January 1, 2014

Bye-bye, old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs

Traditional 40- and 60-watt incandescent bulbs can no longer be made in or shipped to the United States, and they won’t be on store shelves much longer.

They say all good things must come to an end.

Now it’s time to add old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs to a growing list of products — from rotary telephones to record players — that will soon become just vague memories.

A multiyear phaseout of incandescent bulbs, used for decades in lamps, light fixtures and porch lights, is wrapping up. As of Wednesday, no more traditional 60- or 40-watt incandescent bulbs can be made in or shipped to the United States.

The change was part of a landmark energy independence act signed by President George W. Bush in 2007 that touched on a variety of conservation issues, including lighting efficiency.

Some local congressional leaders who fought to prevent the measure from becoming law say they wish the phaseout wasn’t included.

Now, they say, consumers are faced with mostly more expensive options — swirled compact fluorescent, LED and halogen bulbs.

“A lot of people are frustrated,” said U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, who has fought the light bulb measure for years. “Why, of all things the government has to worry about, is it worrying about this?

“I wish I had been able to stop this.”

New products

The act doesn’t ban incandescent bulbs but sets new standards for them, such as requiring that they be more efficient because much of the energy leaves the bulb as heat rather than light.

The first new standards affected 100- and 75-watt bulbs. Now efficiency standards are in effect for 60- and 40-watt bulbs.

The law prevents manufacturers from making and importers from shipping unimproved bulbs to the U.S. to sell. But it does not prevent consumers from buying nonconforming bulbs that remain on store shelves or from using bulbs already in their homes.

Shoppers “will see a growing mix of products available,” said Kyle Pitsor, vice president for government relations at the Virginia-based National Electrical Manufacturers Association, which represents most light bulb makers in the U.S.

“Consumers are seeing new labels on the light bulb packages so they can compare [watts] they were using to a product that produces the same amount of light but uses fewer watts,” he said. “This is a transition. It will take some time for consumers to find light bulbs that suit their illumination needs in the cheapest way.”

Case of ‘overregulation’

Republican legislators have repeatedly tried to overturn the law. They haven’t succeeded, but Burgess did lead an effort to prevent the Energy Department from spending money to enforce the new rules.

Consumers can still stock up on traditional bulbs that remain on store shelves, and that’s good news to Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, another opponent of the law.

“I am happy that at least for now people are still allowed to choose the light bulbs they want to illuminate their homes,” said Barton, whose district includes Arlington. “This means Americans … can continue to flip the switch on an affordable and reliable product instead of turning to one that costs five times more and may not live up to manufacturers’ promises.”

Barton has worked for years to give consumers freedom from government regulation of light bulbs.

“This battle has been based on the principles of a free market,” he said. “I’m not [against] new technology or higher energy efficiency. I just think people should be able to decide on their own. This was a blatant case of government interference and overregulation.”

In 2011, state lawmakers passed a bill that lets Texans skirt federal efforts to promote more efficient bulbs. Gov. Rick Perry signed it into law, allowing any incandescent bulb made and sold in Texas to avoid the authority of the federal government.

“I don’t believe anyone ever took them up on this,” Burgess said. “The [federal law] had a chilling effect on manufacturers.”

Pros and cons

The incandescent bulb can be traced to Thomas Edison, who in the late 1800s developed a light that first burned for nearly 14 hours.

Inexpensive to produce, this type of bulb has been used through the years in everything from homes and businesses to flashlights and car headlights. Newer technologies have led to new types of bulbs.

Energy Department officials say traditional bulbs waste up to 90 percent of their energy as heat. They say replacing a 60-watt incandescent bulb with a 13-watt compact fluorescent bulb can save a household at least $30 in energy costs during the life of that bulb — which can be 10 times longer than that of an incandescent bulb. Many incandescent bulbs last 750 to 1,000 hours.

Fluorescent bulbs can cost more than $3 each; incandescent bulbs can cost around 50 cents each. Some LED bulbs can cost $30 or more apiece.

Once more efficient bulbs are used, consumers will save $13 billion on electric bills, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-based environmental group.

Energy Star statistics show that if one light bulb in every American home were replaced with an Energy Star-approved compact fluorescent, enough energy would be saved to light 3 million U.S. homes a year, reduce energy costs by about $600 million and prevent 9 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions, the amount generated by about 800,000 cars.

Opponents say they worry about fluorescent bulbs because they contain mercury, a toxic metal linked to birth defects and behavior disorders. Estimates show the average bulb has 4 to 5 milligrams of mercury, enough to cover the tip of a ballpoint pen. No mercury is emitted while the bulbs are in use, but vapors can escape if a bulb breaks.

Supporters say the health risks are minimal. They believe that incandescent bulbs are archaic and can easily be replaced by fluorescent bulbs that last longer, are more environmentally friendly and don’t create the same fire hazards.

“The light bulb efficiency [provision] was to drive the incandescent bulb out of existence,” Burgess said. “From the consumer’s standpoint, there is nothing that can compete with incandescent bulbs.

“The process, unfortunately for the consumer, is going forward,” he said. “There will be less and less availability.”

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