No Tripping the Light Fantastic over This Debate

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

An energy law has some consumers squirreling away incandescents and lawmakers defending light bulb freedom.

by Jennie Wood

Spiral CFL Bulb

Spiral CFL Bulb
Photo credit: Sun Ladder

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When George W. Bush signed the new energy legislation in 2007, few people took notice of a provision that phases out Thomas Edison's 131-year-old incandescent light bulb and mandates use of the compact fluorescent lamp (CFL). What a difference a few years makes. Even though CFLs use about 75% less power, thus reducing energy costs, some consumers and lawmakers are expressing frustration about the switch.

In 2012, the 100-watt incandescent will stop being produced, followed by the 75-watt in 2013, and the 60-watt and 40-watt in 2014. Halogen incandescents and decorative bulbs, like candelabras used in chandeliers, will still be available for consumer use. The 72-watt halogen incandescent gives off the same light as the soon to be extinct 100-watt bulb. The incandescent bulb will transition from a source of light to an installment in time capsules because it no longer meets new federal efficiency standards.

Bulb Hoarders

In a recent Osram Sylvania survey, 13% of Americans said they would stock up on 100-watt incandescents and continue using them after the law goes into effect. Consumers complain that the light from the CFL is too dim and not warm enough. Another complaint is that the CFL doesn't turn on instantly and that the 1 to 3 second delay is 1 to 3 seconds too long. Cost is another issue for some, although the Congress-mandated phase-out forces manufacturers to offer increasingly cheaper CFLs. Addressing consumer complaints, manufacturers are designing CFLs that shine brighter and turn on instantly. CFLs are now being produced with less mercury in an attempt to tackle the most pressing concern about the energy-efficient bulbs.

Mercury Concern Rising

One CFL contains an average of 4 milligrams of mercury in its sealed glass tube. To put that into perspective, the mercury thermometer commonly found in most bathroom medicine cabinets has at least 500 milligrams, the amount in 125 CFLs. Fluorescent fixtures also contain at least 5 milligrams of mercury. The main concern about the CFL bulb is if it breaks. Pregnant women and children, especially infants, should not be exposed to any amount of mercury. In January 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued clean-up instructions should a CFL break:

    1. Remove children and pets from the room, open a window, and close the door.
    2. Shut off the air conditioning or forced-air furnace and wait about 10 minutes.
    3. Return with a fan and place it in or near the window to blow outside.

Another issue is disposal of the CFLs. They need to be recycled and could pose an environmental problem if they are not. Home Depot, Lowe's, and many county household hazardous waste programs accept CFL bulbs for recycling.

Freedom of Choice Debate

Some lawmakers are trying to overturn the law before it goes into effect. State legislator Bill Sandifer (R-SC) has introduced the South Carolina Incandescent Light Bulb Freedom Act, which would allow the incandescent to continue being produced and sold — but only in the Palmetto State. On a national level, there are two bills: Representative Michele Bachmann's (R-MN) Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act and The Better Use of Light Bulbs Act, sponsored by Republican Representative Joe Barton of Texas. Both attempt to end the phasing out of the incandescents. Barton said we're about to lose the bulb that "has been turning back the night ever since Thomas Edison ended the era of a world lit only by fire in 1879."

How would Thomas Edison feel about this debate? Would he be pro-choice on light bulbs? Or would he want to turn out the light on his invention? Who knows, but in a world where so many countries are struggling for democracy, the fact that Americans have the freedom to debate this topic and the technology to provide energy-efficient options — that's reason enough to trip the light fantastic, isn't it?

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