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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