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The incandescent light bulb isn't dead

The incandescent light bulb isn't dead


Reports were greatly exaggerated

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Philips LED light bulb vs incandescent stock 1020
Philips LED light bulb vs incandescent stock 1020

Perhaps you’ve heard the news: the incandescent light bulb is dead. "When the ball drops on New Year’s Eve, the year ends — and so does the ordinary lightbulb," read Fox News' website. CNN even penned an obituary. That’s because, according to countless media reports, January 1st marks the "light bulb ban." Today’s the day when the US government finally phases out the dated technology by banning the manufacture or import of 60-watt and 40-watt incandescent bulbs, which are repeatedly cited as the most popular bulbs in the US. The reports typically suggest that consumers get used to buying pricier, more efficient compact fluorescent or LED bulbs, or else stock up on incandescents while supplies last.

Incandescents aren't being banned

Unfortunately, little of that is true. There is no such thing as an incandescent light bulb ban in the United States. In fact, on the very same day that the 60-watt incandescent light bulb disappears, you’ll be able to buy a 43-watt incandescent light bulb to take its place. Or a 72-watt incandescent bulb. Or a 150-watt incandescent bulb. Or a three-way incandescent light bulb. Or one with a more durable filament for "rough service" applications. There are literally dozens of loopholes. "It's not like tomorrow people won't be able to buy an incandescent light bulb," says GE’s John Strainic.

So what is actually happening on January 1st? The cost of an ordinary light bulb will drastically rise — and hopefully your electricity bill will fall. The so-called bulb ban is simply a government-mandated energy efficiency standard at work. Seven years ago, President Bush signed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (PDF) into law, and its final light bulb provisions take effect today. They simply require that the most popular light bulbs are roughly 25 percent more efficient — that you only need 43 watts to generate the same amount of light as a 60-watt incandescent.


The new normal: halogen

And it just so happens that such 43-watt incandescent bulbs already exist — they’re known as halogen. Halogen incandescent bulbs complement the tungsten filament of a traditional incandescent bulb with halogen gas, which helps them burn more efficiently. Now, manufacturers claim halogen incandescents look and work nearly identically to the original. GE says they can have the same shape, size, brightness, color temperature, color rendering index (CRI), and dim the same too. Unfortunately, they cost a lot more. While you could buy incandescent bulbs for as little as 25 cents each last year, you can expect to pay upwards of $1.50 for each halogen incandescent. "Halogen technology is a little more expensive to use and manufacture," admits Strainic, who says he doesn’t expect those prices to change drastically even if halogen bulbs really take off.

But theoretically, these new bulbs pay for themselves. Where a traditional 60W bulb costs roughly $8 per year for three hours of light each day, a 43W bulb can put out the same amount of light for only $6 worth of electricity, according to manufacturer estimates. That would more than cover the cost of the bulb.

Of course, that same math could indeed kill the incandescent light bulb one day. While a compact fluorescent might cost you $2 each, or $13 for a 60-watt equivalent LED, they use closer to $1 a year in electricity, and since they last much longer that yearly savings can stack. The expected life of a halogen bulb is just one or two years, but compact fluorescents can sometimes make it to ten. According to manufacturer estimates, an LED bulb can last 15-20 years before it even starts to dim by a perceptible measure. That’s why savings-conscious consumers already stocked up on fluorescents years ago, and why they might pick LEDs now.


Left: traditional incandescent. Right: compact fluorescent.

Mike Watson, the VP of product strategy for Cree LED, says the LED bulb business is booming, and he certainly sees the phase-out of 60W and 40W incandescents as potential for greater LED sales as well. "It’s a moment in time when you can get a mass amount of customers to contemplate lighting for the first time ever," says Watson, noting that pricy halogen bulb could make his company’s LEDs seem like a better deal. But Watson isn’t ready to call January 1st a victory for LED quite yet. The sticker shock of LED means that many could still choose compact fluorescent bulbs if they want an efficient incandescent alternative.

"You can get a mass amount of customers to contemplate lighting for the first time ever."

Neither GE nor Cree believe that the incandescent light bulb will die anytime soon. Intriguingly, both Strainic and Watson independently told us that the compact fluorescent is the one in jeopardy right now. Both men say that consumers aren’t satisfied with the poor quality of light and non-dimmable nature of many compact fluorescents, and the falling price of LED bulbs could mean those fluorescents get squeezed out of the market. When so many are sounding the death knell for incandescent, wouldn’t it be something if the filament bulb outlasts its competitor?

As of today, January 1st, you still have plenty of choices for how to light your home. There’s the halogen incandescent, the compact fluorescent, and the LED, not to mention a host of traditional incandescent options — like three-way bulbs — thanks to over a dozen loopholes. Now, consumers will vote with their dollars to decide which technologies stay and which will truly disappear.

May the best bulbs win.