Ready for the big switcheroo?

Been down to your local hardware store recently to replace several of those annoying 60 W bulbs that seem to pop off without warning? “Sorry, sir, we’re out of regular bulbs, but here’s some potential replacements that will cost you a little more and, we hope, will last you longer.” The bulbs offered come with a guarantee and a booklet of instructions that will take you a full hour to read.

So you try again at the nearest Home Depot store. But this time, you are confronted by a huge wall of bulbs in bubble packs that require special tools to open. This time, you read the fine print and consult with the “sales associates” and succeed merely in bending the box cutter. Welcome to the death of the incandescent light bulb and the birth of the brave new world of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

Just in case you were unaware, most industrial nations are intending to ban the venerable incandescent light bulb developed by Thomas Edison in 1879. Although inexpensive to manufacture, incandescent lamps are very inefficient—90% of the energy consumed is lost as heat. Legislation in most countries will phase out incandescent bulbs by 2014 (including in North America and Europe).

Compact fluorescents cost $2 to $5 per bulb, depending on the lumens emitted, and LEDs cost $10 to $50, depending on the light output. However, CFLs have a typical lifetime of 8000 to 10,000 hours and LEDs typically last for 25,000 hours, and come with a guarantee. CFLs are likely to be an interim product that will gradually fall back as more powerful LEDs appear.

Prices of LEDs are expected to fall sharply before the end of this decade. LEDs are expected to be the dominant product in domestic and business office lighting by 2015. Energy savings in US households are projected to total $5 million in 2015.

The US Big Three incandescent light bulb makers (General Electric, Osram Sylvania, and Philips Electronics North America) are busily building manufacturing facilities and developing more powerful LEDs for worldwide markets. The marketplace is also attracting smaller LED makers such as Cree (Durham, NC), Lighting Sciences Group (Satellite Beach, FL), and Switch Lighting Co. (San Jose, CA).

New 100 W LEDs were much in evidence at the lighting industry’s booming trade show, LightFair, held in Philadelphia at the end of May 2011. According to the US Department of Energy (DoE), 450 lm lamps (40 W incandescent equivalent) and 800 lm lamps (60 W incandescent equivalent) are already widely available. LEDs outputting 1000 W may be available by the end of 2012.

So what can you do as the market for incandescent bulbs disappears and along with it your favorite bulbs? Well, you could make like one European consumer and build your own stockpile. This desperate individual has filled his basement with more than 1000 brand-new traditional bulbs. Reportedly, he plans to store even more as long as his local hardware store permits bulk purchases. But as the English medieval king Canute found out, it is not possible to turn back the tide. So you will have to adapt your needs to the widely available CFL and LCD lamps.

That should not be too difficult. You can already buy 60 W equivalent LED lamps with a physical form factor that corresponds to the original incandescent bulb. The same form factor modifications can be achieved with fluorescent lamps. The major complaint about CFLs and LEDs is that they do not have the “warmth” of a conventional incandescent lamp. However, LEDs can be “tuned” to almost any visible light frequency, so a group of LEDs can be tuned to suit the specific application.

So you should start a plan to replace incandescent lamps in your home and business well ahead of the legislated deadlines. That way, you can avoid shortages in particular lamps. In my view, this switchover will be beneficial for the lighting designers and the lighting users, despite the initially higher prices for lamps.

Just in case you were unaware, most industrial nations are intending to ban the venerable incandescent light bulb developed by Thomas Edison in 1879. Although inexpensive to manufacture, incandescent lamps are very inefficient—90% of the energy consumed is lost as heat.

Click to EnlargeJeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor


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