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Say Watt?

Written by Doris Athineos

By David Bergman, architect Headlines claimed that incandescent bulbs were being banned, that we’d all be forced to use ugly, mercury-laden fluorescent bulbs, and that it would inevitably lead to further infringements on our constitutional rights (the pursuit of happiness, I guess). Incadescent bulbs are still on the shelves, but it’s going to take more than a few sentences to explain why, so let me give you some spoilers first.

  • There is NO BAN on incandescent bulbs.
  • As to whether Congress rescinded it at the last minute, well, a glib answer would be that you can’t rescind something that doesn’t exist. A more helpful answer – though it amounts to the same thing -- will be below.
  • Don’t be so sure you don’t like CFLs or LEDs. A lot of what you’ve heard (or seen) isn’t true.
  • And if you really don’t like them, you can still get an incandescent bulb. (See first point above.)

How did this happen in the first place?

Our story – which I assure you does have a happy ending -- starts sometime before 2007. We know this because the first piece of relevant legislation is the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. Independence and security are good things, right? Sometime thereafter, however, it became mislabeled by some (manipulatively, many would say) as the “incandescent light bulb ban.” It didn’t help that the latter name is much easier to remember than the random acronym EISA.


It’s worth mentioning (or so it seems to me) that it was passed with large majorities in both houses and signed into law by President Bush. That would seem to indicate (or so it seems to me) that it wasn’t exactly a socialist move to curb our freedom of choice. But, you might rightly claim, that’s a digression.

What did the light bulb ban EISA say? Basically, it said that light bulbs had to become more energy efficient than the current guys (I like to call them toasters [photo of lightbulb and toaster filaments]), which have been essentially unchanged since 1879 when Thomas Edison got his version to work. What it DIDN’T do – and this bears repeating – is ban any specific type of light bulb.

All it did was increase the minimum energy efficiency, much as we’ve done for decades with fuel efficiency of cars. (In the somewhat arcane jargon of this stuff, this is called a “performance standard,” as opposed to a “prescriptive standard.” We didn’t say internal combustion engines weren’t allowed; we just said engines had to achieve minimum efficiency levels. How the levels were met was up to the industry and the market. Now substitute “light bulbs” for “internal combustion engines” in that sentence.)

Who appointed the government boss?

Why, you may now be asking, should the government be telling us how efficient our light bulbs have to be? After all, we should be free to spend our money as we want. It may not be smart to buy a bulb that consumes a lot of energy, but isn’t it an unnecessary over reach of a nanny-state government to meddle in such personal decisions? After all, we pay our own electricity bills.

Well, not really, it turns out. For every watt of electricity produced, not only but especially from fossil fuels, there are costs incurred which your utility company doesn’t have to pay. Which means you don’t pay them, right? As if.

Burning fossil fuels creates ecological costs – costs that someone has to pay in real money – and not just abstract stuff like species extinctions. Even if you don’t “believe in” climate change, there’s a litany of other categories of environmental and health impacts ranging from loss of property value (the worth of your land tends to change a bunch when the mountain top beyond your window is blown up to access the coal under it, or when the coal ash from the upstream power plant floods the town) to health insurance fees (private or public) covering increased asthma to the costs of “natural” accidents like oil spills.

Add to this the predicted costs of climate change and now you’re talking real, as in huge, numbers. That you and I pay. They’re not in our utility bills; we pay them in taxes and insurance and loss of life. It’s a perfect example of a market failure that can only be remedied by government policy.

You say ban. I say…performance standard

So it’s not some Euro-socialist un-American abridgement of rights. And it’s not a ban on 100 watt bulbs.  Actually, yes it is a ban on 100 watters, but not the way you may have been lead to believe. To explain this, I have to get a bit pedantic. Again.

Watt’s the point?

Back when the only light bulbs we had were incandescent, it made some sense to think of bulb brightness in terms of watts. You knew how much light a 60 watt bulb put out and that it was more than a 40 watt bulb. Think back for a moment to that car efficiency analogy. Light bulb watts are the equivalent to the rate of flow of gas in a car. The wattage of a bulb does not indicate its brightness, just as the gas flow rate of a car doesn’t tell you how fast or far it will go.  It tells you only how much electricity – or gas – it will use. That explains why a 23 watt CFL emits the same amount of light (roughly) as a 100 watt incandescent. Only it does so using ¼ of the energy.

So when you look for a 100 watt bulb, what you’re really looking for is a bulb that emits a certain brightness. In the case of a standard 100 watt incandescent, that’s about 1700 lumens, which is around the same as that 23 watt CFL. There are similar lumen outputs for 40 watt and 60 watt bulbs; those get regulated in next couple of years.

Get to the point.

Here’s what the regulation actually says. The amount of light that we used to get from a 100 watt bulb now has to come from a bulb using no more than 72 watts. Doesn’t matter if it comes from an incandescent, CFL, LED –or from a bioluminescent fish – so long as it consumes less than 72 watts.

The 23 watt CFL easily meets that requirement, as do LEDs. (I’m not so sure about the fish as I couldn’t find out what the conversion from plankton to wattage is.) In other words, it’s up to manufacturers to determine how to make those 1700 lumens of light. And here’s where the free market comes in. Light bulb manufacturers went back their disciples of Edison and said: make it more efficient. And they did. You can now buy 72 watt incandescent bulbs that are as bright as the old 100 watt bulbs. Or you can buy even more efficient CFLs and LEDs. It seems that, contrary to Michele Bachmann’s accusation, EISA has fairly directly led to increased freedom of choice in light bulbs. The only changes are that these bulbs are more expensive to purchase. But here’s the good part. You more than make that money back in smaller electricity bills. Plus those other “social costs” that we pay through taxes and insurance will diminish, too. Nobody loses. Neat.

But, I hear you saying, I hate CFLs cause they’re ugly and they give me headaches.

Time for more pedantry. Sorry. You know those buzzing and flickering, pale green-ish fluorescents? Old school. (Literally, in many cases.) Fluorescent and CFL bulbs prior to the early 90s used a different type of electronics than the ones made now. In fact, they didn’t use electronics, they used magnetic ballasts. (Ballasts are a gizmo that all fluorescent bulbs require. Sometimes they are a separate part of the light fixture and sometimes they are in the base of the bulb, below the squiggly pieces.) The magnetic ones created a whole lot of nastiness, and a lot of people haven’t forgotten (or forgiven).

Electronic ballasts make far less noise – they’re practically silent – and cycle (flicker) at a much faster rate. So much faster that it’s imperceptible to almost everyone. Almost. There are anecdotal stories of some people still being affected by them.  Some studies have indicated that people with Lupus or with light sensitive skin conditions may be susceptible.  I wish I could tell you what the percentage of people affected and what the thresholds are, but unfortunately there have been virtually no truly scientific studies.

What we can observe, though, is that fluorescents have been around for a century or so and electronic ballasts for a couple of decades, and the incidence of problems has been low enough there hasn’t been a cry for public studies. Not really the answer I’d like, but a good indicator.  (I wonder if anti-regulation  legislators, like the ones who oppose EISA, would fund independent studies to determine if fluorescents are unhealthy.)

Even if they don’t flicker, aren’t they still ugly?

Those earlier fluorescents – before, say, the 90s – were also really bad at what’s called color rendition. Food lit under them didn’t look appetizing and people lit by them looked sick. What, you want your lighting to save energy AND be pretty?

Fear no more, oh skeptical one. Chances are if you’re looking at an ugly fluorescent, it’s an older one.  Modern ones are improved in more ways than just the flicker rate. Color is much better, too.

Most new CFL’s will have a “Lighting Facts” label on the box. [image of Lighting Facts label] One of the main ideas behind the labels is to help people get acclimated to thinking in lumens rather than watts, but there’s a wealth of other useful information there, as well. On the prism-like horizontal color bar you’ll see warm colors on the left and cool colors on the right.  Warmer colors (2700o – 3000o) are most like incandescent. (Counter intuitively, sunlight is a very cold blue. [link to GHG post?] Nature’s funny that way.) Above that on the label will be a number that indicates “color accuracy” on a scale called Color Rendering Index.  Incandescents have a CRI of 100. The nasty old fluorescents from government offices and basement family rooms of yore had CRI’s down in the 60s. For all but the most discerning museum curator, a CRI of low 80s or better is what you want to look for.

Mercury descending

Perhaps you thought I was going to skip over the mercury problem. Nope. We’ve dealt with it here at GreenHomeGuide before [link]. The short version of the story: yes, there is a small but significant amount of mercury in every fluorescent bulb. And mercury is very nasty stuff. If you happen to break one, you have to clean it up carefully. [link to EPA] However, most of the mercury in the environment, by far, comes from burning coal to make electricity.  Depending on how much of your power comes from coal, the milligram or so of mercury in a bulb is about four times less than the amount that gets put into the atmosphere making the electricity that would be needed to power an incandescent bulb instead. And that’s assuming the bulb gets broken and the mercury gets out.

Still, between this and the unproven other health issues, I think we can all agree that fluorescent bulbs are in imperfect solution in the long run. Fortunately, we’re looking at a better solution and it’s more or less here now: LEDs.

And now I have to know what LEDs are, too?

Once you’ve wrapped your head around lumens , watts, color temperature and CRI (with the help of the Lighting Facts label), LEDs are a relative breeze. As with CFL’s, if you’re looking for an incandescent-like light, go for that 2700o – 3000o color temperature and at least a low 80s CRI. That’s pretty much all there is to it, at least for our basic purposes.

Did I mention that they last a really really long time? Keep that in mind when you look at the sticker price.

You’ll probably notice that, unless it’s enclosed in a glass covering that makes it look like a regular light bulb, LEDs are fundamentally different from light bulbs. You may see a bunch of little yellow squares inside. That’s where the light comes from. If you’re old enough to remember what vacuum tubes were, perhaps this comparison will help. Or maybe not. Light emitting diodes (a.k.a. LEDs) are to incandescent bulbs as old radio vacuum tubes are to integrated circuit boards. In fact LEDs are also referred to as solid state lighting.

So don’t worry that the thing looks funny. If you were used to gathering round the old Zenith radio, an iPod would look pretty unfathomable, too. In a few years, we’ll be thinking those old-fashion bulbs with the glowy wire inside are prehistoric curiosities.

Aside from the upfront cost dilemma, there is another issue with LEDs. (Actually, there are a few, but the others are less important.)  Right now, you can’t get an LED replacement bulb that makes as much light as a 100 watt incandescent. LEDs, though, are advancing along the same Moore’s law curve as computer circuit boards. In other words, that previous sentence may be wrong by the time you read this.

Ban or no ban; did it get repealed last month?

There’s a core contingent of, shall we say, folks who don’t know what you now know. Some of them are in Congress. In one of the last pieces of 2011 legislation, buried within the interim funding bill, is a rider that (exaggerated drumroll) postpones funding for enforcing EISA. It doesn’t rescind or even postpone the rules. It just doesn’t provide money for the Department of Energy to enforce it until the end of the government’s fiscal year.

However, the lighting manufacturers had already prepared for the reg’s and most of the industry supports it, which means the new choices are on the shelves regardless of political machinations. The delay on enforcement , some say, is really a ploy to buy time for Congress to actually repeal EISA. Hopefully cooler – and brighter – heads will prevail.

David Bergman is an architect with over 25 years of experience. His new book, "Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide", will be released on April 25th. To find out more, visit:



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