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Banning the Bulb


By James R. Benya

What a shame that the incandescent lamp has become the poster child for energy waste. That fact enabled politicians to get on the green bandwagon with little risk simply by embracing an outright ban on Edison’s 130-year-old technology. The public is also pretty much in the dark about the complexities of the issue, so there is little resistance to the ban. This is especially true now that a compact fluorescent can be had almost as cheaply as a box of four incandescent “A” lamps.

The Bulb is being phased out in a reasonable way, But we have to find alternatives that are equally as good by 2020.
Image courtesy James Wehtje
The Bulb is being phased out in a reasonable way, But we have to find alternatives that are equally as good by 2020.
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There are a host of problems with energy-efficient alternatives to the good old incandescent. For example, compact fluorescent lamps contain enough mercury to be a serious concern. They are packed with throwaway electronics, they offer inferior color, long warm-up times; further, they may cause a fire if accidentally installed on dimmers meant for incandescent lamps. Most LED lamps currently available are even less efficient than incandescent lamps, and, though they lack mercury, it is sometimes overlooked that the large aluminum heat sinks they require expand the technology’s carbon footprint considerably. And, they are not cheap. The only LED assembly UL-listed for use in one of the most common residential fixtures, the insulation-contact downlight, costs $129.

A large-scale ban of incandescents, the intent of which was mostly to make politicians look good, would have been undone by the need for exceptions and exemptions. Undoubtedly, a black market would have developed to meet the demand for banned lamps. A rational effort was made to address these issues when the Energy Security and Independence Act of 2007 was written. Its premise states that progress must be made, but recognizes there are real problems with the current technologies. Incandescent lamps will be phased out on a schedule that allows time for the development of more efficient technologies. The act provides specific lamp-power limits, timetables for efficiency improvements, funding for consumer education, and even a prize for the development of LED technology capable of replacing general-service lamps.

The common A-lamp is not actually banned but rather required to become 30 percent more efficient and longer lasting by 2012. The law exempts a wide range of unusual and special lamps, among them colored and showcase lamps for which “efficient” options will not be available in the foreseeable future. It also prevents special-purpose lamps, such as shatter-resistant bulbs, from being substituted for A-lamps, thereby circumventing the law’s intent. While the act’s biggest target is general-service incandescent lamps, it also adds new requirements for reflector lamps, bans a type of metal-halide lamp, levies minimum efficiencies on metal-halide ballasts, and increases the required minimum efficacy of fluorescent lighting systems.

Best of all, the act requires that by 2017 there will be a timetable to assure that general-service incandescent lamps achieve 45 lumens per watt by 2020. While technology to meet the 2012 standards is already partly available, this is fair warning that there must be a major change in lighting within the next 12 years.

Both financial incentives—”carrots”—and enforced energy codes —”sticks”—are needed to achieve long-term sustainability goals. Architects and designers should choose the best technology for the conditions and rely upon intelligent trade-offs to meet energy goals as opposed to the outright banning of products. 

It is also realistic enough to recognize that in some cases product prohibitions are necessary. The bulb as we know it will now be banned in a reasonable way. The real challenge is whether alternatives that are as good for architectural lighting design as the incandescent lamp is, can be invented by 2020.

Benya is a lighting designer in Portland, Ore., and editor-at-large for Architectural Lighting. Deborah Witte, president of Witte Associates, an interiors and lighting design firm in Corte Madera, Calif., also contributed to this article.

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This article appeared in the April 2008 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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