In defense of the bulb

BY Ken Clark

When legislators talk about phasing out one of the all-time great home channel products—the incandescent light bulb—somebody needs to complain, even when the motives for the phase out are as noble as energy efficiency.

It might as well be me.

Legislators around the world have been flicking the switch off. More precisely, some are taking steps to phase out the incandescent light bulb and phase in the more efficient compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL). In the Netherlands, Brazil, Venezuela, Australia and Canada, the incandescent bulb—Thomas Edison’s heated filament protected by a vacuum tube—appears to be on the road to mandated obsolescence.

Can it happen here? It can. An incandescent bulb ban is already on the table in California, and there are rumblings of a phase out in other state legislatures.

The often-squiggly CFL is widely hailed as the reliable and efficient alternative. It has often been described so in the pages of this magazine, where our editors regularly promote its value proposition. In my own New Jersey home, longer-life CFLs are rapidly replacing incandescent bulbs. I encourage my neighbors to follow suit.

But I protest against a state-mandated ban or phase out.

Some people say they prefer the unique warm glow of the heated filament. Are we to deny them, while indulging the consumer who enjoys his 72-inch television screen 20 hours a day? In the name of energy efficiency, are we to ban the Hummer? The electric tooth brush? The big house? This seems like a clear-cut case of selective prosecution. (Note to GM executives: I’m not calling for a ban on Hummers, I’m just saying.)

The incandescent bulb is a burning issue. Let the educated retailer make the call.

And here’s another question: Which bulb has small amounts of mercury vapor? Answer: the CFL, though it is a very small amount. (See article on page 3)

By opposing a ban on incandescent bulbs, one opens himself to criticism as an “energy hog.” Granted, we have to take steps as a nation to become more energy efficient. CFLs are a great invention and will play a role. Our role is to educate and innovate, not ban harmless products.

I’ll avoid the easy legislators-and-light bulb jokes. But I will recommend that state and federal authorities and others in power who are considering phase-outs consider also that the incandescent bulb is perhaps the greatest invention in the history of American commerce. If the product doesn’t harm anyone, let the educated home channel retailer make the call. Don’t ban the bulb.


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How much credit should be given to the co-op business model for the success of the independent hardware and building supply dealer over the last half century?