Dim Wits

by Don Boudreaux on December 27, 2007

in Environment, Politics, Regulation

Being an economist, I’m no expert on the physical principles that separate incandescent light bulbs from fluorescent ones.  I do, however, know enough to realize that Congress understands these principles no better than I do and, more importantly — regardless of the knowledge possessed by any one or a group of members of Congress — any legislation forcing Americans to switch from using one type of bulb to another is inevitably the product of a horrid mix of interest-group politics with reckless symbolism designed to placate an electorate that increasingly believes that the sky is falling.

These two letters in today’s edition of the Wall Street Journal are worth a read:

In the final paragraph of your editorial “Dim Bulbs,” (Dec. 21) you say that Congress has now dictated phasing out the incandescent bulb starting in 2012. Think of the hardships and costs that law will force on the public. Ponder your current incandescent bulb usages that do not readily adapt to compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) or others.

Incandescent bulbs can operate on low voltages such as three volts (flashlights) and 12 volts (autos) but compact CFLs cannot. No more flashlights for emergency or convenience use. When the bulb burns out in the ones you have, throw it away! How about no more power-on and indicator lights on your auto dashboard and your large and small (coffeemaker, iron) home appliances? Consider no more holiday lights such as on Christmas trees and outdoor decorations. What would you use for bicycle head and tail-lights? How about roadside distress and warning lights that plug into cigarette lighters or dashboard power sockets? Also mood lighting for parts of your home and some commercial establishments, since CFLs do not readily adapt to dimming. We could add to this list.

While some of the above uses are for convenience, others are for safety and life-saving reasons. Although decades in the future scientists may develop other sources of light, in the near term we do not have reasonable replacements for most of the above uses.

Roger A. Baumann, P.E.
Tucson, Ariz.

Reflecting upon the editorial “Dim Bulbs” I feel that a more illuminating title would have been “Dim Wits.”

Does Congress understand that their beloved compact fluorescent light bulbs are miniature toxic bundles of mercury just waiting to pollute your local land fill? Does the public understand that their conventional light dimmers do not work with these bulbs? Just read the warning labels on the package.

Charles G. Battig, M.D.
Charlottesville, Va.

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{ 20 comments }

rjh December 27, 2007 at 8:01 am

It's almost as though the WSJ was conspiring with the eco-fundies to hurt the cause of economic liberty by picking silly strawman arguments. Far better is to stick to the arguments of freedom and democracy. CFLs cost only a dollar or two, so anyone who buys an incandescent either has a good reason, or is stupid and will pay a financial penalty. The price is low enough that poverty is no excuse for wrong decisions. Allow the people to make that decision. Don't have some national lighting dictator.

These letters contain too many strawmen and ignorant statements. Indicator lights are not incandescents any more. LED indicators are cheaper. They have all the voltage flexibility advantages, use only 5-30% of the electricity, and are better suited to robotic assembly. Manufacturers and engineers make this kind of decision for engineering financial reasons rather than political, and have been changing steadily to LED indicators.

Flashlights have a better excuse for incandescents, but LED bulbs are substantially superior (better beam, better color, much lower power, longer battery life). When LED costs drop some more they will be replacing the incandescent for flashlights. At the present, bright LEDs are expensive and LED flashlights are used primarily where brightness and battery life are worth the higher cost.

CFLs do contain mercury, but so does coal and bunker oil. The net emissions impact of CFLs is a decrease in mercury emissions. The reduced coal use (assuming 50% coal generated electricity) reduces mercury emissions by more than the amount of mercury in the CFLs. If the CFL is recycled (most are not) the advantage increases.

The dimmer disadvantage is a problem. There are CFLs that dim, but the variety of different dimmer technologies makes CFL dimming much more difficult. So out of all that is in the letters there is one legitimate problem with CFLs. It is hard to make a cost effective dimming CFL.

If you ignore the political arguments and examine engineering arguments you can find other CFL problems. There is a problem getting fast turn-on without sacrificing lifespan or efficiency. Theoretical solutions exist but making them cost effective will take several years. Also, CFLs do not work well when cold (e.g., outdoors in winter or in a refrigerator) or hot (e.g., oven lights).

CFLs cannot focus well for spot lighting. LEDs have problems as area lights, but make excellent spot lights. CFLs are naturally good as area lights. Incandescents are easy to use for specially shaped decorative lighting (e.g., fake candles), whereas neither CFLs nor LEDs can do that easily.

This law is stupid political grandstanding. A better economic approach is to let people decide. The incandescent use will plummet because CFLs are much more cost effective. The few remaining incandescents will either be in locations that need that technology, or purchased by people who want to waste money.

Light Snob December 27, 2007 at 8:12 am

I can't be the only one who thinks that CFLs in a house create a very cold, antiseptic, and office-like environment. I don't really mind them at the office, but even there, if I had the option, I'd go incandescent. In my home, the almost bluish white light doesn't jive with the fireplace.

Gil December 27, 2007 at 9:00 am

Dang! rjh beat me to the punch. Still articles such as these make me think "what bunch of Luddite stinkbugs"! If anything Libertarians are the types to complain about those who hanker for old inefficient technologies and yet a lot seem to have a love with incandescent light bulbs. Perhaps it's the naturally rebellious spirit of some, if incadenscents are being made illegal then Libertarians automatically want the old bulb to go against the grain.

But how old is this article though? Almost all bike lights are LEDs. There are LED Christmas tree lights and LED vehicle indicators. Similarly, it easy to pick LED torches that aren't particularly more expensive than standard bulb torches especially when you consider the greater battery life. Hell, you can get battery-less, wind-up LED torch and give it to a Survivalist friend! Similarly, CFLs use 20% of the power of the equivalent incadescents. 20%! Why exactly why would you want an incandescent bulb unless it had a specialized usage?

Maybe Libbers might complain against the legislated phase out but still I'm sure lighting technology will soon phase out the old bulbs anyway.

Gil December 27, 2007 at 9:01 am

Dang! rjh beat me to the punch. Still articles such as these make me think "what bunch of Luddite stinkbugs"! If anything Libertarians are the types to complain about those who hanker for old inefficient technologies and yet a lot seem to have a love with incandescent light bulbs. Perhaps it's the naturally rebellious spirit of some, if incadenscents are being made illegal then Libertarians automatically want the old bulb to go against the grain.

But how old is this article though? Almost all bike lights are LEDs. There are LED Christmas tree lights and LED vehicle indicators. Similarly, it easy to pick LED torches that aren't particularly more expensive than standard bulb torches especially when you consider the greater battery life. Hell, you can get battery-less, wind-up LED torch and give it to a Survivalist friend! Similarly, CFLs use 20% of the power of the equivalent incadescents. 20%! Why exactly why would you want an incandescent bulb unless it had a specialized usage?

Maybe Libbers might complain against the legislated phase out but still I'm sure lighting technology will soon phase out the old bulbs anyway.

Gil December 27, 2007 at 9:01 am

Aw crap! Sorry about the double post. X(

mcwop December 27, 2007 at 9:02 am

I am confident that the market will adapt to this and create new CFL's that address the shortcomings. I hate the light CFL's emit (especially for reading), but I imagine there will be coatings or different glass enclosures that will change the nature of the light (this is already happening).

Chris December 27, 2007 at 9:14 am

Dumb, dumb, dumb…. Why on earth is the government getting involved in how I choose to light my home? Don't I pay for the electricity these bulbs use?

If there's some sort of shortage of electricity, the correct approach is to let the power company increase prices. That gives me the option between using my A/C less, buying a more efficient clothes dryer or replacing my bulbs.

CRC December 27, 2007 at 10:01 am

Gil: "still I'm sure lighting technology will soon phase out the old bulbs anyway"

mcwop: "I am confident that the market will adapt to this and create new CFL's that address the shortcomings."

Then there should be no reason to mandate the changeover.

This reminds me of a commercial I keep seeing on TV that tells me that digital TV is so much better that it is becoming mandatory. The obvious question in the face of such assertions is "If it is so much better, why must it be mandated?"

Jon December 27, 2007 at 10:11 am

How DARE you question the collective wisdom of our magnificent legislature! (said tongue-in-cheek, of course)

Thanks Congress, I so wanted to make home seem more and more like a dentist's office.

mcwop December 27, 2007 at 10:18 am

CRC – I never said the regulation was necessary in this situation, but only that the market would adapt to it.

I am not necessarily opposed to environmental regulations, but too often the regulations are just terribly thought out – see Ethanol from corn mandate. If the goal is to reduce CO2, then tax the emissions, and let the market figure out the best ways to adapt, which may or may not be CFL's.

Bruce December 27, 2007 at 11:47 am

Dave Gardner

Can I flush my toilet now? I'm thinking I should, but I just can't make that decision without your far more enlightened input. While you're here, what should I eat for lunch?

rjh December 27, 2007 at 11:55 am

Gil, you are using the wrong tense. The market *HAS* adjusted to the demand for different color temperatures. There are presently four common phosphor choices, the original bright bluish white, a "daylight" that is actually a very close match to sunlight, a bright white and a soft white that are similar to the similarly named incandescents. The problem is education and marketing, because many people do not realize that these choices exist.

Also, if you read the new law, it does not mandate CFLs. It mandates a lumens per watt efficiency level. Any technology that meets this meets the law. I still think that this is a mistake. Pricing and marketplace will do better than a central dictator.

The present market numbers confirm this. From today's WSJ, the 2006 US sales for CFLs were 200 million, for incandescents 1.5 billion. CFLs are up 50%. Incandescents are down a few percent. If you adjust for the 10x longer life of CFLs, the marketplace is already somewhere between 20-50% CFL usage. The fuzziness is because sales do not separate new CFL installation from old CFL replacement.

This law is not needed. The marketplace and pricing have moved significantly and will have moved much further before the law takes effect. One of it's main purposes is protectionism. The major lighting vendors want some way to kill of the residual small players who cannot afford the manufacturing transition to CFLs and LEDs.

Chris December 27, 2007 at 12:07 pm

Dave Gardner –

(1) the pay-off does take time, but who are you to categorize my short-term decision as "silly"? It may very well be in my best interest to buy a can of baby formula and a box of incandescents today than a box of CFLs, even though my incandescents will raise my electricity bills by more than I save.

(2) If there are externalities, then the right solution is to internalize them — require the power companies to pay for their emissions (gosh, don't they already do that???)

If you're really concerned about wasting coal-generated electricity, then you should really favor allowing utilities to burn "clean" (i.e. western) coal instead of installing scrubbers. After all, the scrubbers consume an enormous portion (much more than light bulbs) of coal-generated electricity.

Stormy Dragon December 27, 2007 at 12:59 pm

Lightsnob:

They now make "Full spectrum CFL" bulbs that match the solar spectrum, providing an even more natural light source than standard incandescent bulbs.

G December 27, 2007 at 1:19 pm

rjh does a good job of pointing out the Hayekian notion that congress is simply incapable of understanding when certain bulbs should be used over others.

I love CFLs, even with their long warm-up time, because I hate having incandescents blow out all the time.

nordsieck December 27, 2007 at 2:18 pm

While I agree with the sentiment, most of the complaints above are canards ("pollute the landfills"? As for the first letter, all of the uses he questions have either been already taken over by LEDs(which happen to be WAY more energy efficient than CFLs) or are in the process thereof. The only real complaint is that dimmers don't work with CFLs.

Chris December 27, 2007 at 11:08 pm

nordsieck –

Here are a few more:

(1) CFLs do not work well in cold or hot environments and are thus not useful for outdoor lighting or lighting inside refrigerators or ovens. Refrigerators could be designed to make better use of LEDs; ovens are a bit harder. But, I'm not planning on replacing either my oven or my refrigerator in 5 years.

(2) CFLs are unattractive, when compared with clear incandescent bulbs, and are thus unsuitable for applications where the bulb is visible, such as in clear-glass fixtures or chandeliers.

(3) CFLs have a different shape than typical bulbs. As a result, they are incompatible with lamps where the shade clips on the lightbulb, or where there is little clearance between the bulb and something over it. (a CFL will not fit into the recessed fixture over my shower.)

(4) CFLs do not, and cannot, produce the same color spectrum as a tungston-filament bulb, because no tungston atoms are excited to make the CFL light. It's a minor point, but my bathroom is papered in beige and green, which looks great with the current 3-bulb fixture, but lousy with CFLs.

(5) Because of the color issue, CFLs are not as standardized as indandescents (where your only real choice is 60 or 100); as a result, people have to keep a wider variety of bulbs around.

I don't deny that if this dumb restriction actually stays put to 2012, the private sector will come up with alternatives. But, they'll all be trying to mimic what people actually want — incandescent bulbs.

The real beneficiary to this idiocy? The companies that hold the patents to the LED technologies. They'll make a killing.

Tim December 28, 2007 at 1:17 am

we've had the CFLs here for some time. the main problem i've noticed is that they are definitely dimmer, at least for the first ten minutes or so after being turned on.

this makes 'quick trips' into a room to look for something and then get out quickly more of a problem. as a result we tend to run them longer. both to get them to warm up and become brighter …and on spec. we leave them on more, so that if later in the evening we have to go into those CFL illuminated rooms, the light is already on and thus bright. so this behavioural change probably reduces the actual energy saving.

my mother is in her eighties and has CFLs provided by our local municipality. she has even more trouble with the poorer light quality and now finds herself 'losing things' more often and getting upset as a result.

the colour effects may even be worse than the poor brightness. mum finds herself unable to distinguish fine colour differences in her wardrobe and has made a few fashion faux pas as a result!

Russ Nelson December 28, 2007 at 8:48 am

If we must give up our freedom to save 'the environment', it isn't worth saving.

rjh December 28, 2007 at 2:48 pm

Mr Gardener, by the time the law takes effect more than 80% of the candidate sockets will be using CFLs. That is the present market trend in the absence of the law. How is this a problem that requires such a draconian step? How is this a "failure"? The market changed dramatically when the one year cost savings from CFLs equaled their purchase cost. Light bulbs are viewed as an expense item, not a capital purchase. When the ROI started to exceed 100%, sales took off. Now that the ROI is typically over 200%, sales are exploding.

Tim, there is a real startup effect. For more money you can get bulbs with better behavior. It's a cost tradeoff. I would leave the choice to you: instant on, very high electricity cost, 25 cent bulb (Incandescent), fast on, very low cost, $4 bulb (fast on CFL), slow on, very low electricity cost, $1 bulb (cheap CFL). The municipality went super cheap. You could pay a few dollars more. It's your choice. Include the cost of electricity in your analysis. For a frequently used light the higher cost for the fast on CFL still has a better than 100% ROI in electricity costs.

Chris, you do not understand color temperature physics and I doubt that most people actually prefer tungsten lighting. For starters, incandescents are a thermal emission process modified by bulb coatings. It can be fairly closely emulated by phosphor selection for the CFL. I can tell them apart with color targets and colorimetry, but not just by looking at uncalibrated scenes. The incandescent bright white looks like a CFL bright white.

The variety of lighting temperatures available for incandescents (clear bulb, soft white, bright white, etc.) makes it clear that the public has a mix of desires. CFLs can fit that mix. One reason that I use CFLs is for the daylight equivalents. Only CFL can do that effectively. I personally prefer the harsher daylight color temperature. For the same reason, I prefer a clear north sunlight. It gives the best lighting for detail work and feels better to me. That is one reason that artists prefer the north light. But this is just one of many different personal preferences in the marketplace. The color temperature argument is a canard.

Similarly, the brightness argument is a canard. All bulbs are rated for lumens. That is what counts. The brightness argument is based on bogus advertising and public innumeracy. A 100W incandescent will be 1600-1750 lumens. A 23W CFL is about 1400 Lumens and a 27W CFL is about 1800 lumens. The labels claim 23W is a 100W replacement. Duh. 1400 is less than 1600. (I know, advanced math like this is beyond the general public.) The problem is that the standard light levels for CFLs is not the same as the standard levels for incandescents. Decide whether you want a little bit brighter or a little bit dimmer. Comparing 1400, 1600, and 1800 is not that hard a math problem. You just need to read the labels. You might even find a CFL that is the same lumens as a 100W incandescent.

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