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DEMING: Fluorescent bulb follies

- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 21, 2008

COMMENTARY:

How many persons does it take to change a light bulb? Four hundred, if the people in question are members of the United States Congress. Four hundred is the number of representatives and senators who voted last December to ban incandescent light bulbs.

Full awareness of this idiocy has not really manifested itself in the public consciousness yet. When it does, there will be an outrage. Beginning in 2012, the manufacture and sale of incandescent light bulbs, starting with the 100-watt bulb, will become illegal. Instead of paying less than 20 cents for a standard incandescent bulb, we will all be forced to purchase compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) for about $3 each or more.

I'm a frugal person. Like other sensible people, I'm interested in saving energy. But I'm skeptical of the exaggerated claims made for CFLs. When these devices were first introduced several years ago, I bought one, anxious to reap the benefits of the claimed energy savings. I was amazed to find that my new 10,000-hour light bulb burned out in a week. The replacement CFL lasted for three months.

Much of the advertising copy we have been sold on CFLs contains exaggerated and misleading claims. The fine print is that the average lifetime is not 10,000 hours, but "up to" 10,000 hours. In many applications, the lifetime of a CFL and estimated energy savings are significantly lower than we have been led to believe. For a compact fluorescent bulb to achieve the claimed efficiency, it has to be burned continuously for long periods. If a CFL is left on for only 5-minute periods, it will burn out just as fast as an incandescent bulb. To avoid short cycling, the U.S. Energy Star program advises consumers to leave compact fluorescents on for at least 15 minutes.

This brings up some interesting questions. What procedure should I follow when I have to go into my bedroom closet for 30 seconds? Should I stay in the closet for 15 minutes, just so the light bulb won't burn out early? Do I have to stay in the bathroom for 15 minutes every time there? What about other lighting applications with short cycles, such as outdoor motion detectors or lights on automatic garage doors? What are the energy savings, if any, of using CFLs in real-life applications instead of idealized laboratory conditions? What sort of moron mandates that people have to use CFLs in applications they are unsuited for?

It is true that most of the energy utilized by an incandescent bulb goes into heat, not light. But has anyone considered that most of the U.S. is in a temperate climate zone? During a heating month, the heat produced by an incandescent bulb is not wasted, but contributes toward household heating. For most winter months, incandescent bulbs thus achieve an energy efficiency of 100 percent.

There are other problems with CFLs. As most people know, they contain toxic mercury and cannot be thrown into the trash, but have to be recycled. CFLs become dimmer as they age, and thus again will not perform as advertised. The quality of light from fluorescent bulbs is inferior to incandescent. Standard CFLs won't operate at low temperatures and are thus unsuitable for many outdoor applications.

Given that the upcoming ban is on manufacture, not possession or use, it would seem the rational person has only one option: to hoard standard incandescent bulbs while they are still available. Unused light bulbs can be stored indefinitely without degradation. At a unit price of less than 20 cents each, it is eminently practical for most persons to lay in a lifetime supply before the 2012 ban takes effect.

In an ideal world, where the government had some respect for the intelligence of its citizens, consumers would be allowed to make rational decisions about using lighting devices. People would use CFLs in installations they were suited for, indoor applications involving long-use cycles. And we would still be allowed to use 100-watt incandescent bulbs in our bedroom closets, where large amounts of light are needed for short periods. This is known as free-market economics. In the 20th century it came be recognized as a superior system almost everywhere, even in communist China.

There is one benefit to the light-bulb ban: it serves as a useful voting guide for the coming fall elections. In November, the 86 senators and 314 representatives who judged their constituents as not intelligent enough to choose the correct light bulb will undergo a referendum on their own judgment.

David Deming is a geophysicist, an adjunct scholar with the National Center for Policy Analysis, and associate professor of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oklahoma.