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Dim view of lighting law

Consumers hoarding old-fashioned bulbs ahead of federal phaseout

By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / August 4, 2011

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Robin O’Neill wants to leave the earth a healthy place for her three children. But what good is a thriving planet, the North Andover mother asks, if her kids are forced to live in a home lighted by bulbs that are energy efficient but ruin the look of the dining room chandelier, or take forever to get bright?

After years of looming as a distant threat, the federally mandated phaseout of some incandescent bulbs is about to become very real.

Many Americans have no idea that most traditional light bulbs are about to disappear, to be replaced by energy-efficient compact fluorescent lights, light-emitting diodes, and halogen incandescents.

For some of those in the know, the change means just one thing: It is time to start hoarding old-fashioned bulbs.

O’Neill keeps her stash under her basement stairs and figures she’s got a three-year supply. When that runs out? “Hopefully they’ll come up with a better technology that is more appealing.’’ The industry insists it already has, but traditionalists aren’t impressed.

There are signs that hoarders have been busy. Sales of standard incandescent bulbs are up by 10 to 20 percent over a year ago at The Home Depot, according to the chain’s chief bulb buyer. A 2010 survey by Osram Sylvania, the Danvers-based light bulb maker, found that 13 percent of consumers plan to stockpile. At Lucia Lighting & Design in Lynn, some customers are trying to figure out how many incandescents constitute a lifetime supply.

“People are used to that nice, warm, happy hug of an incandescent,’’ said store owner Lucy Dearborn.

The new law won’t ban all bulbs. Specialty products, including three-way bulbs, appliance bulbs, and those under 40 watts or over 150, are still OK. But not the bulbs that are most common in everyday use.

Some people don’t want the government messing with their bedside lamps.

Michele Bachmann and Rush Limbaugh, among others, have branded the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 an attack on individual liberty. But an attempted repeal of the ban failed, so, starting Jan. 1, manufacturers can no longer make the beloved traditional 100-watt bulbs, and following years will bring the elimination of the 75-, then the 60- and 40-watt bulbs as we know them.

Many critics hate the look of some energy-efficient bulbs - the spiral compact fluorescents are particularly loathed - or they dislike the coolness of the light they cast. There are complaints of fluorescent-induced headaches. And who wants to do the light bulb math required to figure out new wattage equivalents?

Not Billy Bain of Boston. The self-described struggling artist says he simply can’t focus on one more thing. “I’m not against [energy-efficient] bulbs,’’ Bain, 32, said as he discussed plans to stock up on old-fashioned bulbs, “but you’ve got everything else going on, and the light bulb was always just there.’’

Beyond issues of politics, appearance, and light quality, what some people most dread is that the new bulbs require a bit of attention. A country that couldn’t be bothered to learn the metric system is now being forced to think about a product that, up until now, has been the same since Thomas Edison got his patent in 1879.

At The Home Depot in Dorchester, tutorials in the bulb section teach shoppers that a 25-watt incandescent bulb equals a 5-watt compact fluorescent light, a 60-watt incandescent equals a 13-16 watt CFL, and so on.

Actually, don’t get too comfortable even thinking in watts.

Starting Jan. 1, the US Federal Trade Commission is requiring manufacturers of incandescent, compact fluorescent, and LED light bulbs to use new labeling on consumer packaging that - for the first time - will emphasize the bulb’s brightness as measured in lumens, rather than watts.

Lumens?

“Is it a measurement of light?’’ asked Bain, the artist, guessing correctly on the second try.

The Energy Independence and Security Act requires new bulbs to be about 25 percent more efficient than current bulbs. The act aims to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gases, and, according to a US Department of Energy estimate, it will save US consumers nearly $6 billion in 2015, the first full year after the standards go into effect.

That’s a nice savings, but for some it doesn’t take the sting out of the high costs upfront. While a traditional 60-watt incandescent generally costs about 60 cents, according to the American Lighting Association, a Dallas-based trade group, the equivalent halogens and CFLs cost about $2 to $3, and LEDs can run $40 or higher.

And those prices are for lights many people don’t even want - or know about. But, as Terry McGowan, the lighting association’s director of engineering, points out, manufacturers have improved the quality and range of energy-efficient bulbs.

“In 2007, when the act was passed, there was no such thing as LED screw-in bulbs,’’ he said. “That’s been the Holy Grail for both the energy-efficiency advocates and the manufacturers.’’

As for CFLs, he said, manufacturers are making them small enough to fit into most lighting fixtures, and dimmable and three-way versions are now available. And CFL and LED screw-in bulbs are now available in “warm’’ tones that are similar to standard incandescents, he said.

Considering that some LED screw-in bulbs are expected to last for 25,000 hours - or even twice that long - what’s to gripe about?

Plenty, say some wary consumers. For starters, they say, some new energy-efficient bulbs are not dimmable, and figuring out which ones are takes work. Others don’t fit in existing light fixtures. CFLs can take several minutes to reach full brightness, an eternity in an instant-download society.

Consumers also have health concerns.

“I often get calls from people convinced their workplace lighting system is giving them headaches,’’ said George C. Brainard, a neuroscientist at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia who is assisting NASA in the retrofit of the lighting system on the International Space Station. Many people are not imagining the discomfort, he said. Some fluorescent lighting systems, particularly the older ones found in many workplaces, can cause “visual stress’’ for a minority of the population.

And although the light coming from the fluorescent bulbs and LEDs may appear to be white, both types of lamps emit a significant amount of light in the blue part of the spectrum. Exposure to blue light during the evening produces a stimulus to wakefulness that makes falling asleep harder, said Brainard.

As for the appearance of some of the bulbs, particularly the curly CFLs, let’s not go there. “They’re coyote ugly,’’ Margaret Pelton, 48, of South Boston, put it as she faced down a wall of spiral CFLs at The Home Depot in Dorchester.

Pelton also has a noncosmetic complaint: “Who are they to make me buy these bulbs?’’ she asked, griping about price and the difficulty of properly disposing of mercury-containing CFLs.

The City of Boston holds household hazardous waste drop-off days, and Home Depot and other retailers will take the bulbs back for recycling. But Pelton predicts a different scenario: “You’re going to go out at midnight and find the dumpster behind the Rite Aid and throw it in.’’

Not everyone knows the specifics of the law - which is good news for retailers such as the Kansas-based Light Bulbs Etc.

“I’ve had some really huge orders going to residences,’’ said Sean Derning, the company’s Internet sales manager. “The largest was probably about $7,000. That was for a range of bulbs, a lot that aren’t even being affected by the legislation - but keep it quiet.

“I don’t know what they’re going to do with them,’’ he added. “Have big yard sales?’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.

Related

Graphic

2012
100-watt incandescent light bulbs can no longer be manufactured.

2013
75-watt incandescent bulbs are eliminated from production.

2014
40- and 60-watt incandescent bulbs are no longer produced.