Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: For the sake of our collective wallets and the fate of the planet, we need to replace all our light bulbs.
Many of us who dutifully switched to CFLs back in the aughts are grumpy about the new switch to LEDs. Why? Because CFLs didn’t live up to the hype. Their light was harsh; they didn’t work in three-way lamps or on dimmer switches.* The bulbs didn’t last for 10 years like they were supposed to. And finally, they were hard to dispose of properly because they contained mercury. Plus, lots of light fixtures required candelabra/decorative light bulbs or halogen bulbs and simply wouldn’t work with CFLs. Honestly, I don’t think they ever saved me a cent and they didn’t help the planet.
So I don’t blame you for being skeptical of the LED revolution, which repeats a lot of the same verbiage espoused by the fizzled CFL revolution: Higher up front cost! Lower utility bills! It’s your duty to save the environment!
I got news for you, light bulb lobby, none of us 99 percenters care to spend $56.82 for a 6-pack of light bulbs, no matter how you break down the cost savings. Which actually is a very good idea. The cost savings between incandescent, CFLs, and LEDs is like this:
Sure, these numbers look great. Who wouldn’t want to spend $90 instead of $940 over the 50,000 hours of lighting? But the facts not compelling, and I’ll tell you why:
My utility costs—and yours too, I’m guessing—are fairly reasonable. I pay far less for electricity each month than I do for my cell phone and cable TV. Cutting a few bucks off the electric bill isn’t going to do much for my bottom line, as long as I conserve energy in the usual ways. This is the same reason why more people don’t drive electric cars: Gas is CHEAP, honey!
The only cost that really matters in my short-term world is the one that pops up on the cash register at the hardware store. It’s hard to beat this four-pack of eco-incandescent light bulbs at $4.97. The closest you’re going to get in an LED is this Philips 60W equivalent LED light bulb for $3.97 each. While LED light bulbs have come down immensely in price—they were $25 apiece just two years ago—most of us will choose the $1.24 light bulb over the $3.97 light bulb any day, because we can spend that extra $2.73 on a latte.
This is a psychological issue, not an economical issue. Most people are pretty happy with how long their light bulbs last: the 1,500-hour life span of an incandescent bulb is a long time—about 4 hours a day for an entire year. In comparison, the life span of an LED light bulb is 50,000 hours. The difference between 1,500 hours and 50,000 hours is comparable to the distance between the Earth and the moon (238,900 miles) and the Earth and the Sun (93 million miles). We know one number is more, but they’re both pretty far removed from what matters to us in our daily lives.
But, hey, just for the fun of it, let’s consider that 50,000 hours. It breaks down to a light bulb that can be turned on for 4 hours a day, every day of the year, for 34 years. That’s longer than you’ll own the light fixture, and probably even your house. (If, in fact, the 50k figure is true. Remember, my CFLs did not last half as long as they were supposed to.)
However, I can see the advantages of switching to LED bulbs if you’re, say, the landlord of the Burj Khalifa, or you own DisneyWorld, and you’re staging an Electrical Parade each night.
But for the rest of us, here’s what you really need to know: Today’s incandescent light bulbs are not the same as yesterday’s incandescent light bulbs. They’re more efficient, and they’re made with halogen.
A few years ago, governments around the world moved to phase out traditional incandescent light bulbs due to their inefficiency. In the United States, this was done through the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. The purpose of this act is admirable:
To move the United States toward greater energy independence and security, to increase the production of clean renewable fuels, to protect consumers, to increase the efficiency of products, buildings, and vehicles, to promote research on and deploy greenhouse gas capture and storage options, and to improve the energy performance of the Federal Government, and for other purposes.
Thanks, Obama. Oh, wait—I mean George W. Bush. The law requires an increase of 25 percent efficiency for light bulbs to be phased in from 2012 through 2014. This obvious communist plot incited all the get-off-my-lawn types to horde as many incandescent light bulbs they could get their freedom-loving fingers on before they disappeared forever.
I kept waiting for the incandescent light bulbs to disappear. And guess what? They didn’t. Turns out the light bulb companies did something sneaky: They increased the efficiency of traditional incandescent light bulbs to meet the new government targets without telling us. The new bulbs use tungsten like the old bulbs, but they are halogen based. Now, here’s the really sneaky part: You know how you can’t touch a halogen light bulb because the oil on your fingers can make it explode? Well, the manufacturers have encased a new-fangled, high-efficiency light bulb INSIDE a traditional incandescent light bulb shell. You don’t even know the shell is a sham. Ingenious!
Here—can you tell the difference between “old” and “new”?
So, the upshot is, I’m perfectly willing to buy eco-incandescents for myself. But anyone looking to buy me a stocking stuffer for Christmas is welcome to give me an LED bulb. That should hold us for the next few years (i.e., 2020), when the law requires another 20 percent increase in efficiency. Who knows what will happen then, except for the fact that we will hopefully never have to deal with another CFL again. Those swirly-headed nuisances truly are the compact discs of the lighting revolution.