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Sunday, December 30, 2012

75-watt light bulb production to end Jan. 1, but they’ll stay around for a while

The long, slow departure of the incandescent light bulb takes another step Jan. 1, when most 75-watt incandescent bulbs can no longer be made – but the story of the bulb’s bigger sibling shows there’s no need for traditionalists to panic.

“We still have some 100-watt bulbs in the warehouse,” said John Majewski, assistant manager at Aubuchon Hardware in Nashua, speaking Wednesday , almost a year after production of 100-watt bulbs largely ended. ...

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The long, slow departure of the incandescent light bulb takes another step Jan. 1, when most 75-watt incandescent bulbs can no longer be made – but the story of the bulb’s bigger sibling shows there’s no need for traditionalists to panic.

“We still have some 100-watt bulbs in the warehouse,” said John Majewski, assistant manager at Aubuchon Hardware in Nashua, speaking Wednesday , almost a year after production of 100-watt bulbs largely ended.

The end of 100-watt production as of Jan. 1, 2012, was triggered by a 2007 law that was designed to signal the demise of traditional bulb technology by 2017, in favor of much more energy-efficient alternatives like compact fluorescent and LED bulbs.

Due partly to political pressure over government interference and partly to customer backlash, however, that law was rendered largely toothless, since the EPA can’t fine companies that make illegal bulbs and has no money to enforce the law. Production ended anyway, but while it is becoming harder to get 100-watt bulbs – Aubuchon has a few gaps on its shelves for certain types of that wattage – they still are available. Majewski expects that the same will be true for 75-watt bulbs for a long time.

He said the large majority, perhaps as much as 80 percent, of the store’s bulb purchases are still incandescent; the store has well over twice as much shelf space for traditional bulbs and halogens than for compact fluorescents, and it doesn’t yet sell LED bulbs.

The new technologies are more expensive. Compact fluorescents used to be up to 10 times the cost of a traditional bulb, and while their cost has fallen, they are still about twice to four times the price. LED bulbs, which only become widely available in 2012, still cost around $30 per bulb.

A variety of rebates from companies, private programs and the federal EnergyStar program often cut the final price, however. These bulbs last far longer than incandescents which, combined with lower electricity use, can save money over the course of several years.

There are even some new incandescent technologies, which meet the federal efficiency guidelines, although they are still rare.

Traditional bulbs create light by heating up a wire, using a technology invented by Thomas Edison, rather than heating up a gas as is done by fluorescent bulbs or sending electricity through semiconducting material, as is done by the newest technology, LED bulbs. (Halogen bulbs also heat up a wire, but with a different process than incandescents.)

While incandescent bulbs are cheap and well-understood, they don’t do a good job of turning electricity into light, generating plenty of waste heat. In general, a standard incandescent bulb produces about 15 lumens, a measure of light output, per watt, whereas compact fluorescents generate 50 to 70 lumens per watt, while LED bulbs produce 100 or more lumens per watt.

The 2007 law was designed to overcome the price advantage of the older technology as a way to reduce energy usage. Lighting consumes about one third of the electricity used in the U.S.

All these technologies have turned what was once a straightforward purchase – how many watts do you want, meaning how bright a bulb? – into a complex balancing act of technology, cost, appearance and function.

“We get a lot of people, they don’t know about the different color-temperature options that are available. They say they don’t like CFLs because of the harsh light; nobody bothered to tell them they can get that soft yellow glow,” said John McNamara, store manager at Batteries Plus, 522 Amherst St., which began selling light bulbs four months ago. “We spend a lot of time, trying to educate people.”

It’s no longer possible to determine brightness simply by wattage, as was possible when most bulbs used the same technology. Even measurements like “60-watt equivalent” don’t always translate well; the measure of lumens is now the best way to tell brightness.

Further, many compact fluorescents can’t be used with dimmer switches, and many take a few seconds to reach full brightness. LED bulbs overcome both those problems, and the general expectation is that they will eventually be the dominant lighting technology, but they are still in their infancy.

Bulb packaging these days includes a government fact box – “almost like a nutrition fact box, like you find on a cereal box,” said McNamara – that gives estimated life, energy usage, output in lumens, and “light appearance” ranked from warm to cool.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com. Also follow Brooks’ blog on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).