By Charlene Wirtz
Standard incandescent household lighting is being discontinued within Canada. This is part of an effort to reduce environmental emissions by reducing household electricity usage. To comply, our appliances and electronics have become more efficient and this effort is extending to our lightbulbs.
In 2008, the Energy Efficiency Act was amended to include standards for lighting, and a ban of incandescent bulbs was to start in 2012. Amendments since then have included changes to conform more closely to the US standard, to allow halogen bulbs, and to delay the ban until 2014. Effective this month, 100-watt and 75-watt incandescent bulbs are no longer being manufactured, and in December this will extend to 60-watt and 40-watt. Certain specialty bulbs are exempted, including candelabra bulbs, appliance bulbs and utility bulbs.
Although manufacturers will no longer make them except for special applications, incandescent lightbulbs will not be illegal to use. Halogen bulbs are still available. Compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) bulbs have been available for several years, and light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs are becoming more popular.
But what’s the difference between all these different ways to make light?
The familiar, everyday tungsten filament incandescent lightbulb has been around for a long time. It is cheap, easy to dispose of because it contains no toxic materials, lights up instantly at the flick of a switch, can be used with dimmer switches and gives an even, warm light. Only about 10 per cent of the electricity used by these bulbs is converted to visible light; most of it is converted to heat, so incandescent bulbs have often been used as heat lamps. The bulbs can be used indoors or outdoors, are not sensitive to low winter temperatures, and come in many shapes and sizes.
The incandescent bulb has another advantage. Because the light is produced by heating the filament, it is a continuous spectrum source much like the sun. If you could make a rainbow with an incandescent bulb, it would be a little more red but otherwise just like the rainbow you see in the sky, with all the colours moving evenly from red to purple.
Halogen bulbs probably come closest to replacing incandescents in all areas, but they also may be phased out. They too turn on instantly, can be obtained in many shapes and sizes, and are not sensitive to cold. They can last up to 4000 hours but they are a little more fragile than standard incandescents. They are dimmable and produce an even light, in a continuous spectrum like incandescents.
CFL bulbs, which for years have been recommended as the replacement household bulb, are more efficient than incandescent, using only about 25 per cent of the power needed by an equivalent-brightness incandescent. They last much longer, up to 10,000 hours or 9 years at 3 hours a day. The light is harsher than that from incandescents, but new bulbs that give a warmer light are becoming available. Although the tube is curly, which makes it compact, the light is produced in the same way as a tube fluorescent light and has the same properties. This includes ultraviolet emission, and mercury in the fluorescing gas and tube coating. The light given off by a fluorescent bulb is not steady, since it is produced by an alternating current (the source of the “flicker”), and instead of being a continuous spectrum like an incandescent, it combines specific colours of light to make it look white. A rainbow made with fluorescent light would look like distinct bands of colour with gaps in between.
CFL bulbs are typically slow to light up and may not turn on at all at temperatures below -20C. They can be sensitive to humidity and are prone to overheating when used in an enclosed fixture such as a globe lamp.
Concerns about CFL bulbs
When a CFL bulb reaches the end of its life, it is usually the ballast that burns out, literally, with flames and smoke visible at the base of the bulb. Manufacturers state that this is normal and poses no danger, but there have been concerns that it may be a fire hazard.
The long lifetime of a CFL bulb can drastically shorten, depending on how it is used. Bulbs that are turned on and off again, staying on for less than 15 minutes at a time, do not last very long. Neither do bulbs in dimmable fixtures, as CFL bulbs need to be specially made to work properly on dimmer switches, and even then it might need to be a special dimmer switch.
Because of their mercury content, CFLs should be recycled by facilities with the equipment to deal with the mercury. CFLs and fluorescent tubes that go to landfills eventually leach mercury into the ground, where it can get into the groundwater and cause toxicity.
Resistance on the part of consumers and environmentalists to the widespread use of CFL bulbs includes two main arguments – the mercury content of the bulbs, and the quality of light.
Mercury is a neurotoxin that damages nerve cells and in high enough doses is poisonous. A safe upper limit of mercury exposure is considered to be 0.1 microgram (mcg) per kilogram of body weight per day. CFL bulbs typically contain up to 5 milligrams (mg) of mercury sealed inside the tube (0.1 mcg equals 100 mg; 1000 mg equals a gram; 1000 grams equals one kilogram). A medical mercury thermometer typically contains up to 2 grams of mercury, and that amount spread over five Olympic-sized swimming pools is enough to cause toxic contamination.
Simply using the CFL bulb won’t release the mercury; that only happens when the bulb breaks, and there are ways to clean it up that reduce your exposure. The big issue is extended exposure to broken bulbs, and the amount of mercury that leaches into the groundwater from landfills.
Locally we have already run into issues with discarding CFL bulbs, and no doubt some of us have given up on being able to dispose of them properly. Dropoff points for used CFL bulbs are few and far between even in the cities, and recycling facilities don’t exist in some areas of the country.
There are few recycling options available for CFL bulbs in rural Saskatchewan. SARCAN does not currently take them and has no plans to expand into this area. EnviroTec takes CFL bulbs at the Household Hazardous Waste recycling events around the province, and K-Light Recycling in Regina accepts and recycles the bulbs.
Light quality is also partly a perception issue. Many people feel that the light is harsh and hard to see by, causing eye strain. The ultraviolet may cause problems for people with autoimmune disorders such as lupus. Also, despite manufacturer claims, CFL light is known to trigger migraines, especially when it is the only light source.
Howard Brandston, a lighting designer and former professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is leading a campaign to save the incandescent lightbulb and speaks out against the CFL bulb. For him, it’s about the quality of light as well as the mercury issue. He believes that incandescent bulbs give better light and the savings from CFL bulbs are not as significant as advertised.
The David Suzuki Foundation supports the move to CFL bulbs and cites an overall greenhouse gas emission reduction from reduced electricity use, even though natural gas use for heating will increase.
The other option, which some experts believe will overtake CFL despite the cost, is LED bulbs. Depending on whether they give “warm” or “cool” light, these can use as little as half the power needed by CFL bulbs. They last longer, from 25,000 to 50,000 hours or 45 years at 3 hours a day. They turn on instantly, without the warmup time required by fluorescents, and operate well in low outdoor temperatures. They are more durable than other bulbs and can sometimes even handle being dropped. Various sizes are available, including standard, track lighting and flood sizes. Like CFLs, they may require a special dimmer switch.
LEDs require a specific voltage source, however, and so the household bulbs are much heavier than a simple incandescent, although not much heavier than CFLs, as they contain a voltage converter circuit. They also can overheat if they are used in an enclosed fixture. They give a steady even light without flickering, and are available in warm to cool shades. The light given off is usually a continuous spectrum with more intensity at certain colours – the rainbow would look like the incandescent light’s rainbow, but with some colours brighter than others.
LED bulbs do not contain mercury or other toxic materials and do not need special disposal. They are also expensive, although the price is coming down as the bulbs become more available. There are no recycling requirements for LED bulbs.
It will be up to each consumer to decide. Will you stock up on incandescent bulbs while they are still available and pay a higher power bill for lighting? Or will you switch to the high-efficiency CFL or LED bulbs?
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How to Clean up a Broken CFL Bulb (from the Environmental Protection Agency)
– Get everyone, including pets, out of the room.
– Open a window or outside door in the room to air it out.
– Turn off central heating or air conditioning to prevent moving the released mercury vapour and powder into other areas.
– After the room has aired out, cleanup can start. Do not use a vacuum or broom as these will spread the mercury vapour and powder.
– Place the bulb base in a glass jar or plastic bag for disposal. If using a bag, it should not have any holes and should be sturdy enough to resist tearing or cutting from the broken glass. Use stiff paper or cardboard to scoop up glass fragments and any powder. Place immediately into the glass jar or plastic bag. Use sticky tape to pick up small fragments and powder, especially off carpet. Place the used tape into the glass jar or plastic bag.
– Take all the bulb debris and cleanup materials outside right away and put them into a garbage can or other protected area to prevent the items from being spread around.