Special Report: 6.4.2009

Posted by TED Magazine on Thursday, June 04, 2009

Revolt in Lighting Land

By Joe Salimando

“Outlaw Incandescent Lights?” was the title of one of several workshops given in the final segment before LightFair 2009’s educational sessions closed. It was eye-opening, to say the least.

First, the very title is subversive. Under U.S. law, the matter has been settled. Congress, by setting new, elevated lighting efficiency (lumens-per-watt) requirements in 2007’s EISA legislation, has basically banned the incandescent lamp (as we have known it for decades). Sales of lamps that don’t meet the LPW minimums will stop (on a schedule) in the 2012-2014 period.

However, incandescents as-we-might-know-them are NOT banned. If bulb makers can increase the efficiency of incandescents, they can stay on store shelves. According to Craig DiLouie, Philips already has a bulb that will stay alive. GE apparently had plans to make an incandescent HEI (high-efficient incandescent), but recently shelved them, apparently for good.

I didn’t know much about the content of the session before attending. All that could be known by someone who is not a lighting expert was that the session had a subversive title, and that world-famous lighting designer Howard Brandston was one of three speakers on a panel.


Even a lighting ignoramus who is no fan of lighting designers (i.e., me!) knows who Brandston is. According to the intro for him, he’s the only such person ever inducted into the Interior Design Hall of Fame.

During his presentation (which had a few slides), he excoriated both the decision to (effectively) ban the incandescent and the lack of reaction to  communications he had sent to Washington, including one to Energy Secretary Stephen Chu.

(As it turns out, DiLouie had blogged about Brandston’s position just before LightFair began. I try to keep up with important blogs, including his, but I had messed up here.)

Allow me to distill Brandston’s points:

  1. Lumens-per-watt is not the whole story. It may be some kind of measure of something, but it does not provide an accurate read-out of the quality of light delivered—which matters!
  1. The CFL is looked at, he said, as the logical replacement for incandescents. However, the CFL is not the logical item to step into the breach. The basic idea of good lighting is to use a lamp that matches the fixture and the use of that fixture in the room. 
  1. There are no bad lighting sources (including CFLs), Brandston said. There are good applications and bad applications. He claimed that there could be useful applications today for the T-17 lamp (one damn big fluorescent tube). Someone later challenged him on this assertion, and he rattled off a matter-of-fact perspective on how the T-17 could be used today.
  1. Brandston presented information on CU (coefficient of utilization) and RCR (room cavity ratio). I don’t have his slides on this, but the CU/RCR graph for incandescents looked far superior to that of the CFLs. Brandston said it was.
  1. The idea of EISA 2007 was to save energy. While the lumens-per-watt data indicate we’ll save energy in the future (by banning inefficient light sources in the 2012-14 period), Brandston said the fact is that incandescents deliver useful illumination, and (in the same applications) it’s very possible that CFLs won’t. The switch, he said, “won’t conserve energy.”
  1. Brandston built a 1,250-square-foot addition to his house 12 years ago. He equipped it entirely with incandescent bulbs. In that time, he said, only three of them have burned out. It’s not necessarily true that, versus incandescents, CFLs will deliver a longer life (and less operational cost)
  1. Finally, Brandston detailed his efforts to communicate with the federal government. I’m not sure how many messages he’s sent, because I did not count. No response has come back. He noted that, in the 1970s, when his country asked him to help write requirements that would save energy in lighting, he went to Washington to help out on roughly a monthly basis—voluntarily. Now, when he was asking to be listened to on an important lighting matter, he was being ignored. He sounded bitter.

For some (i.e., me) who are have serious reservations about CFLs—Brandston’s presentation sound like sweet music. But there was more.


Alex Baker of ENERGY STAR was the second speaker. One might have expected a defense of the EISA 2007 requirements or of government. But Baker works for the EPA, not the DoE! Remember: EPA and DoE jointly have their hands on ENERGY STAR. There has been some discussion about this over time. I’m not going to get into it here, but it’s interesting!

To cut to the chase: Baker is no big fan of the incandescent ban. What’s more, he recognized that the CFL has limitations. Here’s a key slide from his presentation; the application being discussed is outdoor security lighting for homes.


If you follow that slide, the 60W incandescent is a better buy, and a more efficient light source, for outdoor security lighting than is a 15W CFL.

Surprised? You might not be, if you think about the two-lamp units that are mounted on a lot of houses (at least in neighborhoods in which I’ve lived in the D.C. suburbs of Maryland and Virginia).

Baker noted that Energy Star Heath Zenith outdoor fixtures activate when they detect something moving. I’ve had the experience of walking down a suburban block at dusk with my wife, and these lamps turning on (in sequence) on down the block – one lighting unit after another!

A best-seller at Home Depot, Baker noted, roughly 200,000 of the Heath Zenith units sell each year.

Problem for CFLs: They can’t be turned on and off over and over again (no problem for an incandescent). Put a CFL in this application and, to preserve its longer life, it would have to be “on” for 10 hours a night (as shown in the slide). As Baker’s slide concludes, in this application, the incandescent

  1. Saves energy
  2. Save the user money on energy bills
  3. Saves the user money via longer lamp life
  4. Saves the user money with lower initial cost

Wow! Here was a government official providing a detailed (and comprehensible, even to an ignoramus) attack on CFLs!

Baker went on to detail other problems with CFLs being screwed into sockets intended for incandescents in residential applications, including using CFLs with timers and occupancy sensors.

Mandating GU-24 (?)

The third speaker was Don Peifer of Lumera Lighting. Like Billy Martin in those ancient beer commercials, he seemed to feel very strongly both ways. First, he noted that despite 20 years of heavy marketing, giveaways, and public pleading on behalf of the CFL, it had maybe a 20% market share vs. incandescents.

Obviously, there’s something wrong with a product that can’t gain share even when you give millions of them away.

But later in his presentation he floated the idea that we should mandate that all future residential lighting installations be of the GU24 variety (which is the pin-type, which means you must use a CFL in the thing).

Frankly, I’m pretty sure this wouldn’t be very effective. There are 4 billion lighting sockets out there that take incandescent lights. Mandating that new buildings be built only with GU24 fixtures would have an impact around 2075. Maybe.

Where Does this Leave Us?

Already, there are discussions about people beginning to buy massive quantities of incandescent bulbs for personal use. Someone recently told me about an engineer who has purchased 200 of them, which he figures will see him through to the grave.

While I found Brandston’s position heartening, I’m not sure it will be effective. Perhaps Congress rushed to judgment in 2007 with LPW rules. However, there are so many other fish for this country to fry on the energy front that it’s hard to envision the DoE revisiting it. Of course, I’m embarrassed for Secretary Chu; yes, he’s won a Nobel Prize, but shouldn’t ignore a guy like Brandston!

For me, the CFL vs. incandescent discussion has personal significance. I like to read. My single frustration with the way a freelance writer/editor must live (besides the low pay!) is that there’s so much to read for business that there’s not a lot of time to enjoy personal reading. So that’s the plan for my retirement: Read books. Actual physical books, not stuff on a computer (or Kindle). I relish the prospect.

Peifer’s remarks on mandating GU24 upset me, to tell the truth. My plan is to stockpile incandescents for personal use, too. But: What if I have all of those bulbs, but move into a new house upon retirement (which is the plan right now)…and that house has nothing but GU24 fixtures?

Addendum: The May 29 Wall Street Journal included a 1,200-word feature on CFLs and LEDs. See it here (perhaps, if you have or can get a password). The story’s subheading gives you the gist: “When Electricity is Cheap, Consumers Spurn Fluorescent and LED Models that Can Save Money Over Time.”

joeelephant  Joe Salimando of EFJ Enterprises is a consultant, web content provider, and wordsmith based in Oakton, Va. To contact him, call 703-255-1428. See also The EleBlog
 Personal Disclaimer: The appearance of the ambling pachyderm is indicative of the writer’s obsession with elephants, not his political leanings.


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