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20 April 2014 11:23 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

This lightbulb's going to blow

  • Ivo Vegter
The case against compact fluorescent lightbulbs is growing ever-stronger. Pity our government has already rushed headlong to a decision to ban incandescent bulbs by 2016.

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 dont fail very often. Well, thats 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 shouldnt switch off CFL bulbs. To simplify: if youre 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 doesnt 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 youll 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. Ive had better luck with an indoor hall light that stays on while Im out, but Id 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 Bredenkamps 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. Theyre 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.

Thats 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”. Lets use it.

Sadly, governments take a dim view (sorry!) of free people who think theyre bright enough (okay, Im done) to make their own choices. DM

  • Ivo Vegter
IvoVegterBW

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He approaches issues from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He grew up in the deep south of Johannesburg, and learnt his politics reading the Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad at Wits University during the early years of the country's transition to democracy. He recently left the city for the lower cost of living of Knysna, where he continues to write about everything under the sun. He is always right.

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