Question

Why are the new light bulbs mandatory? They are very expensive and are environmentally hazardous. Can I get the old ones back?

Asked by Lovetta Burns
Rosamond, CA

I am already replacing the new bulbs I purchased 4 years ago, through out my home. Still have 4 in dressing room 21 yrs old (other 2 need replacing again! My 5w night light is brighter than the 100w equivalent (when 1st turned) on in my bedroom. Also not bright enough to read by. Having to replace all these light at $6 or more per, is too expensive for seniors and they are hazardous for the environment. Why can't we have the safer,more enviromentally friendly bulbs back?

Answer

David Bergman

Answered by David Bergman

New York, NY

David Bergman Architect

April 3, 2013

Yes, if you still want to use incandescent bulbs, you can!

Despite what you may have heard, the law regulating light bulbs does not ban incandescent bulbs. It merely sets performance standards, much the same way that the gas mileage of cars is regulated. It says, for instance, that the amount of light that an old 75 watt bulb emits must now be provided using no more than 53 watts. And there are updated incandescents (sometimes called halogens) that meet that standard.

The replacements

First, I think you might be confusing two types of light bulbs that are replacements for the old incandescent bulbs.

  • Compact fluorescent bulbs (the twisty ones, better known as CFLs) have been around for 20 years or so. 
  • And in just the last few years, LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) have come on the market.
  • Though they may look like incandescent bulbs and may make similar light, LEDs are very different creatures.

One way to think of LEDs is compare old pre-transistor radios and stereos that had tubes in them to solid state circuitry. Incandescent light bulbs would be analogous to the radios with tubes and, in fact, LEDs are sometimes called solid state lighting.

Cost

But back to your questions.

First, expense.  When you’re used to paying less than a dollar for a bulb, a CFL that costs a few dollars – let alone an LED that’s $20 or more – can seem like a raw deal. But that’s looking at just what’s called the upfront cost and doesn’t take into account the cost of the electricity to power the bulb.

I wrote about this in more detail here, but the summary is that when you add up the electrical costs and the bulb costs (more about that in a moment),

  • CFLs come out to be cheaper than incandescents, and
  • LEDs will often (but not always) come out less expensive still.

Make light not toast

Incandescent bulbs, you see, are very inefficient at making light from electricity. The way they work is essentially the same as the filament in your toaster: the filament heats up and glows when electricity runs through it.

That’s why I often refer to incandescent bulbs as toasters.

  • 90% of the electricity used to operate an incandescent light bulb becomes heat; and
  • only 10% becomes light.

Speaking of light output, we’re all used to referring to bulbs by their wattage. But wattage is not brightness; it’s a measure of how much electricity is being used. So while we’re acclimating to all these new types of bulbs, we also need to switch to thinking in terms of lumens, not watts.

  • A 60 watt incandescent bulb, for instance, emits about 800 lumens. 
  • A CFL will emit the same amount of light while using only a quarter of the wattage (13 – 18 watts).
  • An LED might use only 6 – 8 watts.

Bulb Life

Another factor in that cost equation is that incandescent bulbs don’t last very long – usually around 1000 hours – while CFLs last around 8000 hours and LEDs perhaps 30,000 hours.

But, you write in your question, some of your old bulbs have lasted way longer than that.

  • On the other hand, I bet some of them have burned out much, much sooner.
  • That 1000 hour life is an average, just as the CFL and LED lives are.

Plus there have been some less than high quality CFLs out there, which have burned out prematurely and haven’t helped their reputation.

Brightness and Toxicity

What about brightness? As you’ve noticed, some CFLs take a minute or so to reach full brightness. Again, this can vary with the manufacturer and I, too, am less than happy about that.

And while we’re dishing on CFLs, let’s address another of your points: environmental hazard. The main issue is mercury, which is very toxic stuff, and every CFL contains a tiny dot of it, as discussed here.

  • That’s not a problem IF the bulb is properly recycled and IF it doesn’t break.
  • If one does, don’t panic; just clean it up carefully per the instructions linked in previous posts here and here

For those reasons, I see CFLs as an interim technology, better than incandescents but not ideal.

LEDs, the new kids on the block, solve both of the problems. Like incandescent bulbs, they turn on instantly at full brightness. And they do not contain mercury. True, they are more difficult to recycle than incandescents, but on the other hand, they last 30 times as long so we’ll be throwing out far fewer of them.

And let’s not forget that the increased energy efficiency of these bulbs also means generating less electricity, which in turn means less pollution and other environmental hazards.

It’s all a tad complicated and new, but it’s worth it.

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