Light-bulb ban leads to hoarding in Europe, is U.S. next?

Goodbye watts, hello lumens

There is plenty of fear, uncertainty and doubt out there over the upcoming federal ban on incandescent light bulbs.

The very thought of losing that pear-shaped giver of warm, yellow light drove Europeans to hoard Edison's invention as the European Union's Sept. 1 deadline on incandescent lamps approached.

China's ban on incandescent lamps that use 100 watts or more of power starts Oct. 1. The ban expands to cover any light bulbs that use more than 60 watts in 2014 and to 15 watts in 2016.

In the U.S., the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007 is not technically a ban. It's an energy efficiency standard that requires all screw-in light bulbs (also known as lamps) to use 30% less power, beginning with 100-watt bulbs this year. The end standard requires bulbs to use 65% less energy by 2020.

If a manufacturer could produce an Edison incandescent bulb that used 30% less power today, the maker could sell it. Since manufacturers can't make such a bulb, the EISA essentially becomes a ban on inefficient lamps.

When suppliers run out of stock, consumers and businesses will have to replace traditional bulbs with more energy-efficient alternatives. They will have three choices: halogen incandescent bulbs, compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) or light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

In the U.S., EISA standard requirement for 100-watt bulbs began last January. The ban on 75-watt bulbs goes into effect Jan. 1, 2013.

The deadline for the most popular bulbs, the 60-watt and 40-watt lamps, is Jan. 1, 2014, and will have the greatest impact on consumers, according to Philip Smallwood, senior lighting analyst at IMS Research.

When the ban on 60-watt and 40-watt lamps begins in 2014, sales of incandescent bulbs are expected to drop off a cliff. For example, in 2011, about 1.1 billion bulbs were sold in North America (Canada also has an Edison bulb phaseout plan, but it has been put on hold). In 2014, North American sales are expected to drop to 200 million, according to IMS Research.

ROI
Return on investment for an LED vs. an incandescent lamp and a CFL lamp. (Data: IMS Research)

In 2014, what's going to account for 200 million bulbs moving across checkout counters? There will be Canadian sales, and then there will be 22 types of traditional incandescent lamps that are exempt from the EISA, including appliance bulbs, heavy-duty bulbs, colored lights and three-way lamps.

The opposition

The EISA was signed into law by President George W. Bush. However, conservatives, ranging from radio commentator Rush Limbaugh to U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann have criticized the EISA on the basis that it's government intrusion into U.S. homes and a restriction on free choice.

The first phase of EISA was to have begun on January 1, 2012, but Republican legislators made amendments in an appropriation bill that prohibited the DOE from spending money to enforce the rules in the 2012 and 2013 fiscal year. The sponsor of the legislation was Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas).

Burgess also fought against EISA in 2007, when it was originally passed.

"It's something the market place should determine. Let consumers make the choice. There was no reason for the government to make that choice for them," Burgess said in an interview with Computerworld.

"It should be up to me if I want to make the decision if I want to run a light bulb that uses more kilowatt hours, so I can see better with my old, failing eyes, in my favorite chair. I should be able to do that," he said. "I get the fact that I work in a federal building and I get the fact that they get to determine the type of light I work under all day long, but at night time, when I go home and read ..., I should be able to read under whatever light I want."

The DOE would not speak on the record about how that lack of funding would affect adherence to the standards.

Even without funding for enforcement, manufacturers are honoring the standards and discontinuing their production of incandescent light bulbs, according to Smallwood.

Some consumers also echo Burgess' concerns, namely that they'll have to replace the warm luminescence of a traditional incandescent bulb with the harsh, white light of LED lamps. But not all LED lamps emit the cold, bright light.

"LEDs don't necessarily have white light, that is more of a concern with CFLs. There are several LED products that do produce warm light," Smallwood said.

Another issue with CFL lamps is that they contain mercury, "which some people are concerned about," he added.

CFL lamps last from 5,000 to 8,000 hours, well beyond the typical 1,000-hour lifespan of an incandescent bulb. One drawback of CFL lamps is that they die more quickly in environments where they're frequently turned on and off .

"You have to leave them on at least 15 minutes in order not to kill the light," Smallwood said.

By comparison, LEDs last well beyond all other lamps today, but the pricing is exorbitant. The LED equivalent to a 60-watt incandescent bulb costs $25 or about 20 times more, according to Smallwood. But the total cost of ownership is vastly less.

For example, an LED lamp has an average lifespan of 25,000 hours, so an LED could last 25 years or more.

By comparison, new energy-efficient halogen lamps produce the same type of yellow light as an incandescent lamp, and they look the same, but cost from $1.50 to $2 more per lamp. They also only last about 50% longer than current bulbs or about 1,500 hours versus an average 1,000 hours for incandescent bulbs.

Lamp lifespan also creates a significant issue for manufacturers and retailers. While energy efficient lamps will have skyrocketing sales over the next few years, their ability to last 25 times longer will mean sales will drop off precipitously, Smallwood said.

"If you buy an LED lamp and it's going to last you 20 years, that replacement market disappears," Smallwood said.

One learning curve for consumers will be a change to the metric system after using the U.S. system of unit measurements. For LEDs, brightness is measured in lumens, not watts.

Lumens are listed on an LED lamp's packaging. More lumens mean brighter light. To replace a 60-watt traditional bulb, consumers should look for bulbs that provide about 800 lumens, according to the DOE.

To replace a 100-watt incandescent bulb, look for a bulb that emits 1600 lumens; for a 75 watt bulb, the equivalent would be an 1100 lumens LED; and for a 40-watt replacement, look for an LED equivalent that has 450 lumens.

The upside

One advantage to lumens is that consumers can get a wider range of brightness. Instead of having to choose between a 100-watt or 75-watt lamp, bulbs using lumens run the gamut, offering a much finer brightness gradient.

Energy savings from efficient lamps are also an advantage. An LED lamp is five times more energy efficient than an incandescent lamp.

According to the DOE, the operating cost savings a consumer can achieve by switching to an energy efficient bulb is dramatic. For example, the operating cost per year for a 60-watt incandescent bulb is $4.80, a halogen incandescent bulb costs $3.50, a CFL bulb is $1.20 and an LED light is just $1.

Beginning this year, on average, light bulbs sold in the U.S. will use 25% to 80% less energy as manufacturers begin flooding the market with new, compliant products.

According to the DOE, upgrading 15 inefficient incandescent bulbs could save a homeowner about $50 per year. Since most of the bulbs also have longer life spans, the savings continue into the future. Nationwide, lighting accounts for about 10% of home electricity use. With new EISA standards, U.S. households in total could save nearly $6 billion in 2015.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

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