Monday, August 22, 2011

Saved From The Edison Light Bulb

While the politicians in Washington haven’t been able to do anything serious about unemployment, the economy, or the out-of-control government spending, it is reassuring to keep in mind that they can, in fact, solve big, important, pressing problems from time to time. Congress can rise to the occasion. For example, come January 1, Congress’s solution to one of the most serous problems to confront America in recent times will kick in. As of that date, a bill passed by Congress will save us from a deathly hazard that threatens “the nation’s future and collective health”, as the luminaries at the L. A. Times put it. That threat is the light bulb invented by Thomas Edison.

Take heart, my beleaguered friends. Your 401k may have tanked, you may not have a job or any prospects for one, the U.S. Government may have less cash on hand than Apple Computer, you may have to pay an amount for your little cherubim’s college education that would have gotten a building named after you in the old days, the comrads in Washington may want to raise your taxes to cover their profligate spending because you don’t pay what they consider to be your “fair share”, Iran may be about to nuke up, the country may lurch from economic and budgetary crisis to crisis, but at least you no longer have to worry about incandescent light bulbs. Those are the ones that have that horrid little filament in them. You know, the type of light bulbs we’ve been using for the last 130 years or so.

I’m sure you have been worried about them, unless you are a dim bulb indeed. As you no doubt know, incandescent light bulbs are energy hogs of the worst sort. They suck up energy like Fat Albert chowing down on the vittles over at the all-you-can-eat catfish and hush puppy shack. You have noticed that incandescent light bulbs do that, haven’t you? Pay no attention to your air conditioner or heat pump; it’s those evil light bulbs that are wreaking destruction on you and the world.

But you have been saved. You no longer have to live in fear of incandescent light bulbs. You can now rest easy; CFL’s (compact fluorescent lamps) have arrived just in the nick of time.

Umm, well, those CFL’s do have some very minor problems, but you needn’t worry your pretty little self about any of that.

What are those problems, you say? My, my, my, aren’t you the curious one. It’s nothing, really, nothing.

Oh, OK, since you insist.

First of all, CFL’s contain mercury, an extremely dangerous substance. It’s a small amount, to be sure, but it’s mercury none the less.

If, God forbid, one of those Earth-saving CFL’s happens to break in your house, people and pets must immediately evacuate (avoiding the “breakage area” on the way out), windows and/or doors should be opened to air the place out, central heating or air conditioning is to be turned off, and then you are to follow the seven step Hazmat clean-up procedure published by the EPA. If you use a vacuum cleaner in the clean-up process, the vacuum cleaner bag must be sealed in a plastic bag and immediately removed from the house.

Because of this problem with broken CFL’s, the EPA also recommends that a drop cloth be used when replacing a CFL, in case it is dropped and broken.

Since the CFL’s contain mercury, disposal is also a problem. Again, one CFL contains only a very small amount of mercury, but with the millions upon millions of them that will be used over the years, the total amount of mercury involved is significant. If the used bulbs are thrown into the trash, you’d better make sure you don’t use a trash compactor that will crush them. Even if the used CFL’s make it out to curbside unbroken, they will get deposited in a landfill to be pushed around by a bulldozer that will no doubt break them, and all of that mercury will eventually seep into the ground water. Or you could take your used CFL’s to a recycling center (being sure to tell them what you have), and let them worry about it.

Other than all of that mercury stuff, the CFL’s are just great.

Well, there is one other very trivial problem. Some CFL’s have been known to smoke or catch on fire. The August 2011 issue of Consumer Reports had an article under the title “Bulbs pose fire hazard” discussing this and identifying the CFL’s that have been recalled.

Did I mention that CFL’s typically cost several times as much as an incandescent bulb? No matter, you’ll recoup that extra cost by means of reduced electricity usage and longer bulb life.


The Department of Energy has said that mandatory use of CFL’s will save 15 quadrillion BTU’s over the next thirty years, or about 0.013 percent of U.S. energy usage. You will personally save pennies upon pennies in your monthly electric bill.

But your saving could well be eaten up by the greater cost of the CFL’s, since it turns out that they are not lasting nearly as long as expected. Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) in California has reported that CFL’s are lasting an average of 6.3 years verses the 9.4 that they initially estimated, or thirty-three percent less. An article in the Weekly Standard reported that a quarter of CFL’s only achieved about 40% of their projected life span. It seems that the life span tests were done under ideal conditions; e.g., turning the lamp on and leaving it on continuously. Surprise, surprise; in the real world, lights aren’t used that way. They are turned on and off, sometimes frequently, and that kind of usage reduces their life span. This is something that the incandescent people at GE and Sylvania have known for at least a hundred years, but it somehow escaped the notice of the CFL people until after they had convinced Congress to pass a law on the matter.

The last light bulb factory in the U.S. has closed, and it is most likely that CFL’s will ultimately be made only in China. The additional transportation costs should be factored into the CFL cost saving calculation, but it is difficult to do as accurately. The additional cost is there, though. And so much for “buying local”.

In any event, please join me in giving thanks that we live in a country where we have a government wise and caring enough to save us from incandescent light bulbs. That is of great comfort to me as I consider all of the other problems we face in this country.

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