Technology: December 2013 Archives

The imminent ban on 40-watt and 60-watt incandescent light bulbs is going to impose a significant cost on our household. This is an interesting case of a somewhat bi-partisan attempt to save energy while imposing what they took to be only a small cost on most households. But it is a cost, and it's cost that poorer households will be more burdened by. So, like New York's recent bottle bill that adds 5 cents to the cost of a larger variety of bottles, people with lower income will be more burdened by it if they continue to buy products in those bottles, while more affluent households will not notice as much of an effect of the increased cost. Our household, however, will be much more burdened by this than most.

The alternatives to incandescent bulbs don't seem to me to be genuine alternatives for our household. LED bulbs really are the best you can get. LED flashlights fail when the flashlight itself fails. It's never the bulbs that are the problem, and the batteries should last a very long time unless you leave them on all the time or never turn it on (in which case the batteries will corrode). But LED bulbs for ordinary household lights are still very expensive. The prices I'm finding for them online are something like $10 per bulb. This might be fine if they last forever and will never need to be replaced, and the energy savings might also help make up for it, but that's for a household where you won't need to replace them except when they fail on their own. We have a child who actively seeks to smash light bulbs whenever people forget to turn the lights on when he's home or when we let our attention turn to deal with anything but him, allowing him to climb on something to reach them. I think we lose a light bulb or two every week, and we can't be spending $10 per bulb at that sort of replacement rate.

Compact fluorescents are not a viable alternative either, for two reasons. Fluorescent bulbs do last longer than incandescent bulbs if you simply measure how many hours they can be left on before breaking, but that's not how most people use them. For businesses that leave the lights on for long stretches of time, they make sense. But if you turn them on and off regularly, they break far, far sooner than incandescent bulbs. They often don't last more than a few months with the kind of use they get in our house. I've seen them last a day or two more than once. They might save energy if you're willing to eat the cost of constantly replacing them, but they're not cost-effective unless you keep them on all day. This is not easy if you have been conscientious enough to develop a muscle-memory habit of turning the lights off when you leave the room, and it's next to impossible if you have children who will turn lights on and off all the time. I have to remind myself constantly not to turn the lights off in my office at work and in the classrooms I teach in, because it will cost the college too much money to keep turning them off and on again and replacing the bulbs regularly. The bulbs in our office are constantly in need of replacement, because people often turn them off when they leave the room, either not knowing of this problem or not thinking about it when they leave. And those are adults. There's really no way to control for what small children or children with autism will do with lights, and we've got both.

Even worse is the health hazard given the amount of mercury inside compact fluorescent bulbs. It's not a huge amount of mercury in a given bulb. It's about the size of a period in standard-size type. But even that amount is not a good idea to have around small children, and the EPA's recommended precautions for cleaning them up are simply not possible in our household. When you add in an autistic child who goes out of his way to unscrew them and smash them on the floor, it's simply not viable to have them in any bulbs he can either reach or stand on something to reach, which means none except in lights with closed cases.

Fortunately, the law doesn't ban incandescents altogether, just ones that are below a certain energy efficiency. The market provided a solution in the first phase of the ban. The light bulb industry managed to produce some 100-watt and 75-watt bulbs that met the standards that the first phase imposed, and we've been buying those bulbs (and will have to buy exclusively those bulbs until the industry produces similarly more-efficient 60-watt and 40-watt bulbs). We're not actually going to see incandescent bulbs disappear. We'll just see more expensive ones. This is an expense we'll have to absorb without seeing as much benefit as most households would get from it, since our the bulbs will have a shorter life than in most households. But it seems to me to be the best alternative for us.



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