16 a.m.
rolando said...

Nothing positive to add, Leaf?

All brought to you courtesy of our uber-benevolent, over-controlling, nanny-state government. You should read some of harp's comments re the phases of government on a recent thread here...they are spot on.

And China had nothing to do with the lightbulb thing...not directly, anyway.

So bury your heads and ignore it...much as our S&P downgrade has been ignored here.

April 20, 2011 at 10:48 a.m.
SamIam4460 said...
 The truth is; No one likes the government forcing us to do things without discussion or input.  Kind of reminds one of the founding battle cry of this country, no taxation without representation.  Special Interests, such as the environmental activists, manipulate the legislative process to enable the passage of laws favoring their view with little or no balance or input from opposing viewpoints.  Some of the initiatives are good, but it is not good to alienate entire segments of the population without discussion.  Not to mention the misrepresentation that always accompanies such efforts.  Dollar costs to society for many of the "environmental" initiatives range from balanced against the benefit, to those that could bankrupt the country.  Beginning in the 1950's with requiring companies to put in necessary sulpher scrubbers to reduce smokestack emissions, through more unnecessary things like changing the formulation for Air Conditioning from a cheaper more effecient freon that was represented as destroying the ozone layer, to a much higher priced formula that is really no safer to the environment, but benefits the company who was supplying both but unfortunately who's patent for the older formula was running out, to water effecient toilets introduced in the 1980's that unfortunately would not flush, costing the housing industry billions of dollars to replace, to the current CO2 emissions being blamed for "Global Warming" which is the new "Sky is Falling" mantra for the green movement.  If the currently proposed regulations are enforced fully they will cost trillions of dollars to implement, effectively bankrupting our economy.  I remember in the 1970's there was an environmentally driven scare that there was going to be a new ice age, caused by, the exact same things that are supposedly causing global warming.  Science cannot accurately predict the weather 5 days from now, so it does not logically follow that they can accurately predict global effects of anything over time.  This is all about power and control.  Any idea will do, as long as the group attempting to use it can manipulate government and people to achieve their goal.  "Follow the money" as a way to understand the reasons behind things,  could more accurately be stated; follow the money or power.  No one likes being lied to or manipulated, and much of the anger being shown by the average voter is related to this.   Light Bulbs.  Not just light bulbs.  It is about being forced to do something whether one wants to or not.
April 20, 2011 at 11:01 a.m.
SavartiTN said...

There are some people that suffer from porphyria or other light sensitive diseases that cannot use fluorescents. I wonder if they get an exemption?

April 20, 2011 at 11:26 a.m.
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