Flakey Fluorescents

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Michael Tennant
recently
wrote
about proposed legislation in California and Washington,
D.C. to ban incandescent light bulbs in order to save energy. 
Australia
passed such legislation in February, the European Union is clearly
only weeks
from doing the same, and it appears that Canada will
not be far behind.  I have read
that the first to issue such a diktat was Fidel Castro, about
two years ago, quickly followed by the same action from Hugo Chavez.

Mr. Tennant’s
article dealt only obliquely with the claim that use of fluorescent
replacements for standard incandescent lamp bulbs will result in
a net savings for consumers.  He wrote: “One of the new light
bulbs that we will be compelled to purchase under this legislation
will last for 6 years and save the purchaser $22 over its lifetime
(or so says the manufacturer, who would never, ever exaggerate the
alleged benefits of his product).”  Precious words.

But I have
read at least 2 dozen articles and op-ed pieces on this subject
over the last few weeks, and none of the writers ever asked anyone
who has tried these new bulbs how much money he saved, or reported
his own personal experience with them.

I, like
Benjamin Franklin
, “love economy exceedingly,” so for the last
quarter-century or so I have, now and then, tried to save on my
electric bills by buying fluorescents.  The results have been
dismal.  For about the last 10 years I have been keeping close
track, after finally noticing that there was something funny going
on.  I discovered that almost exactly 1/2 of the fluorescent
bulbs I bought, that were supposed to last for 5–6 years, went
dead within 3–6 weeks.  I just looked up “fluorescent
light bulbs” on Wikipedia
(much as I dislike that site), and read: “Modern CFLs [compact fluorescent
lamps] typically have a life span specified between 8,000 and 15,000
hours. Typical domestic incandescent bulbs are similarly specified
to have a life of 1000 hours. These lifetimes are often specified
according to IEC60969,
which specifies that “life to 50% of failures shall be not less
than value declared by the manufacturer” (emphasis mine). 
Hmm… 50%.  What a coincidence.  The incandescent bulbs
I was using, on the other hand, ALL lasted for many months. 
After paying twelve times the price for bulbs meant to save five
times the electricity, and losing half almost immediately, the savings
are hard to see.  It is also infuriating to have to change
dead bulbs out so often.  To avoid such work was another reason
I had wanted to try the new bulbs.

When I called
around to my local light bulb retailers, a couple of salesmen rather
reluctantly confessed to me that these fluorescent table-lamp substitute
bulbs typically die quickly if often turned off and on.  And
Wikipedia just told me:  “The lifespan of a fluorescent lamp
is not related to the number of hours it is on, but the number of
times it is turned on.”  Well, then, would somebody please
explain to me why the six 48″, 40W, old-fashioned tube fluorescents
in my garage, on the same on-off switch as my 15 watt CFLs, have
survived 6 years of the same off-and-on, while over half the 15-watters
have lasted three weeks?  There’s something funny going on
here.

Mr. Tennant
also let us know about some of the folks that are backing this new
legislation: “What does matter to Congress is that all the big guns
in the lighting industry are behind this legislation, sending hefty
contributions to politicians in exchange for politicians' regulating
their competitors out of business. The biggest promoter of the ban-the-bulb
bill is Philips Electronics, which just so happens to be planning
on phasing out production of incandescent bulbs by 2016. By forcing
its competitors to do the same thing, Philips need not fear a loss
of revenue to producers of cheaper incandescent bulbs.”

That reminded
me of something else that seemed a little funny to me long ago. 
Back in the 1970s I rented a house which had a pantry with a light
switch that was hard to find in the dark. So I never turned off
the single incandescent bulb that was there, and was lit, when I
moved in.  Two years later, the bulb went out.  When I
went to replace it, I was curious as to who had made such a long-lasting
bulb.  All I remember is the words “Made in Hungary.” How the
previous tenant had come by it at the height of the cold war I have
no idea.  I had already read by that time of the problem that
Soviet and eastern European communist republics had, that workers
would bring their dead light bulbs to their workplaces and screw
them in, in place of the live ones they found, and then take the
live ones home.  It seemed to me likely that some intelligent
socialist industrial functionary had come up with an idea that would
at least mitigate the cost of this problem – make a long-lasting
bulb.  I wished at the time that there could be some incentive
in my country to produce long-lasting light bulbs.  Free market,
maybe?

About 15 years
later, when the iron curtain fell, I read a news story about the
rush of western companies to invest in the newly-capitalist lands. 
The first mention of such action in the story was of the purchase
by General Electric of a light-bulb factory in Hungary.  I
kid you not.  Well, GE bulbs don’t last any longer now than
they did then.  There’s something funny about all this.

Well, I am
still ready and eager to buy long-lasting energy-saving light bulbs. 
Maybe the new LED bulbs will fit the bill.  But I’m not holding
my breath.

March
30, 2007

Christopher
M. Montalbano [send him mail]
is a retired programmer/analyst in rural Oregon.

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