Kill The Myth: Incandescent Bulbs Are Not Banned

Don't like the government telling you to buy a CFL? There's no need to take up arms. There's still an incandescent bulb for you. It's just a little more efficient.

There is a race is on to build better incandescent bulbs that meet the next generation of energy standards. But there's a ban, you say? To listen to Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, you would think that the FBI will soon be breaking down our doors in search of illicit illumination.

Despite what you've heard, Congress' Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) "doesn't ban any type of lighting," says Laura Moorefield, a senior researcher at Ecos Consulting. "It just raises the efficiency standards a small amount." Understandably, you may have been misled by error-laden columns and news stories about a "ban" in the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, New York Post, Forbes.com, and Washington Times (chronicled by Media Matters). There is also at least one at MSNBC. They all suggest that incandescents have been outlawed by Congress.

They have not. Once the law begins to take effect next year, wattages for 100 watt bulbs are required to drop by about 30%. That means a former 100 watt bulb will use only 72 watts, yet emit a comparable amount of light. The law will be phased in over the next several years affecting 75 watt bulbs in 2013, then 60 watt and 40 watt bulbs in 2014. The new incandescent bulbs employ a small halogen capsule with an incandescent element that looks and operates just like a conventional bulb, while producing the same quality of light and using less energy. These halogen incandescents already meet or exceed the standards set by the EISA. To say it another way, incandescent bulbs are not banned. In fact, you may even have been buying EISA-compliant incandescents since 2009 when they first hit store shelves.

Should you run out and buy them (assuming you were not among the hoarders stashing the old clunkers in your attic)? Well, it helps to put this in terms of dollars and cents. The estimated cost of incandescent bulbs over six years is about $75.30 accounting for energy and replacement bulbs. That compares to $61.02 for the high efficiency incandescents, and just $19.62 for CFLs, according to a comparison guide released by the Natural Resources Defense Council. You may want to wait until the next generation of technology comes out. The newest LED bulbs, although priced at about $15 to $50 each, last almost half a century (25,000 to 50,000 hours) under normal use and draw a fraction of the energy consumed by the old electron guzzlers. Best of all, the light is almost the same as incandescents. New choices are arriving soon: Last week, we reported on the new Philips LED bulb that won the Department of Energy's L Prize, designed to replace some of the 425 million 60 watt bulbs sold in the U.S. every year.

But some are sticking to their Edisons. If you're one of them, the new halogen incandescents that meet the EISA's requirements are sold under a variety of brand names, including Philips' Halogena Energy Saver at Home Depot, the Sylvania SuperSaver available at Lowes, and a GE bulb sold at Walmart. If your less traditional tastes run more toward cheap and efficient, CFLs are the way to go.

And while we're busting myths, CFLs will not make your home a Superfund site. The tiny amount of mercury in the bulbs (smaller than the size of a period in this sentence), is not dangerous to your health if you break the occasional bulb. In fact, it is less hazardous than eating more than two tuna fish sandwiches a week (according to the EPA's guidelines for mercury contamination in seafood), and also much less than the mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants which polluted your tuna fish sandwich and air in the first place. Coal pollution, as it turns out, presents a more serious threat to human health and the environment than broken CFLs. Finally, you can also recycle your CFLS at Home Depot or a site near you.

Consider yourself illuminated.

[Image: Flickr user phozographer [doing a 365]]

Reach Michael J. Coren via Twitter or email.

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12 Comments

  • Robert Van Winkle

    "It's far more likely that people, and companies, will simply leave more lights on for longer periods of time -- same total cost of electricity as before." from Carl Witthoft. Not exactly true. 

    If a company invests large sums of money in solid state lighting, the awareness for conserving energy  becomes greater than what it was before. Most would integrate occupancy sensors and/or lights on timers to assist in reducing power use.

    A friends house switched from the old type CFL's that consumed a total of 900 watts to LED light fixtures. When the LED's are on full brightness in all four rooms, the total power consumption is only 120 watts. These figures show a significant amount of power consumption even if the lights were on all the time. Not only are they brighter, but have the ability to be dimmed and change the color temperature between warm white to bright white. 

  • Dave Carver

    "The newest LED bulbs, although priced at about $15 to $50 each, last almost half a century(25,000 to 50,000 hours) under normal use and draw a fraction of the energy consumed by the old electron guzzlers. Best of all, the light is almost the same as incandescents."
    The LED market is changing rapidly and there are some great bulbs out there right now. I use EarthLED's bulbs all throughout my house and will never go back to incandescents, no matter how much more efficient they make them. They will never consume less energy than LEDs. I use the warm white bulb linked below in my living areas and my guests never believe that they are LEDs (until they touch the bulb while it's on). It's also perfect for my kids' play room because it's shatter proof.

    http://www.amazon.com/EarthLED...

  • Carl Witthoft

    Which kind of bulb?  Wrong question.   Every study on the history of lighting I've seen suggests that the amount of lighting used depends solely on cost.  These new bulbs cost less to operate (for the same amount of light output).  It's far more likely that people, and companies, will simply leave more lights on for longer periods of time -- same total cost of electricity as before.

  • walter kirkpatrick

    To better understand the affects of lighting the watt terminology will not be used anymore since it really does not have any real meaning except for how much energy the lamp is using. The new way to refer to how much light a lamp produces is lumens. So from now on, a 100-watt lamp will be referred to as having a light output of 1,600 lumens. 1,600 lumens is also the same output as a 24-watt CFL or a 16-Watt LED. The bottom line is that an LED will use only 16 watts to accomplish the same thing that a 100-watt lamp will and that is produce 1,600 lumens.

  • GS Storm

    The Wall Street Journal, Fox News, New York Post, Forbes, Washington Times, MSNBC and add the NY Times to the list as well, which is where I first read about it. This article is the new counter spin. Incandescents are not banned in writing but 100-watt bulbs essentially are by the regulations, which is what all those news outlets reported. This article needs to address if it is going to change anyone's mind.  The other issue is that some people  become ill when exposed to fluorescent lights. I'm one of them. It's brutal. 20 minutes in an office building and I feel off for several hours afterward. Again, that isn't addressed by the article although it is a very common ailment. 

  • Andrew Davies

    Some people always complain that American's are too focused on debt driven short term spending, and not focused enough on long term investment - then when presented with an opportunity that's virtually guaranteed to beat the stock market for long term return, they bitch some more.

    And yes, this does need to be legislated.  Because your short term thinking causes harm to me and the rest of society (health effects from coal plants, mountaintop strip mining, etc).

    CFLs = fiscal responsibility + environmental responsibility + lower health costs

  • Ewew

    What a load. CFLs will not help the environment, your finances, or your health. You are selling snake oil. Why would anyone trust you? You are smart and everyone else is a stupid short term thinker? Nobody knows what is good for them so you want the government to force people to be good. But the greater good is really the selfish interest of the powerful. But zealots who truly believe in the rightness of their dogma and are not selfish harm the rest of us. People should be free to choose their own religion and not have the green religion forced on them. The issues have been analyzed with excellent reasoning, but you will not have it and must force your religion on people. Say no to communism.

  • Andrew Krause

    It does not "need to be legislated." CFL's are flying off the shelves at home stores, and market demand is driving development on LED lighting. The market is working where the government isn't.

  • Robert Van Winkle

    The average retail cost for an led bulb/ fixture etc. is at least forty-five percent. We have seen mark-ups at three hundred plus percent (Yes, 300%) on products. LED's are not as expensive as they used to be but many retailers/ distributors for some reason find it necessary to keep the cost high.

  • David Hagan

    Yes, the upfront costs of more efficient bulbs burden the poor most of all. And it is the poor, not coal and power companies, that Bachman and friends are always looking out for.

  • Robin Cannon

    It's all very well to talk about efficiency over six years. That fails, however, to take into account the up front cost versus the long term cost. CFL costs 3-4 times an incandescent bulb to buy, and you make the savings back over time because of the reduced energy costs.

    But there are many people for whom even a dollar or two extra in up front cost is impractical. They suffer in the long term because of the increased energy costs, but those are less obvious and easier because its an amortized cost.

    It's a much smaller version of a wider problem, that of balancing up front investment with long term costs. I know, for example, that if I were to spend several thousand dollars on solar panels for my house, and take myself off the energy grid, that I'd definitely save lots of money in the long term. But I don't have several thousand dollars as a lump sum, or if I did then I would probably have other priorities to address.