Incandescent Bans and Dim Bulbs

Lynne Kiesling

At some level all of this incandescent light bulb ban stuff is a bit ludicrous. If you look at the light bulb as an historian of technology, you probably think pretty quickly about the switch from whale oil to kerosene as a lighting fuel source in the mid-19th century. In that case the switch happened because the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania created a more ready supply of kerosene, combined with the fact that kerosene gave a cleaner, brighter light with less smell (plus the price of whale oil had been rising dramatically, as whale hunting depleted the whale population). But here’s the problem: although it was obviously a superior lighting fuel source choice, kerosene didn’t eliminate whale oil from the market very quickly, because you couldn’t use kerosene in whale oil lamps, and you couldn’t retrofit whale oil lamps to take kerosene. Someone had to invent a kerosene lamp. And once invented, all of those old whale oil lamps had to be replaced. The two technologies were complements, and mass proliferation of one required mass proliferation of the other.

This little history parable gets me to my biggest critique of both the ban proposals, and the commentary I’ve read on the ban proposals: neither one addresses what I see as one of the most important and valuable features that incandescent bulbs have and compact flourescents don’t — dimmability. You can’t use a dimmer switch on a fixture with CFLs, because CFLs won’t dim. In most new construction and renovation, rooms like kitchens and family rooms have can lighting in the ceiling to provide ambient light. In fact, in our condo we had can lighting almost exclusively, and only four lamps and one chandelier otherwise. We had dimmer switches on almost every light. Incidentally, that meant that our incandescent bulbs lasted for the entire 5 years that we lived there, because we never used them at full strength. Similarly, the renovation we’re about to commence involves lots of can lighting in the kitchen and family room. I know the form factor of the CFL has improved in recent years so that it can almost fit in the space of an incandescent, but it hasn’t gotten to the point where you can use it in can lights or chandeliers. Halogens have a little more potential, and LED lights have a lot of potential. But light bulb and lighting fixture designers, and meddling politicians, have to take into account how people actually use goods like these in their real lives.

How does this relate to kerosene and whale oil? There are clearly lighting technologies that are superior to the incandescent (CFLs and LEDs), but if the complementary technology does not exist to enable consumers to use them in ways that meet their needs, they won’t use them. If you ban incandescents and no one has figured out how to make an LED bulb that can go into a can lighting fixture and/or a chandelier and be dimmed, then a black market for develop for incandescently can lights and chandelier bulbs, very much in the same way that a black market has arisen for high-flush toilets from Canada.

Glenn Reynolds posted a link to this Washington Post article on choosing light bulbs, but it does not address the dimmer switch complementarity issue. Neither does the Wikipedia entry on the incandescent light bulb, but it’s an informative entry nonetheless.


10 thoughts on “Incandescent Bans and Dim Bulbs

  1. I’ve been experimenting with CFLs for 5 years. I’m quite a CFL enthusiast.

    My first ones way back when were from Ikea. They were bloody awful (dim, took forever to turn on).

    The new ones are much, much better (even though they’re the cheap ones from the Depot). They’re almost instant on. The quality of light is very similar to incadescent. They’ve also got CFLs that are bluer (advertised as “more like sunlight), but they seemed quite harsh to me and I actually took these bulbs back.

    But even with all my experimenting and enthusiasm, I would be a fool to replace all my bulbs with CFLs.

    First, they’re not dimable. Even the ones that claim to be dimable aren’t anywhere as dimable as a garden variety incadescent.

    Second, CFLs actually get brighter the longer they stay on. They have to warm up to achieve their true brightness. Thus, they’re not appropriate for closets, hallways, powder rooms, or any light that is on for short periods of time and that you need full brightness instantly.

    Finally, I have 2 bulbs out of about 10 that are faulty. They have a tendancy to not turn on, they need to be tapped to turn on. I had them in a basement recessed light fixture, and I think the vibration from walking on the floor above caused them to fail. Bottom line is to keep those Home Depot receipts, because you are going to need them for the CFL warranty. These things aren’t 100% reliable, and unlike an incadescent, when they fail you will want to utilize the warranty (generally 5 years from the date of purchase).

    To sumarize, CFLs are great, but they have their place, as do incadescents. They’re complimentary, not entirely substitutes.

    Because of the Com Ed rate hikes, I replaced all the appropriate incadescents with CFLs. I actually got my March ’07 electric bill lower than March ’06, despite the higher rates.

  2. This is another case of command-and-control being suggested as the solution to a problem of sunk costs as a deterrent.

    In this case, the sunk costs aren’t wholly monetary, so maybe sunk utility is a better word. We like dimmability, we like canister lights, and we like not having a million switches around to turn off some of our CFLs to mimic dimmability.

    Sunk costs are generally regarded as assets which can be devalued “naturally” in the market, but which can’t be devalued “unnaturally” by government fiat. So, I see proposals for a ban of this sort as arguably unconstituional under the takings clause.

  3. I have dimable compact fluorescent bulbs in my house. They work with dimmers made for incandescent bulbs. Of course, they cost more, but to get the dimming is worth it. They last as long as other CFl’s. They’re made by GE.

  4. Of course it’s better to have the dimmer in the actual dimmable CF’s ballast. I don’t think X10 home networks have the stuff to really fit in…but they keep on making X11, X13…so one of them probably has it.

    No matter, it hasn’t made the channel marketing run yet.
    We need both networks and fixtures so we can get light where we want it efficiently, and opening blinds might be a nice add-in. Someone pointed out that one needs city and sometimes regional building and electrical permits (typically with fee) to just replace her house’s fittings (legally, in the US.) A little more bundling than the type-A Edison lamp took.
    Secondly, getting specs back in the fray; one can barely get lumens/W figures anymore, less so even casual spectrum spec. or where a dimmable or daylight version is actually stocked!

    LED lamps actually fit on ceiling fans without taking much space (causing head conks); just think how much trouble it was to dim the whale oil lamp under the ceiling fan once you’d conked your head…. (‘Servant,’ you would say, ‘move the lamp, dim it, and daub up this oil.)

    History doesn’t help! Get me a gutsier designer-supplier!

  5. Hey using led lights and replacing conventional lightning system,and going green,yes these old lightning system shud be banned.

    LED Lights

  6. Hey using led lights and replacing conventional lightning system,and going green,yes these old lightning system shud be banned.

    LED Lights

  7. Hey using led lights and replacing conventional lightning system,and going green,yes these old lightning system shud be banned.

    LED Lights

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