Saturday, May 10, 2008

Light Bulb moments

I remember the first time that I convinced myself to buy a Compact Fluorescent Lamp (CFL), to replace one of the humble incandescent bulbs in my house. After all, as an engineer and one involved with the power sector, wasn't it my duty to set an example, save energy and reduce my carbon footprint?

The electrical shop owner had given me a sales pitch that, though the CFL cost 20 times as much as the bulb, it had a much longer life (around 10000 hours) and that a CFL of 25 watts produced the same luminescence as that from a 100 watt bulb. Considering that I would be using the CFL for a max of 4 hours a day, I calculated that it would last for around 8 years.

As an engineer, and one involved with the power sector, I ought to have known that the life of the CFL was dependent on voltage conditions (which in most parts of India can fluctuate wildly) and the number of times you switched it on or off (which, given the frugality that characterizes Indian mindsets, can happen many times a day, - every time you leave the room) So, instead of the 8 years that it was supposed to last, mine went bust in a few months. Payback calculations made with good intentions while buying the CFL were rendered invalid, for reasons that the Techno explains in this interesting conversation.

Ever since, I remain a CFL- skeptic and cling to the bulb, as much as I can.

So, this report in the L.A.Times ( via Boing Boing) about an incandescent bulb that has been burning continuously for 107 years, appealed to me greatly. Explaining the longevity of the bulb, Tom Brammel, the bulb-keeper says, “Most people just consider it a freak of engineering. But I believe the bulb has stayed alive so many years because the makers gave it a perfect seal, so no air gets inside the bulb to help disintegrate the carbon filament. This bulb operates in a vacuum and it doesn't burn hot. That's the secret."

To which, my question to the engineers in the power sector and the lighting industry is, “ Why don’t you provide a perfect seal in all the bulbs that come out of your factories, so no air gets into it to disintegrate the carbon filament? I realise that you may have to close down your factories, in the absence of repeat business, but we will build well-lit memorials for you, with plenty of your bulbs glowing. Think of the glory that will be yours.


Usha said...

sigh...I guess people are too focused on narrow and short term goals such as their jobs and livelihood forgetting the long term glory that could be theirs. :)

Raj said...

Usha, some people are simply too selfish.

Panta Rei said...

there has always been the suspicion that light bulb makers (like makers of other products)
don't make products that last long for fear of losing profit...

and indeed that extends to CFLs and other lighting, whatever tha claims made.

Indeed there are many more reasons that supposed CFL savings don't hold up:

To begin with the simple usage factors:
Lost, broken or malfunctioning expensive bulbs cost more to replace than cheap ones.

Meanwhile, the “expensive to buy but cheap to use” concept tends to lose out,
– in rarely used lamps around the house
– in short stay situations, vacations, second homes etc

Brightness problem of CFLs:
Supposed equivalents are not actually equivalent in brightness, so
higher energy using CFLs needed for adequate brightness.
See recent testing of CFL brightness versus ordinary bulbs:
More, with other links:

CFL Lifespan
is lab tested in 3 hour cycles. That does not correspond to real life usage (as indeed pointed out in your link) and numerous tests have shown real life type on-off switching reducing lifespan.
Leaving lights on of course also uses up energy, as does the switch-on power surge with CFLs
Also, CFLs get dimmer with age, effectively reducing lifespan

Power factor:
Few people know that CFLs typically have a power factor of 0.5 – that means that power stations use up twice as much power than what the CFL rating shows. This has to do with current and voltage phase differences set up when CFLs are used.
Although consumers do not see this on their meters, they will of course have to pay for it on their bills.
This is explained with official links including to US Dept of Energy here:

Heat benefit from using ordinary incandescent light bulbs
Again mentioned in your link, but often ridiculed.
Of course this matters less in India,
but conversely any negative heat effect there can be countered by saying people might prefer the bulbs for other reasons, and are of course free to use others as they wish, when they wish, anyway.

Effect on Electricity Bills
Inasmuch that energy use does fall with light bulb and other proposed product efficiency bans,
electricity companies make less money,
and they’ll simply raise the electricity bills to compensate
(power companies often have their own grids with little supply competition)
Energy regulators can hardly deny any such cost covering exercise…

A simple alternative view:

Americans (like Europeans, and probably people in India and elsewhere) choose to buy ordinary light bulbs around 8 to 9 times out of 10 (light industry data 2008).
Banning what people want gives the supposed savings - no point in banning an impopular product = no "savings"!

If new LED light (or more efficient CFLs or indeed incandescents) are good,
people will buy them - no need to ban ordinary light bulbs (little point).

If they are not good, people will not buy them - no need to ban ordinary light bulbs (no point).

The arrival of the transistor didn’t mean that more energy using radio tubes were banned… they were bought less anyway.