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.

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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 situation is different. 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.

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

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

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).

"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.

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