Feds Phase Out More Light Bulbs in 2013

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HOUSTON -- At the Light Bulb Depot near his home in The Heights, Randy Gingrich just bought another batch of florescent bulbs.

“Since I started three years ago, I haven’t replaced a compact fluorescent yet,” he says. “So I’m happy with that.”

“In my ceiling fans, each one of mine has four lights,” says Allen Tabb, who’s been selling light bulbs for 16 years. “So instead of using 240 watts of electricity, I only use 60 watts of electricity. And I get the same light output.”

Sure, fluorescent bulbs are more expensive than old-fashioned incandescent bulbs and some people complain about losing a special glow in their homes. But in the long run, homeowners say they’re cheaper.

Besides, pretty soon Americans won’t have much choice.

As the New Year arrives, new rules bring the nation closer to the end of the traditional incandescent light bulb. Energy efficiency legislation adopted by Congress and signed by former President George W. Bush in 2007 is gradually phasing out the standard bulbs that have illuminated American homes for more than a century.

The new rules have applied to 100 watt bulbs since the beginning of 2012. In 2013, the restrictions have expanded to 75 watt bulbs. In January 2013, the new rules will apply to 60 and 40 watt bulbs.

The regulations don’t exactly ban incandescent bulbs. Some bulbs reportedly could meet the new standards, although they would be markedly more expensive. And many types of specialty bulbs have been exempted from the law.

But the new rules will effectively end the era of traditional incandescent bulbs as the most common source of artificial light in American homes. So the nation is slowly but surely shifting toward other types of bulbs, mostly fluorescent bulbs and LEDs.

Inside the Light Bulb Depot, Gingrich points customers toward a gizmo sitting on the count that dramatically demonstrate the advantages of the newer technologies. Two light sockets are attached to a standard electric meter identical to the device mounted outside homes.

A spinning wheel illustrates how much power the lights are consuming. When an old incandescent is plugged into the device, the wheel spins much more rapidly than when it’s attached to a fluorescent bulb.

“See how much slower it moves?” Gingrich says, adding that the new technology bulb consumes about a quarter of the power of the older bulb. “The more of these that you put in your home, the more you get to slow it down.”

As Americans change their style of light bulbs, they’re also learning a new way to shop for lights. Instead of buying bulbs based on wattage, they’re buying bulbs based on lumens.

The new lumen standard measures not how much power a bulb consumes, but how much light it emits. Newer technology bulbs generally emit much more light while consuming much less power. Light bulb packages now show a lumen number.

“It’s such a cost savings,” says Cindy Clothier, who teaches classes on energy efficiency at a Home Depot store in southwest Houston. “And with our energy bills, particularly in the summertime, going so high people are really looking for their savings.”

Clothier’s commitment to efficient light bulbs borders on evangelical. She’ll stick your hand underneath an incandescent bulb to show you how much excess heat your old bulbs are pumping into your air conditioned home. But she’s especially passionate about the potential environmental damage of old style light bulbs, particularly the possibility of mercury leaching into water supplies.

“One of these bulbs in a 20-acre lake will contaminate that lake forever,” she says.

Ask her to find the old bulbs in her store, though, and she’ll dig around until she finds a box of the old relics that she hopes will be relegated to the past. Although making and importing the old style bulbs is generally becoming illegal, retailers are still allowed to sell the dwindling stock.

“We do have them, still,” she says. “But like I said, we’re phasing them out.”