Why the incandescent deserves its death

First off, there is no law actually calling for the death of the incandescent.  The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 actually states something along the lines of :

… requires all general-purpose light bulbs that produce 310–2600 lumens of light be 30% more energy efficient (similar to current halogen lamps) than current incandescent bulbs by 2012 to 2014. The efficiency standards will start with 100-watt bulbs in January 2012 and end with 40-watt bulbs in January 2014.

So it doesn’t explicitly say you can’t use incandescents, it just lays out standards that light bulbs have to meet, and most indancescents aren’t going to cut it.  The actual text regarding to the incandescent’s demise can be seen in Section 321 of the full bill, found here.

But aside from the actual wording of the law, the fact is that the incandescent is going the way of the Dodo bird.  There are many in this country who are outraged.  They feel like the Federal government has no right to tell them what bulb they can and can’t use.  And I can see their argument…to a point.  Before we actually look at why the incandescent deserves to die, let’s look at why replacements for the incandescent – CFLs and LEDs – are finally making sense for homeowners.

In the near term, most people will be replacing incandescents with CFLs.  There were a lot of problems with early batches of CFLs, but the ones I have in my house have worked great.  Make sure that you pick the right color temperature (the color of light the bulb puts out).  For the CFLs I buy, I picked a color temperature close to incandescents, and it is a great match and brighter.  There are no start-up delay issues that I’ve heard about with other CFLs.  Basically, when it comes to bulb quality, you may have to do a little more research than you did with incandescents, but it will be worth it.

Which brings us to payback.  I have a lighting cost calculator on our post Best Lighting Cost Calculator which showed that over a 5 year time frame CFLs and LEDs far outperformed incandescents on a cost basis.   From a life-cycle cost perspective, CFLs outperform incandescents in just a few months.  LEDs still may take a few years but the cost of LEDs seems to be coming down every 6 months!

Finally you have the concern that some people have about mercury in CFLs.  I addressed this in our post Let’s put Mercury in CFLs in Perspective.  If you read this post and you’re still worried about CFLs, lucky for you that LEDs are finally getting affordable!

Now we come to the reasons I support the death of the incandescent!

In most cases, I am for limited government intervention.  I probably subscribe closest to the Libertarian political ideology.  I usually champion the free markets and the power they have to bring about honest human decisions.  But there is one area that free markets fail miserably in, and that is for accounting for externalities.  This is where things get interesting when it comes to the banning of the incandescent.

People like incandescents because they like the color they put out, but mostly because they have a cheap initial cost.  Humans are notoriously awful at factoring in long term operational costs, and are more concerned with the initial price we pay.  Basically, humans aren’t wired to make the most sustainable (from an environmental and economical) decision.  People don’t want the government telling them what they can and can not buy for their hard earned dollar.  But while incandescents are cheap to buy, they are much more expensive to operate over the long term, and that is because they are so energy inefficient.  Most of the electricity used in an incandscent is lost to heat, about 90%.  And chances are that the majority of that electricity was generated by fossil fuel power.  As we all know, fossil fuel power production pollutes the environment much more other forms of power production.

So by effectively banning the incandescent bulb the government is limiting the harmful effects of fossil fuel power production pollution that society encounters.

To those who say that the government has no right to tell them what bulb they can buy I ask, “What right do you have to pollute my air?”  It’s the same reason I am against smoking cigarettes in public places.  I’m fine with the fact that cigarette smokers want to shorten their life for a little nicotine buzz, but I’m not fine with the fact that I have to suffer for their enjoyment.

I believe it is the government’s job to protect the air we breathe, because we all know the free-market has no chance at this.  Is the incandescent the best target?  Who knows….but it sure is a start.

More importantly, what do YOU think?

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Tags: ban, incandescent


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Comment by Chris Kaiser on May 31, 2011 at 1:31pm


Your points make perfect sense, and it's something I struggle with (advocating regulation).  Obviously it's a gray area right?  I mean, surely you would be for regulation preventing your neighbor from burning tires in their backyard.  But you'd probably be fine if they just had a pile of leaves they needed to burn.  So do you regulate no burning in the backyard, or only no burning tires, or what if it is just a small tire from a tricycle?  The area is gray, but at some point, we - as a society - need to look at all the facts and say, "Is there a sufficient technical replacement for this old technology that will serve a greater good to society and is that replacement at a price point that society can bear".  I think we're there for lighting...your other examples I'm not so sure of.

Comment by Ira Eisenstein on May 31, 2011 at 1:12pm


I am an energy auditor, so I recommend CFL's and LED's to my home energy audit clients.

I was "with you" up until the last paragraph.

You say your views are close to libertarian, but then you take the hard-left-liberal stance that someone who wants to use an incandescent is "polluting your air".

If you take that position with regard to bulbs, how about plasma TV's? Should we legislate them out of existence in favor of LCD or LED TV's?

Maybe let's regulate any car that gets lower gas mileage than a Chevy Volt or Toyota Prius into oblivion... Don't want to be letting us common folk choose a vehicle that we like if it means that vehicle will be polluting your air more than a Prius, etc.

Next thing the government will be telling us all what kind of food we can and can't eat, and what kind of _____ (fill in the blank with the product of your choice) we can buy.....   Wait a minute, they're doing that already!

We are not Europe here... We are supposed to have freedom of choice in this country.

That's why Baskin Robbins has 31 flavors!

I drive a Prius because it makes sense to me to drive a Prius, but if I wanted to drive a Hummer, that should be my decision, not the government's.


Outside of that disagreement, I think everything else you said makes complete sense!


Comment by Ed Voytovich on May 31, 2011 at 12:53pm

One factor that didn't make the list of reasons people prefer incandescent bulbs is the very fundamental principle that people . . . don't . . . like . . . change. 

Hemlines?  Well, OK, but remember what Oscar Wilde said about that:  "Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months." 

Suggest a light color for their new roof and they'll pretend to stick their fingers down their throats and gag.   Try to explain that casement windows perform better than double-hungs and the odds are 99 to one that they'll say "but all the houses here have double hung windows." 

Mention at a cocktail party that it might not be an entirely good idea to use potable water to flush toilets.  You may not be invited back. 

The human species is not unique in this resistance to change.  Ever move from one house to another near by and try to explain it to your cat? 
Comment by Tom Barrett on May 31, 2011 at 12:50pm

CFLs and LEDs need to go back to the old days of having a replaceable lamp and a separate ballast. When we first started installing the ol' PL lamps, the ballast was a separate component and when the lamp burned out it was replaced. The current paradigm of throw-away CFLs and LEDs is wasteful. CFL ballasts can last 4 or 5 lamp lives and from what I understand about LEDs the lamp may last 50,000 hours but the ignitors don't so in that case the ballast should be replaceable (actually I haven't had any LEDs last more than a 10,000 hours yet.

While everyone thinks about the mercury in CFL lamp, there is also a circuit board (the electronic ballast) that is lead soldered. Not to mention the electronic components - what are they made of? I don't think the whole story is out on embedded costs of CFLs or LEDs, however, in the long run they probably are much better than incandescents (which also have lead solder in the base) and would be a heck of a lot more environmental friendly if they were two piece units with replaceable lamps. At least the dedicated fixtures are, now if the thread-based ones were....

Comment by Dennis McCarthy on May 31, 2011 at 12:15pm

Bemoaning the loss of impractical lighting -GEEZ-  Its the era of LED lighting.The trend will lead to more, superior LED lighting in every application.  CFLs, the're soon to be as relevant as typewriters!

. Whether incan or fluorescent,  hearing people discussing old tech lights is similar to advocacy of a VCR or Dvd player -Its just No longer the way its done- eventually old tech lighting its  demand

 and production will go away - replaced with solid state stuff. (LEDs)


The reality is confirmed by this fact - your computers display , your phone -forms of SSL you were not

forced to go with- "new" tech - you kinda acquiesed and bought in+ got the new style item.- most reading this have flat screen (LED ) TVs- as another example!


the market  offerings just evolve- -so yeah- just as the days of CRT screens and even

LCD screens etc, came and went- the same will be said about the inefficient lighting thats still in use.

 Those -CFL Incandescent lamps are relics- the sooner the're gone the better!

So out with the old and in with the new-Solid state lighting!!!


At this point a helpful lighting piece would be " how to discern LED lumenaire quality characteristics" Or something like that! Or"  what kind of realistic lifespan expectations should I have for a $50 lamp"-                    Or why are my 1 yr old LED lights showing a shift in their color output. Lighting questions like those are alot

more relevant than Cfls and whether they will be "forced on us"- alot of us are way past CFL use.

Comment by Neely Crane-Smith on May 31, 2011 at 11:24am

I've seen several comments by users on using incandescent light bulbs as useful heating sources during the winter.  I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota where 55% of our homes' energy use goes towards space conditioning.  While incandescents can (in some cases) provide a little bit of useful heat, they aren't a smart choice for heating for many reasons - the most important being cost.  Here in Minnesota, electricity is nearly three times more expensive that natural gas.  Whatever useful heat one gains from the use of incandescent light bulbs is being purchased at three times the rate than the heat coming from one's furnace or boiler; and in a time where many Minnesota families are facing real financial challenges, paying 3x for heating can have a big effect.  Also, because lighting is typically placed near the top of the thermal envelope, some of that useful heat from incandescents is lost to the attic - a place where you certainly don't want heat escaping in cold climates!  Lastly, that useful heat in the winter isn't as useful during the spring, summer and fall.  It is much cheaper for homeowners to purchase and use EnergyStar-rated compact fluorescent light bulbs in high use areas and use light bulbs for lighting and heating appliances for heating.

Comment by Chris Kaiser on May 31, 2011 at 8:00am
Robert, I'm sure the embodied energy in a CFL is more than an incandescent, but I'm guessing the embodied energy makes up a very, very, very tiny amount of the lifetime energy.  I have a lighting energy and cost calculator on our post on best lighting cost comparison.  Using that calculator, you can see that if you had a bulb on for 2 hrs. a day, over 5 years you will use 3 incandescents and 208 kWh.  Over that same time period you will use 1 CFL and 51 kWh.  That's a 157 kWh and 2 bulb difference!  I can assure you that the embodied energy of the CFL is well below this.  But I agree that it would be nice to have a paper on it.  The careful disposal of mercury however is still an issue that needs to be monitored.
Comment by Robert DV on May 30, 2011 at 3:28pm
Thanks fmrubinstein.  Hard for me to imagine that though considering the energy it takes to make ceramics and most retrofit lamps have a ceramic base.  Not to mention the copper for the circuitry and the additional glass.  Still not sure how to model the mercury in the LCA.  There is a considerable amount more raw material that needs to be processed...Couple that with the heat energy gained in a heating climate and I just can't buy into it.  I don't think the entire picture has been brought to light.
Comment by fmrubinstein on May 30, 2011 at 1:10pm
One CFL has about twice the embodied energy as a single incandescent lamp. Since you'd need at least 4 incandescent lamps to achieve the lifetime of even one CFL, on a life cycle basis, there's at least twice the embodied energy in incandescent lamps than in CFLs. This analysis will give little comfort to CFL-bashers.
Comment by Chris Kaiser on May 30, 2011 at 12:14pm

James, that's a good thought, but as one of the commenters on my original blog post pointed out:

"The fact that current halogens meet the law is interesting, too. Ikea sells them; they are fairly cheap, and have none of the CFL drawbacks (real or perceived). They do still cost slightly more though."

"http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/80176123 – $2 each. Not as efficient as a CFL, but 30% better than an incandescent… to be honest I haven’t tried them (I like my CFLs well enough) but it seems like a viable option for the CFL-haters."

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