Monday, January 26, 2009

Incandescent Bulb Phase-Out: A Giant Leap for the Environment?

The phasing-out of incandescent bulbs – especially the 100-watt models – had already started in the EU. Will this measure really help our environment?

By: Vanessa Uy

Yep, it’s official. The phasing-out of tungsten-filament incandescent light bulbs – especially the 100-watt models – had already been declared mandatory in Europe by the start of 2009. And so does their manufacture to be replaced by those mercury-vapor compact fluorescent lamps, which with their screw-on sockets – can directly replace the older less-energy efficient incandescent bulbs. If this is the only a question of energy efficiency, then why are there still a somewhat large majority still skeptical in their use despite of the energy-saving properties of compact fluorescent lamps? First, let us compare the two somewhat radically different illumination technologies.

Tungsten-filament incandescent bulbs convert the 60Hz 220V alternating current electrical energy into light energy for illumination by heating the tungsten filament inside the incandescent bulb. The disadvantage of this technology is that only 10% of the incoming electrical energy are converted into light, while the other 90% is given-off as heat or thermal energy. What makes incandescent bulbs useful for use in poultry incubators can be somewhat of a waste of electrical bills when it comes to domestic illumination.

Compact fluorescent lamps or CFL ‘s – since their commercial manufacture and promotion in the late 1980’s – has been a “godsend” to those who want to lower their electrical utility bills in the illumination front. Like ordinary fluorescent lamps, CFL ’s convert the incoming electrical energy into light when the electricity converts the mercury vapor inside the tube into ultraviolet radiation in which the bulb’s coating of phosphorescent materials – usually zinc sulfide – converts the ultraviolet radiation into more or less visible light. Fluorescent –type lamps usually convert 79 to 85% of the incoming electrical energy into light which make them easily 7 to 8 times more efficient than ordinary incandescent bulbs in energy usage terms. The advantage of compact fluorescent lamps over ordinary fluorescent lamps is that because of their screw-on base, they can directly be used as a replacement for “inefficient” incandescent bulbs. If this is all about lowering our energy consumption and reducing our carbon footprint, then why are there still more people “seeing red” over the “green” potential of compact fluorescent lamps?

First, let’s start with everyone’s aesthetic tastes – which could be seen by most environmentalists as irrelevant when it comes to energy use – is the primary – make that the only reason – why some people really hate compact fluorescent lamps. CFL ‘ s are very notorious for their bad spectral output – i.e. the light that they give off is utterly unnatural, even when compared to fluorescent lamps of “previous generation”. Honestly, I can only gain wisdom comparable to that of the newly elected US President Barack Obama only when I’m working under Northerly-Lights akin to that frequently used by the Dutch painter Jan Vermeer. In which, sadly, even the latest generation of compact fluorescent lamps still can’t provide. Nuclear war fallout shelter use for the next 35 years in hiding for illumination they are not!

Then there’s that significant mercury content of compact fluorescent lamps. If these lamps happen to end up in countries where their manufacturer’s recycling and proper disposal department is absent. Then compact fluorescent lamps will be more trouble than they are worth when their expired brethren will be contaminating elemental mercury into the local biosphere despite of the carbon dioxide emissions that these types of lamps can happen to reduce. Then there’s the concern of somewhat high ultraviolet radiation output of these lamps, especially when you are using them as desktop lamps - which could cause most of us to be concerned when it comes to possible skin cancer effects.

Are compact fluorescent lamps – in spite of their energy efficiency – really more trouble than they are worth? In the short-term, the answer is a big fat yes. Their spectral output can be an eyesore to a significant number of people. Plus, they need to be disposed of properly when they die - in spite of their longer life-span that’s usually 5 times more than old-style tungsten-filament incandescent bulbs – because of their significantly high mercury content. Major manufacturing firms of compact fluorescent lamps should start looking into these problems as soon as possible. Maybe the best way to reduce our carbon footprint when it comes to lighting is to just turn off unnecessary lights, isn’t it?