Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Bright Ideas

More than a year ago, I wrote an article about how lighting technology has been changing.

The big news at the time was that Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFLs) were the news of the day. CFLs are also called "swirls" because of their shape that has them twisted into a graceful swirl instead of being long tubes as are so familiar in office buildings.

While CFLs heralded a new era of energy efficient lighting, typically reducing power consumption by 50 to 70 percent, all was not good in CFL land.

The first issue that came to light (pun intended) was that CFLs include minute amounts of mercury in each bulb. This makes them "hazardous waste" because of the environmental impact of mercury in landfills and, more importantly, water supplies.

As a result, CFLs should not be disposed of in the normal trash, but should be recycled in places that accept hazardous waste. The practical impact is that I don't know of any places that specifically accept CFLs for recycling or disposal.

On a more practical note, early CFLs had two annoying properties. First, they take a while to warm up, meaning that when you turn them on, they're dim for about one to two minutes before the glow comes up to normal. Second, their color has always been different than normal incandescent bulbs, resulting in lighting that is different than usual, and sometimes unpleasant to the eye.

From a cost perspective, CFLs cost more than normal incandescent bulbs -- by a lot. While I'm sure there's a good formula for calculating the low cost of an incandescent bulb and its energy consumption over its expected lifetime versus a higher cost of a CFL with its reduced energy consumption over its expected lifetime, I've not seen credible sources making the comparison.

I will say that after replacing probably close to 100 light bulbs in my home (it amazed me how many bulbs are in a home) with CFLs over the past few years, I have seen my monthly energy bill go down. Whether that's enough to offset the price of the CFLs has not been calculated.

I also found it disappointing that many of the CFLs I installed that claim a life of "up to seven years" have already failed. I actually called the manufacturer on some of the bulbs and asked for a replacement since I was only one to two years into the lifespan. I was told that the bulbs were guaranteed only for one year, but that they can last up to seven years. Hmmm, not quite the guarantee I was expecting.

The final issue with CFLs is that they don't really have all the capabilities of incandescent bulbs. Specifically, most CFLs aren't dimmable, so any dimming capabilities are only available by spending a lot more money for dimmable CFLs. And dimmable CFLs don't have the range of light that a standard incandescent bulb does.

Given my naked-eye assessment, dimmable CFLs go from 100 percent light and are dimmable to perhaps the 50 percent level and then shut off.

During my initial report on CFLs, I also mentioned Light-Emitting Diode (LED) light bulbs. They were just emerging with some prototypes and the ones I saw were good, but extremely heavy and expensive.

The electronics giant Philips has recently announced what it claims will be a good replacement for the standard incandescent light bulb (see: that will "deliver up to 80 percent energy savings and last 25 times longer than its century-old predecessor." I've not seen this one yet, but if the early prototypes from other companies are any indication, LED lighting should be promising.

Some of the benefits of LED lighting include more pleasant colors, dimmability and longevity. I will see if the weight issue has been addressed, since heavy bulbs make applications in things like gooseneck or desk lamps impractical.

So far, no indication is given as to the solid waste or environmental impact of LED lights. They do appear to have some pretty substantial electronics and materials that far exceed the basic components of an incandescent bulb.

I am also interested in the cost of these LED bulbs. Again, the reduction in energy consumption may end up saving money in the long run, but the up-front cost of replacing 100 or so bulbs in a home may make that savings hard to buy into.

I welcome the new LED technology and am looking forward to seeing them on shelves, especially if they prove to deliver a better lighting solution than either incandescent or CFL bulbs.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 26 June 2010.
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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Modern Campground

Last week's wonderful weather had my children and me thinking about getting outdoors. Part of the benefit of the outdoors is getting away from technology. But I also believe that technology can enhance the outdoor experience.

While living outdoors runs the gamut from car camping to carrying everything on your back for long distances, a few things go a long way to making camping attractive to most.

My experience is that campers are happy when they stay warm and dry, sleep comfortably, eat decent food and have decent hygiene.

Technology addresses many of these items quite nicely.

Staying warm and dry

While there's nothing quite as good as old-fashioned goose down to keep one warm, there are many synthetic products that do an admirable job of keeping you warm on a cold morning.

Sleeping comfortably

Although staying warm on a summer's night here in New England isn't typically a problem, the technologies for comfortable sleeping bags and even inflatable air mattresses make sleeping on hard ground a whole lot softer.

Eating decent food

I recall from my days as a young boy using a traditional Coleman stove with "white gas" to make meals. The burners were finicky and had to be pumped by hand, but managed to cook a decent meal for a group. Today's stoves with propane or other fuels can provide a great amount of heat to serve up remarkably good meals. Many prepared foods are also available that transport easily and clean up well. Even if you're carrying all of your belongings on a long trip, there's little reason why everyone can't enjoy a good meal.

Keeping decent hygiene

This hasn't changed much over the years, other than finding that more and more campgrounds offer showers and toilets. I am finding portable showers that are affordable and very usable for when you want to get away from it all, but still have a hot shower every few days.

Powering up

Where I do find technology has developed is in the abundance of electrical devices at campgrounds. It used to be that you'd have flashlights and maybe a transistor radio. A tent we purchased recently has a "power port" in it. In essence, it was a hole in the tent for an extension cord to go through. Clearly people are bringing power products when they camp.

Powering these devices occurs by either power at the campsite or some portable source. If you're car camping, it's easy to purchase a "power inverter" that will turn your cigarette lighter into a 110-volt electrical outlet. This will power small devices, such as laptop computers and cell phones. Larger devices require more robust power sources, such as a generator, which can be annoying to other campers who relish the silence.

But the items I like are the solar powered chargers. You sit them in the sun for a few hours and they charge up batteries in cell phones or even laptop computers. I've even seen solar cells on backpacks and hats.

One of the items that I regularly take with me is a walkie talkie. When you're out in the woods, the mobile phone coverage can be sparse at best. Walkie talkies, because they don't require stationery mobile phone antennas, work well in a defined geographic area. Typically walkie talkies can have a range of 20-25 miles. Note that this is under the best of circumstances -- walkie talkies of that range typically work well for about one half to one mile.

Another tool that's good to have is a GPS device. It can help you navigate and track your position to prevent you from getting lost. Some of the current GPS devices include walkie talkies as well as emergency locator services that will broadcast a distress signal and your GPS coordinates to people who can come find you.

But remember, all of these devices require power, whether it be by replaceable or rechargeable batteries. Without those power sources, they do no good at all, so keep your old fashioned outdoor navigation skills intact.

No matter what technology there is, my favorite time is sitting around the campfire helping my kids make s'mores. There will never be a technology replacement for that.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 5 May 2010.
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