The Phase-Out of Incandescent Light Bulbs: What You Need To Know

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The incandescent bulb hasn’t changed much since Thomas Edison patented it in 1879. More than one hundred years later, the familiar bulbs still push electricity through a wire filament – and still waste a whole lot of energy.

In the U.S., incandescent bulbs will be phased out by 2014 under the CLEAN Energy Act of 2007. Nothing will be mandated until 2012, although in many areas, energy companies are offering incentives such as mail-in rebates to switch to CFLs. Photo: Wikimedia/JaneArt

Ninety percent of the energy pumped through an incandescent light bulb is wasted as heat; that’s why traditional bulbs are so hot to the touch. However, thanks to a piece of 2007 legislation, traditional incandescent bulbs will soon become a thing of the past.

The Bush-era law, called the Energy Independence and Security Act, set energy-efficiency standards for light bulbs that will come fully into effect in 2012. The law will require light bulbs to use 25-30 percent less power than incandescents use today.

It’s a mandate that will quickly slash residential and commercial energy use, lowering the nation’s carbon footprint and utility bills at the same time.

Predicted savings include $13 billion in energy costs and the prevention of 100 million tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere, reported Noah Horowitz, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council’s energy program, in a blog post. Overall, the legislation will save as much electricity each year as that used by all the homes in the state of Texas.

In theory, the legislation sounds like a no-brainer. Australia, Brazil and the European Union have already enacted their own, parallel laws. Yet in the United States, some consumers and activists have interpreted the act as a ban on incandescent bulbs. Others believe that energy-efficient alternatives will necessarily cost more, deliver lower quality light and pose a health risk.

Texas Congressman Joe Barton recently proposed a repeal of the legislation, and editorials occasionally crop up in leading newspapers, from the Wall Street Journal to the Washington Times, protesting the “light bulb ban.”

True, energy efficiency standards will inevitably make most incandescent bulbs obsolete, and give a boost to their more energy-efficient competitors, compact florescent bulbs (CFLs) and light emitting diodes (LEDs). Yet “no one is requiring you to buy a CFL—not now, not ever,” Horowitz wrote. “The regulation is simply making manufacturers build you a better bulb.”

CFL and LED proponents point out that alternative lighting options are becoming cheaper, safer and more aesthetically pleasing every day, and that the legislation will force manufacturers to make them even better.

For consumers, the biggest deterrent to choosing CFLs and LEDs “is the initial cost,” says Brian Clark Howard, Web editor at The Daily Green and co-author of the book Green Lighting. Yet although CFLs and LEDs cost more initially, Howard explains, over time they can save consumers hundreds of dollars in reduced energy costs.

CFLs use 75 percent less energy to run and last ten times as long as traditional incandescents: this means that each bulb, over its lifetime, actually costs $30 less than an incandescent. Think of it this way: incandescents cost less upfront, but come will sneaky hidden fees.

Another complaint Howard often hears, he says, is “I tried a CFL years ago, and I hated it.” Howard points out that technology has improved radically since bulbs first hit the market. Consumers can now buy energy-efficient bulbs that fit pretty much any light fixture and choose from a whole range of light effects. A 2007 study by Popular Mechanics actually rated light quality of seven popular CFLs higher than that of traditional incandescents.

While CFLs do contain mercury, with proper handling, they produce a minimal health risk. Each CFL bulb carries about 5 miligrams of mercury, “just enough to cover a ballpoint pen tip.”

“Unless you wipe up mercury [without gloves] and then lick your hand, you’re probably going to be okay,” says Russ Leslie, associate director of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytecnic Institute, as reported by Popular Mechanics.

Popular Mechanics crunched the numbers and discovered that traditional incandescent bulbs actually introduce more mercury into the environment over their product life cycle.

Because incandescents consume more energy, they’re responsible for a greater amount of pollution associated with electricity generation, including the release of trace amounts of mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide into the surrounding environment.

Over the next couple of years, you’ll probably see fewer and fewer incandescent bulbs on store shelves – and hear a lot more from pundits, both on the right and left, about the light bulb legislation. The best way to cut through the hype? Try out some energy-efficient alternatives, and find out how they can fit your lifestyle and save you money.

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