Let There Be Light on the New Bulb Law

Article by Jonelle Kimbrough, Fort Bragg Environmental Management

The New Year ushered in new resolutions, as usual. But, the arrival of 2014 also ushered in a new regulation on a common consumer product: the light bulb. As of January 1, new federal standards prohibited the manufacture and import of 40-watt and 60-watt incandescent light bulbs – the most common bulbs used to illuminate homes across America. Although some opponents of the law have doubted the need for and viability of the regulation, supporters have claimed that the mandates do have some merit. And, when all is considered, the benefits of the new alternatives to the incandescent bulb often eclipse the disadvantages.

Compact fluorescent bulb - resting on blue background

The legislation that regulates the manufacture and import of the traditional incandescent bulb is part of the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA), which was signed into law by former President George W. Bush in 2007. EISA is designed to decrease American dependence on foreign sources of energy, increase our energy independence and security, protect consumers and enhance the efficiency of consumer products, facilities and vehicles.

Contrary to popular concerns surrounding the law, EISA neither bans incandescent bulbs nor demands the use of certain alternative bulbs.  Consumers will not be required to immediately discard existing incandescent bulbs, and they will not be required to replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) or light emitting diodes (LEDs). Instead, EISA requires newly manufactured bulbs to consume 30 percent less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs and to produce at least 20 lumens of light per watt of power consumed. The average incandescent bulb converts only five to ten percent of the power it consumes into light and produces only 15 lumens of light per watt of power consumed, so the technology that has served as the industry standard for 134 years is essentially obsolete.

Traditional incandescent bulbs will still be available for sale and purchase until the current supply is exhausted. Certain incandescent bulbs including colored bulbs, candelabra-base bulbs and specialty bulbs such as those used in refrigerators and incubators are exempt from the law.

Although consumers will not be forced to use CFLs or LEDs, there are many advantages to replacing incandescent bulbs with their more efficient counterparts. Watt for watt and lumen for lumen, CFLs and LEDs consume less energy and boast longer life spans than incandescent bulbs. According to the United States Department of Energy, a standard 60-watt incandescent bulb produces 13 to 15 lumens per watt (LPW) of power consumed whereas a comparable 15-watt CFL produces 53 to 63 LPW. A comparable 8-watt LED is even more efficient, producing 70 to 100 LPW. The average 60-watt incandescent bulb lasts for 1,200 hours while a comparable CFL lasts for 10,000 hours and a comparable LED lasts for 50,000 hours. Considering the cost of use and the cost of replacement, CFLs and LEDs will ultimately conserve fiscal resources as well. Energy efficient bulbs can save $40 to $135 in utility costs every year, per the Environmental Protection Agency.

Although they carry many advantages, CFLs and LEDs do have some detriments. CFLs contain trace amounts of mercury. The mercury content in most Energy Star rated CFLs is regulated and minimal, though, and it should not pose a threat to the environment or to public health if the bulbs are handled and recycled properly. CFLs do not achieve immediate full illumination, and they can be susceptible to humidity. They are also initially more expensive than incandescent bulbs. While a standard incandescent bulb costs about $0.50, a comparable CFL costs about $3. LEDs are perhaps the most environmentally sound and most expedient alternatives since they contain no mercury and provide instant full illumination. Additionally, they are more durable than incandescent bulbs or CFLs. However, since each LED bulb costs an average of $10 to $30, they are also the most expensive alternatives to the incandescent bulb. Despite these concerns, new technologies and increased demands will lessen the environmental impacts, public health concerns and initial costs tied to CFLs and LEDs, and in the end, their minimal power consumption and their impressive life spans will create a significant return on investment.

Energy efficient light bulbs will contribute to a decrease in America’s energy consumption as these alternatives become the standards for home illumination. As we decrease our energy consumption, we will also decrease our utility costs and decrease the environmental pollution associated with energy production. Furthermore, we will decrease our demand for finite and foreign sources of energy, and we will eventually reach our goals of energy independence and security.

For more information on energy efficient light bulbs, visit the Consumer Reports Light Bulb Buying Guide.

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