Is It Getting Dark Yet?

Note:   Excerpt from “How Many Congressmen Does It Take To Screw In A Light Bulb”

It’s late in the day, and you switch on your lights as you go back into your house. Mr. X didn’t get around to mentioning it, but those incandescent bulbs you’re using are doomed. As of January 1, 2012, the sale of traditional 100-watt bulbs will be illegal. The 75-watters will be banned in 2013, and 60- and 40-watt bulbs the year after.

That’s Congress looking out for you again. It figures that, given all the advantages of compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) over Thomas Edison’s outdated incandescents, Americans have no good reason not to switch—after all, CFLs last longer and use less energy. Other countries have already taken the lead in banning incandescents, so what’s not to like?

Well, for starters, there’s the fact that CFLs have some pretty severe disadvantages. They cost more, they often burn out long before their much-touted 10,000-hour lifetime, and they can’t be used with timers or outdoors in cold weather or in recessed downlight fixtures. In fact, they can’t be used in some of the most ordinary of fixtures, like the three-bulb sockets on many household ceilings; try putting a CFL in each of those sockets and you’ll probably find that the glass fixture won’t fit back on. Put in just one CFL and it will flicker, because CFLs apparently can’t tolerate bulb diversity (a trait they seem to share with CFL advocates).

Turn on a CFL and it may take a minute or more to reach full brightness, so good-bye to that beloved phrase “at the flick of a switch.”

CFLs contain minute amounts of mercury, which causes some environmentalists to worry about disposal issues. This led EPA (a name you can trust by now) to issue guidelines on how to clean up a broken CFL: Step One: “Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.”

For years we’ve heard that new CFLs were a fully developed technology, far better than the fluorescent bulbs of old. But now it turns out that even the newer CFLs had their problems, as evidenced by this statement from The Light Source: “If you were disappointed by the performance of CFL bulbs in the last few years, it’s time to try again.” We heard the same thing about low-flow toilets—first that they were fine, later the admission that there were problems, then that those problems were fixed, and, later still, the promise that, this time around, the problems have really been fixed. Wanna bet?

Do CFLs actually reduce our consumption of electricity? Even for this seemingly unquestionable claim, the answer isn’t clear. In 1987, the town of Traer, Iowa, persuaded most of its residents to turn in their incandescent bulbs for free fluorescents. The results? Electricity use increased by nearly 10 percent. People figured that, because running the new lights was cheaper, they might as well keep them on longer.

Most importantly, there’s the light itself—many people just hate it. They find it depressing, color-draining, sickly, headache-inducing, and morgue-like, with distracting flickers and annoying buzzes that none of their CFL-loving friends seem to sense (“electrical embalmment,” one blogger called it). And a New Yorker cartoon featured a manager showing a visitor around his company’s cubicle-filled floor, explaining that “the dim fluorescent lighting is meant to emphasize the general absence of hope.”

What makes Congress think that it has any business dictating the bulbs we can use in our homes? Political audacity, plain and simple. Energy efficiency has become a feel-good mantra for politicians to invoke at will. And because energy-efficiency mandates are regulations rather than government taxes or expenditures, they’re relatively invisible to the public at large. Energy itself is now a bad thing—the cause of the alleged global warming crisis and the urban sprawl crisis and the obesity crisis—and more demonized these days than even, well, tobacco.

To this sort of audacity, there is one appropriate response: take your middle finger and flip your switch in the spirit of that biblical invocation “let there be light.”