the Air Vent

Because the world needs another opinion

Ban All Incandesent’s (A Not So Bright Idea)

Posted by Jeff Id on December 22, 2008


Banning of the incandescent light is one of the favorite topics of the AGW movement. The theory is that the use of high efficiency florescent and LED based bulbs will save enormous amounts of energy. A number of countries have already put this legislation in place. Let’s take a look at some of the numbers.

A typical 60 Watt incandescent house lamp produces about 1000 Lumens placing the lamps at just over 15 Lumens output per watt used. Lumens are a measure of visible light energy, think watts of light that your eye can see.

A florescent replacement lamp is about 80 Lumens per watt form the bulb but typical output is around 40-60 after power supply.

The best LED lamps have typical outputs around 100 Lumens per watt today with about 60 lumens/watt after all the other factors are included.

These numbers are based on an extensive background in this field. There is no single source for them but they are available all over the internet if you want to check. (reports do vary)

It seems like a no-brainer, we can use less energy by switching to these sources. But there is another problem or two which must be considered. I just measured a typical 4 bulb fluorescent ceiling fixture in cool white, it produced an output of only 18 lumens/watt from a 200 watt input. The rest of the light was absorbed into the reflector, plastic cover and other surfaces. So now our excellent efficiency florescent light which started out with a high output 80Lm/Watt source has wasted the majority of the light.

What happened to the extra light? The same thing that happens to every inefficient engineering process, it turned into heat!

Fixture losses are common and quite large in the lighting industry. If you put an A19 bulb (standard screw bulb for the US) in a can ceiling light, often less than 30% of the light produced makes it out of the can. The rest is heat.

When world’s governments are making the decision to make the switch mandatory from incandescent the actual savings are always overstated. Not because of exaggerated claims in performance but rather because all heat is considered waste. In the northern countries on our little rock it get’s cold in the winter so a ten percent efficient incandescent turns into a 10% light 90% heat furnace. Of course that heat isn’t wasted, it heats the house and rooms so the furnace runs less.

We run our furnace in my house for about 8 of the twelve months of the year. Canada is north of us and therefore, colder.

Canada has legislation in place to eliminate the incandescent by 2012 (wiki).

Brazil and Venezuela started to phase them out in 2005, and other nations are planning scheduled phase-outs: Ireland and Switzerland[55] in 2009, Italy in 2011, Canada in 2012, and the U.S. between 2012 and 2014. Most of these laws and regulations do not ban the usage of incandescents, but rather ban their sale (with minor exceptions). Australia is planning to ban the sale of lower efficiency incandescent bulbs while continuing to allow the sale of more efficient incandescents, for example halogen incandescent lamps. – wikipedia

Now in the equatorial regions of the world, it would save a reasonable amount of energy to switch from incandescent. In our area we run primarily on nuclear power. A mandatory switch to LED or florescent light will reduce load on the power grid and for 8 of ten months of the year we will produce higher gas bills for heating our houses. It would reduce energy consumption in the summer when air conditioners pump heat from our houses but our AC’s also run on nuke power. The net result in our case will be an increase in CO2 emissions because we will use more natural gas to heat the house.

In Canada or cold locations around the world where furnaces run most of the year, the change from incandescent makes little sense. If the heat is not thought of as wasted, the bulbs are extremely high efficiency sources using a minimum of excess resource. Instead of turning off the light when you leave the room, if it’s cold out and the heat is running go ahead and leave it on. There’s not much difference, just the cost/btu of gas to the cost/Joule of electricity. Either way the room stays warm.

I’m not against saving energy when it makes sense. Some of the best quality LED lights are actually a good cost saving measure for those who can pay the upfront price. It is a shame to see these costs forced upon a whole country like Canada when they will have so little benefit.

18 Responses to “Ban All Incandesent’s (A Not So Bright Idea)”

  1. The Diatribe Guy said

    Great post.

    There are other considerations, as well.

    Firstly, while I can understand the push to promote high-efficiency light bulbs, it actually blows my mind a bit that we’d be reaching a point where we’re about to make the incandescent bulb illegal. Rather than find new energy sources and let the market figure out how to produce these products in a less expensive way, we once again take the dumbest route possible to providing a solution: government mandate.

    Secondly, while this may sound a bit far-fetched, I have a sister who has suffered from a number of ailments. After years of issues and tests, it was finally determined that she has heavy metal poisoning. For reasons I don’t fully understand, but her physician does (who specializes in extreme cases of this), flourescent lighting exacerbates her problems greatly, while incandescent lighting doesn’t. I may not be a naturalist, but there is a certain logic in my head that says natural things are better than unnatural things. Incandescent lighting is produced the old-fashioned way. Something burns, and light is produced. Flourescent lighting is not natural. I won’t say it’s harmful, but there does seem to be some physiological effect to particularly sensitive people, and I just think psychologically there is a detrimental effect to spending all your waking hours being immersed in unnatural lighting.

    There’s also this annoying “fit” issue. I actually do try to use high-efficiency bulbs where it seems to make sense. But too often the bulb just doesn’t fit right into the sockets.

    Finally, there’s the Mercury issue (which may go hand in hand with my second point). I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with my high efficiency light bulbs that don’t work any more. I actually care about this and don’t want Mercury in the groundwater, so I’ve been collecting them until I know how and where to dispose of them. But how many people will toss them into the garbage and send them to the landfill? I consider this a remarkably huge drawback to these. In the fight against an imaginary pollutant – CO2 – I suspect we’ll be sending a real and harmful pollutant to the landfills.

  2. JDN said

    [Jeff: In your piece, where you have “to incandescent”, I think you mean “from incandescent” or maybe “to fluorescent”]

    Compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs)are becoming more reasonably priced, so it’s not a big expense to change to them. What I don’t like about them is that they are not compatible with a dimmer switch (at least none that I have found), and that they take time to ‘warm up’. That is, they may take a few minutes to reach their full brightness. For places where I need lots of light but only momentarily (e.g. a storage room), incandescent bulbs are simply more practical and the difference in efficiency is meaningless. Also, some CFLs stipulate not to use them in an enclosed fixture. So, in the near future I will be forced to also change the fixtures???

    Over time, I’m sure the above problems will go away due to inevitable innovation (funded, of course, via my pocketbook). Yet I think the incandescent ban is more symbolic than anything and really just improves political capital for some parties.

    I do think LEDs have huge potential in that the light is instant, cool and require much lower voltage, and would seem to be just the thing for use in flammable environments. And, being solid state, LEDs should be far more rugged than incandescent bulbs and CFLs.

    I am not in favor of such regulations, yet in this case, since there are competing technologies to incandescent out there, the ban might help push the new stuff along a bit faster. When you think about it, creating light by using dangerously high voltage to heat up a metallic filament to hundreds of degrees does seem so … last century.

  3. Jeff Id said

    I don’t like the mercury in florescent bulbs either. I’ve heard complaints about the transformers making people uncomfortable also but only anecdotally. LED’s are a great option but the purchase cost is high and it is impossible for most to pick a good one from the bad. There are a lot of bad quality LED lights. The light spectrum is usually worse than a florescent but not in all cases.

    Incandescents follow a gray/black body emission curve and usually run about 2800K color temp so the light is somewhat more like sunlight.

  4. paminator said

    I recently compared all of the commonly available light sources in terms of cost per lumen over a ten year span. This included the initial cost, the cost of replacement bulbs, cost of power, and lumens per watt. LEDs and compact fluorescents did not do so well, although it depends on your electricity costs per kwh. Conventional long tube fluorescents and high pressure sodium lamps were clear winners. This will change once LED products come down in price a factor of ten or twenty. Maybe in ten years or so. Right now, for the same lumens, the incandescent is about 1/5th the price of a compact fluorescent, which in turn is 1/10th the cost of an LED fixture.

    I did not include the heat value of the bulbs or fixture optical losses. I totally agree that in Canada it makes good sense to consider incandescent lights as distributed heaters (I grew up in Edmonton).

    I have had compact fluorescent bulbs smoke, whine or fail after a few months in outdoor fixtures. They don’t like heat or moisture.

  5. Jeff Id said

    #4 It sounds like you did an interesting comparison. HPS is a good device for outdoor lighting due to the color spectrum. These are used as street lights (the more yellow ones) because of high lumens/watt. I think your 1/5 and 1/5*1/10 = 1/50th numbers are off quite a bit. How long ago did you do the analysis?

  6. Ian B (1) said

    The real point about this it’s symbolic rather than practical, and you can’t win the argument on pragmatic grounds (in fact, you can’t win it at all with zealots). It’s like the steadily escalating plastic baggie bans; plastic bags don’t do any significant degree of harm in the grand scheme of things (if at all)- the greens oppose them because they are symbolic of a “wasteful” culture. It’s an issue of moral temperance, not science or engineering. They want to change the worldview of the populace- our belief in what is “good behaviour”. It is like banning cream cakes not because of health grounds, but simply because they are seen as a luxury (though the temeperance movement will use the health argument as an excuse).

    “Saving” energy is ridiculous. To save a few per cent here or there- even if it is possible- won’t save a planet if it needs saving. You’d need orders of magnitude of change, which dickign around with the lighting load won’t address. Heavy lighting users are already using the most efficient lamps for cost reasons- you won’t find an office building illuminated by incandescents (bar a few halogens in the posh bits) anywhere. For domestic users, fuel for heating (and cooling where appropriate) swamps the lighting load.

    So, this is a symbolic battle, about enforcing a “norm” of temperance, scrimping and saving, directly opposing the great idea of modern western society that luxury is a Good Thing and everybody should get some of it and enjoy it, by success in their endeavours. THis isn’t practical economy, it’s just pure miserablism.

  7. paminator said

    I looked at the numbers in August 2008. My assessment was run based on assuming the light bulb is producing the desired product- light that is helpful to human vision (i.e. lumens). The comparison I ran was over a four year period of operation, with a selected electricity cost, bulb lifetime, initial bulb cost, and normalized to produce the same total number of lumens out. Cost of money is not included (how many people are willing to plunk down $200 cash to replace one incandescent bulb with an equivalent light output LED?). Why four years? That is the rated lifetime of the longest-lived options, namely the LED bulbs and the long fluorescent tube. I don’t buy these lifetimes for any bulb that requires a compact switching power supply (LEDs, CFL), but that is a separate discussion. I chose continuous operation to maximize the benefits accrued to high efficiency light sources, since they use the least amount of electricity per lumen.

    Here is a summary of costs to run various light bulbs continuously for 4 years at 10 cents/kWh to generate 1000 lumens of light, including replacements as warranted:

    LED vendor 1- $320 (34 lumens/W)
    LED vendor 2- $631 (14 lumensW)
    Compact fluor- $58 (69 lumens/W)
    Incandescent 1- $215 (18 lumens/W)
    Incandescent 2 (long life)- $313 (11 lumens/W)
    Long fluorescent- $60 (61 lumens/W)
    High pressure sodium- $50 (80 lumens/W)

    These will change with various different assumptions (electricity price, duty cycle of use), but the light source lifetime, price, efficiency, and lumen output are all from current product offerings.

    Note that I restricted this to currently available products, not technologies that have promise to be at some performance level in the future. For example, I know of one lighting technology demonstrated in the early 1990’s that exceeds 200 lumens/watt for thousands of hours in a compact package. It has not been commercialized.

    Pricing (exclusive of electricity costs) for the light sources that I used are as follows-
    LED 1- $60 for 308 lumens
    LED 2- $1200 for 3500 lumens
    CFL- $7 for 1850 lumens
    incand 1- $0.8 for 1750 lumens
    incand 2- $3 for 1100 lumens
    long fluor- $9 for 2430 lumens
    HP sodium- $20 for 4000 lumens

    These work out to:

    LED- 20 to 30 cents per lumen
    HP sodium- 0.5 cents per lumen
    long fluor, CFL- 0.4 cents per lumen
    longlife incand- 0.3 cents per lumen
    incand- 0.04 cents per lumen

    So, actually the differences in price are larger than I had earlier posted- assuming you are shopping for lumens instead of something to screw into a socket, regardless of light output.

    Bottom line? LEDs are starting to look good for projection display light engines, but I’m waiting a few more years to let their prices/lumen drop a factor of 20 or so before swapping out the CFL’s and long-tube fluorescents that illuminate my home today.

  8. Jeff Id said


    Very nice. You have looked closely at this.

    I thought you used electricity costs though. It’s pretty nice to see people smart enough to figure this out.

    I think there will be some new LED lighting which will run around 80 lum/watt in cool white and about 60 in warm (incl. ballast) in the near future. The lifespan of a quality LED product is at least 50,000 hours.

    “I don’t buy these lifetimes for any bulb that requires a compact switching power supply (LEDs, CFL), but that is a separate discussion.”

    Yup. There are some ballasts which do not contain electrolytic caps (or don’t use them in oscillating mode) and will last the life of the product but try to figure out which are which.

    Really good work.

  9. MrPete said

    A couple of anecdotes:

    In 1995 we installed a four foot generic flourescent fixture to provide a constant level of light for a pet who sleeps out there, and for most quick forays to obtain tools, freezer food, etc.
    Since this light is intended to be always-on, the switch is in a nearby attic space. We have not turned it off in 13 years.

    Our real-world results using standard cheap bulbs (I think Philips from Home Depot?)… a few years ago we changed the bulb for the first time. That’s right, we’ve seen close to ten year bulb life, 24×7 … more than 80k hours. Even assuming the current bulb will burn out tomorrow, that’s 0.5*13*24*365 = 56k hours.

    Similarly (but less extreme) my wife runs a significant (for a home) plant-germination operation every year, with 16 flourescent bulbs in eight fixtures providing the light. In my experience, the fixtures and/or ballasts burn out almost as often as do the bulbs.

    Obviously, an always-on flourescent has much better long-term performance.

    As for pricing of flourescents: here, four foot bulbs are the most common and can be purchased in bulk (think home office etc) for US$1 to US$2 per bulb. Your $9 “long bulb” price seems awfully high.

    A current and extremely cost effective use of LED lighting is night lights. I went to buy a pack of 7w bulbs for our on-at-dusk night lights sprinkled around the house. Four bulbs were $2.50 or something like that.

    I came home with a few LED night lights (similar to what you see here. They are $1.87 each at Walmart. Max rated power: 0.5w.

    Bottom line: Buying new LED night lights pays for itself in less than a year compared to buying traditional night light *replacement* bulbs (even better if you don’t own the night light fixture.) Plus, I’m no longer replacing burned-out night light bulbs, and the new lights look really nice and provide better light (aim downward for floor-glow, aim upward for room-glow.)

    See below for LED analysis…


    A bit of research shows you can get 4w traditional bulbs for about US1$ each. Traditional bulbs last ~3k hours.

    Three options:
    7w * 10 hr/day * 365 = 25.5KwH/yr
    4w * 10 hr/day * 365 = 14.6KwH/yr
    0.5w * 24 hr/day * 365 = 4.4KwH/yr (max)

    Four year analysis including cost of bulbs and factoring in lifespan:
    7w bulbs (4 bulbs, 25.5*4 KwH) = $2.50 + $10.2 = $12.70 per fixture
    4w bulbs (4 bulbs, 14.6*4 KwH) = $4.00 + $5.84 = $9.84 per fixture
    0.5 LED (1 lamp, 4.4*4 KwH) = $1.87 + $1.76 = $3.63 per fixture
    [And that assumes I already own the traditional fixtures]

  10. MrPete said

    Sorry about the typo. If you can close the link after “here” it would read better.

    One other comment as long as I’m writing a note: the labor cost of replacing bulbs can also be an important factor. I have no idea about the AGW implications of this.

    Various public monuments have been running on LED lighting for this reason for quite a while. For example, it is a pain to replace the lighting around the upper rim of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC (that’s one I noticed earlier this year.)

    Ultimately, that may be a big factor in the switchover of car headlights from incandescent/halogen to LED.

  11. WhyNot said

    Here is a link that might interest some of your readers, and I will just give a few but rather important facts. Data provided below is taken from the report (give credit where it is due!!!).

    In the USA we use 765TWh/yr (delivered) for lighting. Here are conversion factors.
    1 TWh = 1 billion (1.0e9) kWh
    1000 TWh electricity = 3.412 quads delivered electricity
    1 quad delivered electricity = 3.211 quads primary energy

    If an LED light is 33% more efficient the USA would save roughly 220TWh/yr or 220e9kWh/yr. If electricity is $0.10/kWh we would save $22 Billion a year!!! And of course one could easily figure out how many power plants that would be, or how many barrels of oil that would be etc. Have fun.

  12. Eric Anderson said

    As someone who has quite a few CFL’s in the house (despite the fact that my wife hates CFL’s for the slow warmup time), I think a few points are worth mentioning:

    – The typical advertised 10K hours for CFL’s is — I hesitate to assert intent here, but — nothing short of a blatant lie. In real practice, I have found that you get significantly fewer hours, in some cases not even in the ballpark.

    – The “replacement watt” rating on CFL’s is overstated. It might be x in the lab, but in real life, the CFL never lives up to the same amount of light produced. Or perhaps because it is a different kind of light it doesn’t appear as bright. Whenever replacing an incandescent with a CFL, I always have to bump up the CFL to the next level to get what the eye perceives as a similar light output (i.e., a “75 watt equivalent” CFL is needed to replace a 60 watt incandescent). This needs to be taken into account when determining any anticipated savings.

    – Yes, the up-front cost is coming down, but for now it is still much more expensive than a traditional incandescent. Our local utility has spent millions subsidizing CFL’s to get them into people’s hands. Great for buying the CFL’s now, but I know I’m paying for it indirectly.

    – After a few years of use, folks are only now starting to realize the environmental impact caused by disposal of millions of CFL’s. As I understand it, the material in CFL’s, including the ballast, is a lot more nasty than the traditional incandescent. Our local sanitation services are encouraging people to dispose of CFL’s only at designated facilities to lessen the environmental impact.

    – Health sensitivity to flourescents is not uncommon.

    So, yeah, I’ve saved a few bucks on electricity by using CFL’s extensively at home (subsidized by my local utility, thank you very much), but I’m still not completely sold and am viewing this as an extended experiment, rather than a panacea for the planet.

    BTW, I don’t think incandescents do much for us in terms of heating. Almost all the heat is trapped high up at the ceiling or even in the attic, and helps very little. I’m convinced that CFL’s permit less electricity usage overall in the home, but there are other important cost, environmental, health and practical considerations that need to be factored in. Banning incandescents is ludicrous.

  13. Jeff Id said


    You make a good point about the attic but first floor lighting (in a two floor house), room lamps, ceiling lamps not inserted into the attic all add 100% to the heat content of the room. Also, increasing the heat level in the attic improves the differential which reduces heat loss. energy transfer accross a boundary=h A (del T). I think that the net is half the heat into the attic is recovered.

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