Flakey Fluorescents


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