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July 20, 2011
Banning Zero-Waste Light Bulbs

Harold Edgerton, Death of a Light Bulb, 1936


This is a slightly improved version of a short article I posted on Ricochet a couple days ago called "Incandescent Bulbs Might Not Actually Be Evil".

The topic is the Federal Incandescent Light Bulb Ban, also known as the The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (like it matters what they call these things nowadays). California has a similar law that went into effect at the beginning of this year.

I want to point out how the fundamental premise of this legislation is completely backwards.

The efficiency of a light bulb, regardless of the technology, is the ratio of visible light output to total power consumed. The inefficient part, the power consumed that isn't light, is dissipated as heat. By that metric, flourescent lamps are generally three or four times as efficient as incandescent lamps. And sure enough, flourescent lamps get warm to the touch, and incandescent lamps can be quite hot, and the heat warms the surrounding air.

But... light bulbs are not used in an abstract theoretical vacuum, they operate in people's living environments. The heat energy that a lamp produces is only wasted if it is not of use. If the lamp's heat output contributes to warming the house to the desired temperature, then absolutely none of the heat energy of the lamp is actually wasted.

Given that the average US temperature is around 53 degrees, and that people like their houses at something like 70 degrees, that's 17 degrees worth of temperature increase, over the big average, that incandescent lamps have an opportunity to contribute toward.

And when one considers how they are typically used, incandescent lamps operate quite optimally in a typical residential environment:

  • Light bulbs are naturally used much more in the shorter daylight hours of the winter when the extra warmth is needed, and less in the longer daylight hours of the summer when the heat is not.
  • Likewise on a smaller time scale, light bulbs are naturally used much more at night when the outside temperatures are colder.
  • Light bulbs are mostly used in the rooms of the house as those rooms are occupied, while central heating warms the entire house.
  • Compared to forced air heating, incandescent lamps provide heat directly into the room without having to go through lossy ductwork under the house.

None of these real life issues is considered with a simple lamp efficiency rating. Depending on the usage details, often switching from incandescent lighting to flourescent lighting, keeping the inside temperature and all other factors the same, will increase residential heating bills. And in many cases even increase the sum of heating and electric bills.

(So an unclear-on-the-concept scenario would be a fellow sitting in a room lit by CFL lamps and using a space heater to keep warm. Another unclear-on-the-concept scenario is one I've actually seen: a local taqueria was set up with a heat lamp warming their chips, except the heat lamp had been replaced by a CFL, so the chips were well lit, but cold. More recently they noticed how silly that looked and swapped the CFL back to a proper heat lamp.)

To be balanced, it needs to be pointed out that in an air conditioned environment incandescent lamps are doubly wasteful; not only is their heat output unwanted, the air conditioning system needs to work that much harder in response. In that situation, flourescents do have a considerable energy efficiency advantage. And in such a case the advantage would be more than the three of four times that the isolated theoretical metric would suggest.

But overall in the US, we do a lot more heating than air conditioning. (I for one don't even have an air conditioner in my house.) So in the majority of cases it appears to me that incandescent lamps are effectively, or close to, zero-waste devices.

This leaves our government in the position of banning inexpensive zero-waste (or close to it) devices in the name of saving energy.


What's really happening here is demonization. Instead of addressing a given problem in a logical, productive way, it can be more politically profitable to scapegoat an innocent bystander as the enemy, attack that, and then claim y'r saving the freakin' planet.

This is a horrible abuse of congress. Oh, and the sponsor of this legislation is Nick Rahall, Democrat, West Virginia.

Posted by DonTillman at July 20, 2011 10:59 PM

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