This lightbulb's going to blow
- Ivo Vegter
- 23 Jul 2012 11:01 (South Africa)
The good old-fashioned incandescent light bulb is known universally as the symbol of invention. It denotes the perfect idea: clever, cheap, reliable and effective. It was so successful, in fact, that 133 years after it was first demonstrated, our governmental overlords have seen fit to ban it.
Incandescents are to be phased out in South Africa in favour of compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), with a total ban on sales expected by 2016. Supporters of CFLs – essentially limited to an alliance between big business that makes them and environmentalists that adopted its lobby horse – say the barriers to adoption keep coming down. Truth is, while they have somewhat improved in quality, the drawbacks are also mounting.
The rationale for this remarkably invasive piece of micro-management falls apart when seen in the, er, bright light of day.
A recent study published in the journal Photochemistry and Photobiology finds that ultraviolet rays from CFL bulbs harms healthy skin cells, much like sunlight causes skin cancer. The research finds that CFLs are best used at a distance, and behind an additional shade.
That rules out CFLs for bedside, table and desk lamps, which means expensive halogen or LED units will be the only remaining options for such applications if incandescent bulbs are banned. And even those suffer from a limited light spectrum that makes them look unnatural and changes how colours appear to the eye.
That CFL bulbs cause skin damage is bad news for the environmentalists’ favourite expense to force on to the poor, and merely compounds the growing list of drawbacks of CFLs.
Ranging from fire hazards to epilepsy risk to mercury poisoning, the safety issues impose additional costs, beyond purchase price. Safe disposal methods are required, for example, but such programmes inevitably cost money, even as they fail to solve the problem of people who simply bin their failed CFL bulbs, or accidentally break them.
Retail prices have declined as the price of high-tech does and, as one might expect, thanks to hefty subsidised buying programmes by Eskom. However, they remain high compared to equivalent incandescents, and very high compared to cheap disposable bulbs.
Proponents of CFL lamps argue that they don’t fail very often. Well, that’s only true if you believe everything the adverts tell you.
The rated life span of most CFLs is shorter than those of long-life incandescents, with a life span of 10,000 to 25,000 hours. These can be found at a lower price than CFLs with a typical life span of 8,000 hours.
It may not even be true for ordinary, old-fashioned incandescents, since the actual life span of a CFL can be much shorter than advertised. Real-world tests in which the manufacturers’ claimed life span rating for CFLs was achieved seem remarkably thin on the ground.
A CFL should ideally be installed with the fitting at the bottom and good ventilation. Many typical household light fittings, however, are the exact opposite. Cases of burnt-out ballast and even fire caused by rising heat from the fluorescent tube are sometimes reported.
A frequent on-off cycle, such as one might find in a bathroom or closet, is also very harmful for CFL lamps. In fact, the US Department of Energy has a complex bit of advice about when you should and shouldn’t switch off CFL bulbs. To simplify: if you’re leaving a room for less than 15 minutes, you should leave it on, to avoid unnecessarily reducing its life span. Better get to planning your daily routine, because while the US regulator doesn’t say so, the converse is also true. Turning a CFL on for a short duration also reduces its life span. So remember to return to the kitchen to switch the light off, 15 minutes after you got your milk and cookies. Sadly, that negates any electricity saving from lower wattage, but you’ll be rewarded with that warm, greenie glow.
Low-quality power supply with frequent spikes, surges or brownouts can also significantly reduce the life span of CFLs, which rely on sensitive electronics instead of simple electrics. South Africans – especially those who plug more sophisticated gadgets than forgiving incandescent bulbs into the power grid – will know exactly how “dirty” the typical Eskom power supply is.
When I splurged on an expensive, high-quality CFL for an outdoor light that was supposed to stay on all night, in the hope of saving about 20 units of electricity per month, I was most upset to find it had failed a few weeks later. The incandescent replacement has lasted six months so far, but instead of savings, I got only costs. I’ve had better luck with an indoor hall light that stays on while I’m out, but I’d like to have the choice.
The obverse of low-quality power that reduces CFL reliability is that CFL lamps cause distortions on the electricity network, which could, in principle, harm the grid. The problems were first noticed in hotels, where many CFL lamps are used. One proposed solution – an expensive one – would be to redesign the wiring of the building to avoid what is known as “multiple earth” configurations, in which the protective earth conductor and the neutral wire are combined.
Limited studies have been done on this subject, but an undated review by Barry Bredenkamp, the head of the National Energy Efficiency Agency, finds that those studies do not show power quality to be significantly affected by CFLs in concentrations of between 150W to 200W per household.
The review says that “even a 26% retrofit of a building’s entire load” would not pose problems. It is not clear whether this refers to only the lighting load, or the entire electrical load. If the former, it clearly does not cover a scenario involving a complete ban on incandescent bulbs. If the latter, 26% still does not comfortably match real-world scenarios. Electrical, Construction and Maintenance, a 111-year-old US trade magazine, in an article on the problem of lighting upgrades and power quality, says: “Lighting can be a large part of any building’s electrical load – 30% or more if it is heated by non-electrical means.”
Noting that the power-quality problem is particularly acute with relatively inexpensive “residential-grade” CFL lamps, it continues: “...if you're not careful, your project can lead to overheated transformers and nuisance tripping of overcurrent devices, overloaded motors and neutral conductors, and premature failure of power factor correction capacitors.”
Even Bredenkamp’s wattage-per-household estimate poses problems. If we assume that a 15W CFL provides as much light as a 60W incandescent bulb (note that CFL manufacturers like to falsely claim better performance), the “safe” range amounts to only a dozen or so 60W globes. Even a fairly small home will likely exceed this load.
It may be reasonable to expect that kind of penetration if consumers are left to choose where the power-saving benefit of CFLs make the most sense economically, but it is not reasonable if incandescent bulbs are banned altogether.
All in all, CFLs make sense when you have a lot of lights - but not too many to worry power utilities - when you leave them on for long periods, and when you have a clean power supply.
If you don’t, because you are poor and don’t have a mansion to light up, or you try to save money by not leaving lights on unnecessarily, or you depend on Eskom to supply your power, it is arguable that incandescent bulbs save you money in the long term, and can even save you electricity.
That is exactly the conclusion of one detailed analysis by permaculture advocate Paul Wheaton. I adapted some of the observations I made above about comparative life spans from his analysis.
In most cases, a well-considered, well-tested combination of different types of light bulb will be the optimal solution for a house or office building. Exactly what that combination ought to be is a complex decision that will differ from site to site. But it is not in any way helped by a crude ban on all incandescent bulbs.
Environmental groups like a simple story, and in incandescents versus CFLs, they thought they had one. But it is not simple.
Light-bulb manufacturers are perfectly happy to go along with green demands for more sophisticated and expensive bulbs, because it is good for business when a government bans cheap widgets in favour of expensive alternatives. There are no patents on incandescent bulbs. They’re simple to make. Competition is tough. Making CFLs, however, is far more specialised and involves many patents, which makes it harder for new competition to challenge incumbent bulb manufacturers.
Environmentalists are on the same side as big business lobbyists in this battle: the side of supporting regulatory intervention that outlaws choice, restricts competition, and ultimately costs consumers money and their health.
That’s no reason for the rest of us to support it, and every reason to oppose it. Even before the ban goes into effect, we have the so-called “benefit of hindsight”. Let’s use it.
Sadly, governments take a dim view (sorry!) of free people who think they’re bright enough (okay, I’m done) to make their own choices. DM
- Green-left messiah desperately seeking spin-doctor
- The gun genie and its bottle
- On energy, environment, and regulatory independence
- South Africa’s schools of witchcraft and wizardry
- Grab shale gas opportunity, but avoid opportunism
- It’s about who you don’t vote for
- Free markets as a moderate position
- Voting: there’s still time to change your mind
- Green tech is cool, but not because it’s green
- How Mmusi Maimane swindled a vote out of me
- The case to elect Malema to Parliament
- The intellectual gnome, Chomsky
- If Malema isn’t Pol Pot, is he still dangerous?
- Do Malema's followers understand ‘agrarian reform’?
- Look ma, I'm defending Shell's record in Nigeria!
- Any weather is evidence for global warming
- U-turn prof finds his fracking fears are avoidable
- Ramphele et al: The world according to angry feminists
- On HIV/Aids and scary-big numbers
- Cherry-picking ‘grey literature’ on rhino horn
- 350,000 reasons to kill a black rhino
- Eight myths about libertarians
- New Year’s resolutions for other people
- All I want for Christmas is a fire pool
- In defence of Donald Trump
- My old South African flag
- Fearful Fukushima fiction fatigue
- Do we tolerate private sector corruption?
- In defence of a lion killer
- Save the rare wine and endangered craft beer
- Forever blowing bubbles: shale gas economics
- Promotion and Protection of Investment Bill: When “certainty” means “wait and see”
- This land is my land: a revolution
- The launch of SA's Libertarian Party: herding cats in time for 2014
- The African case against the ICC
- The fossil fuel subsidy myth
- Think of the little fishies!
- The hilariously misunderstood libertarian
- The sickly history of sweeteners
- Pants on fire, but they’re not mine
- The obstructionism of shale gas activists
- How mind-numbing numbers whip up fear
- Why pick on Khanyi Dhlomo?
- Half-measures will fail the rhino
- Malema’s righteous anger... and naïve confusion
- Lottery licence to go to one lucky winner
- Vaccinations: when the state stabs the people
- Do reusable shopping bags kill people?
- The long walk to serfdom
- The Karoo desperately needs development
- The trials of Samson Shuttleworth
- The girl who kicked the hornet’s nest
- Raping the discourse about rape
- Who is the reasonable man?
- Fracking: Debating a big deal
- Who needs the Queen’s English?
- Electric cars: Taking from the poor to give to the rich
- Business Licensing Bill: An indefensible defence
- Red-tape tourism
- The Big Business Bribery Bill
- On Thatcher and society, Vavi and the market
- Extinction: Let’s make up numbers and panic!
- Feeding the world is getting easier
- Stop talking shit: Build your own toilet
- Climate change is pseudo-science
- Anti-competitive competition law
- The Department of Less Government
- An open letter to President Zuma
- In defence of Kim Kardashian
- The world’s weirdest wildlife sanctuary
- Boycott calls are simple-minded
- In defence of vegans
- The population explosion implodes
- Environmental backpedalling picks up pace
- How Mangaung can help and hinder entrepreneurs
- The elusive libertarian enclave
- The Gathering: Ivo Vegter
- The hidden overemployment crisis
- The case for constructive environmentalism
- Privatise the Western Cape's shacks
- Tenders: Not open to employees or their families
- Hurricanes fuel climate sensationalism
- Next: Gross-out warnings on food
- No new deal: The failure of Zumanomics
- Benoni has a bright idea
- Was I wrong about acid rain?
- Public food gardens: Where dumb ideas thrive
- Rethinking the costly food label madness
- Give hunting a chance
- Fracking gets green light, but here's the risk
- Socialists, bless 'em, visit Cape Town
- Buy a 1Time ticket now
- Give the ANC credit where credit is due
- The myth of the competent apartheid government
- It's a disaster that 'peak oil' is not a disaster
- No Gravy: a label for sustainable business
- This lightbulb's going to blow
- Smokers? Get 'em up against the wall!
- Inflating the obesity scare
- Bring a Shotgun to School Day
- GMOs: Hacking genes to feed the world
- The hidden dangers of charity
- Fracking: the unread paper debated
- Fracking: The “U-turn” paper nobody has read
- Eco-cronyism is as dangerous as any other
- SKA: Be grateful Karoo residents didn't object
- Energy: Get cracking on fracking
- Fair trade, unfair trade-off
- Casual labour is only bad for Vavi's unions
- 'Externalities', the catch-all justification for regulation
- 'Externalities', the catch-all justification for regulation
- How do we fix our dismal education?
- Barter: the rebirth of sound money
- Rights are not entitlements
- Debunking 'limits to growth' inanities
- Tax: Why align with "most other countries"?
- Newspaper sensationalism doesn't help rhinos
- Rolling Stone reprises Gasland's fracking fantasies
- Cosatu's manipulative march move
- Why do 16 million people not constitute an economy?
- The age of smear politics
- Does fracking cause earthquakes?
- The Chinese model is morbidly obese
- Green tech: doubling down on a losing bet
- Rape, pornography, and hell's grannies
- Petrol taxes won't hurt the poor
- Jailtime mooted for bad weather warnings
- Let's ban bans, and start with CITES
- In defence of overpaid sport stars
- On the death of Kim Jong-Il
- COP17: Let's ban fire
- Cancer gets you when nothing else can
- COP17: The 'party on' agenda
- COP17: The Blue Line of Death
- New seven natural inanities
- Occupiers' anger is all that makes sense
- The Luddites and Technocrats live on
- Malema marches for economic slavery
- Profitable purveyors of pudendal prettiness
- Sense? Us?
- If they want rhino horn, let's sell them some
- "Stimulate" economy by ending telco abuses
- Executive pay makes nobody poorer
- Malema's real persecution
- Mogoeng: Lock up your daughters
- Don't mandate insurance, deregulate healthcare
- I sympathise with Malema's persecution complex
- Short selling: panicked pols ban proof of failure
- Don't blame those who saw it coming
- What's obscene about profit?
- In defence of Bombela
- Dear president Zuma, you are not above the law
- The economics of love
- Treasure the Karoo? Ban the SKA!
- Malema is right, you know
- Gautrain's PPP: political patronage profiteering
- Kumi Naidoo is no hero
- LeadSA fails to lead when it matters
- No logo means carte blanche
- The drug war: dopey but dangerous
- A response to fracking critics
- Don't vote. It's your right.
- Welcome Walmart
- If you're happy and you know it clap your hands
- Buy local, support poverty
- Ubuntu, the free-market way
- Karoo fracking scandal exposed!
- I'm ashamed for my profession
- The bill of bunkum
- Being gay: a brand new concept!
- Who's afraid of the nuclear wolf?
- The nationalisation canard
- Ogilvy should grow a spine
- The new robber barons
- A classy revolution: Why we cared
- Bombastic Bombela balks
- Liberty is more than mere democracy
- Gautrain has a law unto itself
- The irony of 'services for all'
- How to hire a hitman in SA
- Arrive alive and neurotic
- The oppression of taxis
- Protection of Information Bill and why WikiLeaks is so dangerous
- Fifa, Russia and Qatar deserve each other
- One day, we'll all hate WikiLeaks
- The cycling mafia strikes again
- What Julius got for Christmas
- Let's return the beads
- Away with fascist seat belt laws
- Tintin Mbeki in the Sudan
- How the ANC can make everyone happy
- Currency: the race to the bottom.
- Hurrah for national healthcare!
- Give Zimbabweans citizenship
- Carte Blanche has no carte blanche
- That finger-licking, lip-smacking taste
- Bomb the barbaric lot already
- Green tax: another raid is coming
- Do strikers deserve anything?
- The media will lose this battle
- Global warmism needs a fisking
- A glass half-full
- Go ahead, have a baby
- Stop the handouts - end xenophobia
- The right to fire
- FIFA's heart of darkness
- Have some self-respect
- I ordered an orange skirt
- Secretly, Match blames South Africa
- The stupendous Gautrain: a rare marvel!
- The Fifa conquistadors are coming!
- What's wrong with everyone?
- Leave poor BP alone
- The destructive power of government
- The bonsai economy
- The darkness of Africa
- Who is ripping off whom?
- Anatomy of a whitewash
- While FIFA takes over, we fight
- The pointless pretence of Earth Hour
- Ten reasons to reject climate alarmism
- Really, boycott the FIFA farce
- The climate dominoes fall
- Lessons in ethics from Dick Cheney
- Screw the consumer
- In defence of bankers
- Break the banking cartel
- Julius Malema, the walking contradiction
- Boycott FIFA
- Climate clarity
- In defence of Boney M
- Pray Copenhagen fails
- Capitalism is not unkind
- Climate fraud kills people
- Pop goes the hot air balloon
- Peace, love and schadenfreude
- The irony of the left
- Too late to cool it?
- Going cold turkey