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ALTOM: See the light, and get on the fluorescent bandwagon

January 16, 2010

It’s hard to imagine an invention more commonly used than the light bulb. It’s a shame that by 2014 we probably won’t be able to buy them anymore, at least not as readily as we do now. Something will be missing from our lives when that finally happens. The light bulb has been an icon ever since it was invented by the Englishman Humphrey Davy in 1802.

What? No Edison?

Actually, Edison was an inventor-come-lately in this race. He perfected it, but he didn’t invent it. Historians Robert Friedel and Paul Israel have identified 22 inventors of incandescent lamps prior to the creation of a recognizable vacuum bulb with an electrical filament in it by the Englishman Joseph Wilson Swan in 1860. He received a United Kingdom patent for it in 1878, a year prior to Edison’s claim.

Edison, however, contributed three things: a much superior vacuum in the bulb; a power generation system suitable for lighting; and a cravenly untruthful public relations campaign claiming to have invented the bulb. Swan wasn’t put off, though. He did a deal with Edison that would allow the Humbug of Menlo Park to sell bulbs in the United States while retaining UK rights for himself.

Today the light bulb is everywhere, and it’s grown into lots of variations. One of the earliest changes was to eliminate the filament entirely. The original light bulb worked by passing electricity through a resistant substance, which in turn produced enough heat to glow. The ordinary light bulb is essentially a tiny space heater in a vacuum. It may be bright, but it costs a lot to run because it’s so inefficient.

Remarkably, taking out the filament makes it more efficient. Jack up the voltage high enough, fill the glass with a gas that can be heated until it gives off a nice high-energy ultraviolet light, and coat the glass with a substance that will glow white when it’s heated by ultraviolet, and you have today’s fluorescent lamp. Complicated, but much cheaper to run. It lasts longer than an incandescent bulb and consumes considerably less energy for the light it produces.

The latter virtue convinced the U.S. government to get rid of most incandescent bulbs by 2014. Except for specialty bulbs, the old familiar light bulb is going away. The new curlicue “compact fluorescent lamps,” or “CFLs” will replace them. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 requires that all general-purpose bulbs be 30-percent more efficient than they are today, a mandate incandescents just can’t reach. It’s estimated that switching entirely to fluorescents for interior illumination will save 75 percent of the electricity presently used for lighting.

The magazine Fast Company says that if all American households switched just one incandescent for a fluorescent today, it would save enough electricity to power a city of 1.5 million people. This runaway efficiency explains why almost every business office you’ve ever been in has fluorescent fixtures instead of incandescent ones. Dollar for dollar and lumen for lumen, there’s no comparison.

We’re not the only country doing this, either. The Philippines, Switzerland, Ireland, Australia, Great Britain, Argentina and Venezuela have all announced legislation or other plans to get rid of incandescents, or at least reduce their numbers.

CFLs may be great for the economy and the power grid, but might not benefit each of us directly. Those big fluorescent lamps overhead really do last longer and save money, but the new curlicue bulbs haven’t yet been shown to be so durable. The new bulbs are several times more expensive, too. CFLs contain trace amounts of mercury, so they shouldn’t be summarily tossed into the trash when they fail. Anyone who has spent much time in offices already lit entirely by fluorescents can testify to the harsh, flat light they produce, and how many people get headaches from them. The incandescent bulb glows with a color mix not unlike firelight. Fluorescents are more reminiscent of sunlight reflected from snow.

CFLs don’t last long in applications where they’re turned on for only brief periods, like in closets or storerooms. CFLs don’t currently dim well, either, although we’re being promised dimmable ones soon. Interior designers are unhappy about the switch, because it reduces their design options.

If your organization uses and likes the old bulbs, stock up. Some bulbs will still be available, such as low-voltage, small-wattage and high-wattage bulbs. Floodlight bulbs for outside security fixtures should be on the shelves indefinitely, for example, and Christmas tree lights won’t be fluorescent in the foreseeable future. As for the rest, you may have to smuggle them into the country along with Cuban cigars. Or perhaps you can’t after all—Cuba is switching to fluorescents, too.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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