Congress' Light Bulb Law: Not So Bright

Thank goodness I’m not imagining it. Others also have big problems with the new-fangled light bulbs Congress is forcing on us.

My eyes are straining from bulbs that aren’t as bright. What IS lighter is my wallet, because the new bulbs cost so much more.

And they’re being sold under false pretenses. I paid about $5 for a new bulb advertised to save me money by lasting seven years. It burned out in three weeks.

The changeover is also transferring American jobs overseas. General Electric announced in August that it is closing incandescent-bulb plants in Kentucky, Ohio and Virginia.

And it’s causing mischief such as in Ohio, where electric companies recently tried to “give” Chinese-made new-style bulbs to customers, and then add inflated bulb prices to home utility bills.

Preach to me all you want about longer-life, energy savings, comparative lumens, or the scientific study of your choice. But don’t expect me to believe anything that contradicts personal experience.

My complaints are widely-held but poorly-publicized. Buried in the back pages are details about the new bulbs: poorer quality lighting; overstated claims of long life; and that they’re mostly (80%) made in China.

I’ve always shopped for sales on packs of four incandescent bulbs, paying only 67 cents a pack just a year ago. That’s under 17 cents per bulb, whether I picked 60-watt, 75-watt or 100-watt. Now the new curlicue-bulbs (yes, I know the correct name is compact fluorescent bulb — CFLs — but I go by the shape) average about $3.50. For a single bulb, not a package.

Maybe bulb manufacturers didn’t fight the global-warming extremists who pushed the new law because there is less profit margin on inexpensive items. As one wholesale light bulb website notes, a standard markup is 30% for the wholesaler, plus 30% for the retailer. That yields immensely bigger profits on a $3.50 bulb than on a 17-cent bulb.

Those multi-year guarantees? Fine print reveals that’s if you only burn them 3 hours a day. Must I ration my time to stay less than 3 hours in each room of my home? And that still doesn’t explain bulbs that conk out in three weeks. One lighting showroom reports that the “seven-year” bulbs tend to last six months under normal conditions.

Even if a seven-year-bulb lasts only two, good luck locating your receipt and finding a store that will give a refund after more than 90 days. I didn’t mind a bulb that costs about a quarter burning out, but my expectations and frustrations rise with the price.

It used to be easy to buy a light bulb — grab and go. Now I join shoppers hunched over in the light-bulb aisle, trying to decipher the fine print of the new-fangled bulbs, making my eye strain even worse. Can I solve my problems if I focus on lumens? Color temperature? Or the wattage? Supposedly, the best guide is a CRI (Color Rendering Index) of 85 to 90 — but it’s usually omitted because most bulbs fall far short.

Relying on the claimed brightness — lumens — still left me in dim light. It doesn’t work, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute agrees with me. Their Lighting Research Center finds that CFL bulb-makers don’t shoot straight with us. If the package claims a 15-watt CFL will replace a 60-watt incandescent, don’t believe it; Rensselaer says you would need 20 watts of the CFL variety  Packaging tends to equate new wattage to old by using a 1:4 ratio, but Rensselaer says a 1:3 ratio is more accurate. But buying the right wattage still won’t fix the lower washed-out-look quality of the light produced by most CFLs.

Even some proponents are expressing doubts about what they’ve imposed on us. Buried within a New York Times in January, I found the confessions of a self-described CFL advocate: Michael Siminovitch, director of the California Lighting Technology Center at the University of California, Davis. “In the pursuit of the holy grail, we stepped on the consumer,” he admits. The new bulbs are “falling short.”

“On quality of light,” he said, “Incandescent light sources typically are very flattering in terms of rendering skin and enhancing how we look. … Compact fluorescents … produce less color quality. … So consumers are dissatisfied — and rightfully so.”

On longevity? They’re “not lasting quite as long as consumers have been led to believe. … they don’t last very long,” Siminovitch said. What he describes is a classic bait and switch. The CFLs that would perform as advertised would cost even more than the already-expensive bulbs we’re being sold.

So throw away all those calculations about supposed energy savings by switching to CFLs. They’re talking about a different bulb than you’re probably buying. Since the quality and longevity claims are exaggerated, so then are the energy savings.

Siminovitch says buyers need to do more research (more hours in that store aisle!): “If you would go into any hardware store and buy an incandescent lamp, they’re all virtually exactly the same. That’s the strength of that technology. They all look the same, they all work the same and they all have great color. The only problem with them is they’re very inefficient.”

He’s talking about energy converted to heat. But in winter, when bulbs are used the most, that very heat is an asset that reduces home heating bills.

On top of all this, there are miscellaneous hassles. New bulbs don’t always fit under a lampshade. They don’t usually work with a dimmer switch. The new bulbs are ugly. Curlicues wreck the appeal of decorative bulbs shaped like flames or globes. And CFLs contain mercury, a hazardous waste, so the EPA wants you to discard them only according to its guidelines.

You may want to stock up on the incandescent bulbs before their mandatory phase-out starts in 2012.  And beware more dictates that are forthcoming in the next energy bill.

If the new light bulbs were so good, they would sell themselves. They wouldn’t need government to force them on us. That’s how Thomas Edison did it with his invention. We should follow his enlightening example.