Kill The Myth: Incandescent Bulbs Are Not Banned

Don't like the government telling you to buy a CFL? There's no need to take up arms. There's still an incandescent bulb for you. It's just a little more efficient.

There is a race is on to build better incandescent bulbs that meet the next generation of energy standards. But there's a ban, you say? To listen to Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, you would think that the FBI will soon be breaking down our doors in search of illicit illumination.

Despite what you've heard, Congress' Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) "doesn't ban any type of lighting," says Laura Moorefield, a senior researcher at Ecos Consulting. "It just raises the efficiency standards a small amount." Understandably, you may have been misled by error-laden columns and news stories about a "ban" in the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, New York Post, Forbes.com, and Washington Times (chronicled by Media Matters). There is also at least one at MSNBC. They all suggest that incandescents have been outlawed by Congress.

They have not. Once the law begins to take effect next year, wattages for 100 watt bulbs are required to drop by about 30%. That means a former 100 watt bulb will use only 72 watts, yet emit a comparable amount of light. The law will be phased in over the next several years affecting 75 watt bulbs in 2013, then 60 watt and 40 watt bulbs in 2014. The new incandescent bulbs employ a small halogen capsule with an incandescent element that looks and operates just like a conventional bulb, while producing the same quality of light and using less energy. These halogen incandescents already meet or exceed the standards set by the EISA. To say it another way, incandescent bulbs are not banned. In fact, you may even have been buying EISA-compliant incandescents since 2009 when they first hit store shelves.

Should you run out and buy them (assuming you were not among the hoarders stashing the old clunkers in your attic)? Well, it helps to put this in terms of dollars and cents. The estimated cost of incandescent bulbs over six years is about $75.30 accounting for energy and replacement bulbs. That compares to $61.02 for the high efficiency incandescents, and just $19.62 for CFLs, according to a comparison guide released by the Natural Resources Defense Council. You may want to wait until the next generation of technology comes out. The newest LED bulbs, although priced at about $15 to $50 each, last almost half a century (25,000 to 50,000 hours) under normal use and draw a fraction of the energy consumed by the old electron guzzlers. Best of all, the light is almost the same as incandescents. New choices are arriving soon: Last week, we reported on the new Philips LED bulb that won the Department of Energy's L Prize, designed to replace some of the 425 million 60 watt bulbs sold in the U.S. every year.

But some are sticking to their Edisons. If you're one of them, the new halogen incandescents that meet the EISA's requirements are sold under a variety of brand names, including Philips' Halogena Energy Saver at Home Depot, the Sylvania SuperSaver available at Lowes, and a GE bulb sold at Walmart. If your less traditional tastes run more toward cheap and efficient, CFLs are the way to go.

And while we're busting myths, CFLs will not make your home a Superfund site. The tiny amount of mercury in the bulbs (smaller than the size of a period in this sentence), is not dangerous to your health if you break the occasional bulb. In fact, it is less hazardous than eating more than two tuna fish sandwiches a week (according to the EPA's guidelines for mercury contamination in seafood), and also much less than the mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants which polluted your tuna fish sandwich and air in the first place. Coal pollution, as it turns out, presents a more serious threat to human health and the environment than broken CFLs. Finally, you can also recycle your CFLS at Home Depot or a site near you.

Consider yourself illuminated.

[Image: Flickr user phozographer [doing a 365]]

Reach Michael J. Coren via Twitter or email.

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