On Catholic Stewardship and Light Bulbs

This is the lighting on my ceiling fan.  On the left are standard incandescent bulbs.
On the right are new energy efficient LED bulbs.
The subtitle of this blog is "Apologetics and random musings from the Bible Belt."  This entry falls under the "random musings" category.  As many of you know by now, there have been some significant changes to laws governing the way we light our homes and places of business.  I hear a lot of people complaining about this and President Obama is usually on the receiving end of those complaints.  Now anyone who knows me will tell you I am no fan of President Obama, but anyone who knows me will also tell you I am a stickler for accurate information and giving credit (or blame) where it is due.  Barack Obama is only partially responsible for this new energy law. He bears only a tiny fraction of the credit (or blame) for it.  The legislation in question, called the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA 2007), was passed by the Senate on June 21, 2007. Then, Senator Barack Obama did vote for it, but it was signed into law on December 19, 2007 by Republican President George W. Bush.  The one man who could have stopped it with a veto -- didn't. So for those who want to complain, feel free to do so, but please blame the right politician when you do.

Initially, I thought the new law was a bad idea, especially for the poor, who will have to pay higher prices for light bulbs at the retail store.  I still have mixed feelings about that.  However, in the long run, I think this law has great potential for reducing some of our energy costs and likewise reducing the amount of energy that needs to be generated to power this nation of ours.  I see great "potential" because there are also great pitfalls to this legislation as well.

In regards to the poor, and families with limited means, I'm afraid we are now stuck with what we have.  The price of light bulbs just went up and they're never going to come back down to what they once were before January 1, 2014.  So the question now is; how do we make the best of things?

Incandescent Bulb
The standard incandescent light bulb is what is going the way of the dinosaur. They used to cost about 25 cents a piece.  That's a pretty good price for a very old invention.  It's been around of over a hundred years with very few changes. Unfortunately, that also means they are very inefficient insofar as energy usage. They also don't last very long. The average incandescent bulb lasts about 750 hours, and typically uses about 60 watts of electricity to produce about 800 lumens (a measurement of how bright it is).  So in the case of my ceiling fan, shown in the image above, four of these babies puts me out 240 watts of electricity to light my living room 3200 lumens.  Ouch!  240 watts is a lot of electricity for an average amount of light.  These antique bulbs also don't last very long.  I can expect to replace them every 4 months, assuming they're high quality bulbs, and every 3 months if not.  These are being replaced by the new halogen gas bulbs, which look pretty much the same, use a similar technology as the old incandescent bulbs, but are filled with a halogen gas.  This allows the bulb to burn brighter at lower levels of electricity.  So to get about 800 lumens of light, you only need about 43 watts of electricity instead of the 60 watts required by the old bulbs.  They also last a little longer, at about 1,000 hours per bulb, or about 5 months, assuming you light your home for about 6 hours every night.  Currently, these bulbs run at about $1.50 each, but the price should come down as production increases over the years ahead.  If you're on a tight budget, and just can't afford anything else, these babies will cost you only a little more money at the retail store, but the energy savings you get over the long run, both in energy use and the life of the bulb, should (in theory) cause you to break even.

CFL Bulb
The next product is something we are starting to see a lot more of in the retail stores.  It's called the Compact Florescent Light (CFL) bulb.  They're becoming popular because after years of production, the price of these things are starting to come down. Currently, they run less than $5 a bulb, and we can expect the price to fall further as production increases.  CFL bulbs use a florescent gas to create light, technically speaking, it's not really light in the traditional sense, but that's another story. The reason why CFL bulbs are becoming so popular is because they are extremely efficient.  It only takes about 13 watts of electricity to produce about 800 lumens of light.  So the lighting in my ceiling fan would only require 52 watts to produce roughly the same amount illumination if I switched it from standard incandescent bulbs to CFL bulbs.  Wow!  That's a savings of 188 watts!  Yes, I could expect a noticeable and significant lowing of my electric bill if I replaced all of my incandescent bulbs with CFL bulbs.  In addition, more money can be saved simply by not having to change my light bulbs as much.  Allegedly, the average life expectancy of a well built CFL bulb should be about 4 to 5 years if used for about six hours every night. That's about seven times the life expectancy of the average incandescent bulb.  Which means, of course, not only are we saving a whole lot of money on electricity usage, but we're also saving a little money (allegedly) on light bulb expenses because we're having to replace them much less often.

However, there are some problems with CFL bulbs which trouble me deeply, and on many different levels. From a usage standpoint, while they've solved the flickering problem common to florescent lighting, it still takes a little while for a CFL bulb to reach its full lighting potential. On average, from personal experience of using them, it seems to take about 10 minutes for a CFL to truly reach the 800 lumens one would typically see from an incandescent bulb instantaneously upon flicking the light switch. So they're a little on the slow side to reach full lighting potential.  However, that would not be such a big problem in and of itself when you consider the energy savings.  The real problem I see is health related, as pointed out in this silly but informative video...

Usage of these bulbs allegedly has some negative effect on the human body in what is called "dirty electricity."  I am not familiar with the legitimacy of these claims, but supposedly, there are some negative health effects, especially on diabetics.  Some people claim the lighting from these bulbs gives them migraines as well.

Beyond that however, there are other well known health risks. You see, in order to make the CFL bulb viable in the market of standard household lighting, it needs to switch on and off like a regular incandescent light bulb. Flickering, which was common among the old CFL bulbs, is a deal killer.  Nobody likes a flickering light bulb in their house. Fixing that requires something that is a fair conductor of electricity but simultaneously a poor conductor of heat. The solution was to add about 4 milligrammes of mercury (Hg) gas to each bulb.  That's about 500 times the maximum ingestion amount recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Mercury is a neurotoxin and is highly poisonous. Now thankfully, the gas is contained inside the bulb, and you don't ingest any just by using it.  However, if one breaks, the gas is released, and if you're nearby, you will likely inhale some.  Who knows how much?  But it's something you probably don't want to do.  This is why the manufacturers recommend opening up all windows and evacuating the area for a while before returning to clean up the debris.  Debris should be cleaned up carefully with disposable tape and card stock paper, and nothing should be touched with the bare hand.  Mercury gas eventually crystallises back into a solid, but cutting yourself on any of the glass shards presents the risk of getting mercury particles into the bloodstream. Then there are the long-term environmental effects. While people are supposed to recycle CFL bulbs a certain way to prevent environmental pollution, we all know that human nature will produce otherwise. Over the years, we can expect millions and millions of these spent bulbs in our nation's landfills.  I don't know what the effect of millions of pounds of concentrated mercury will do to our environment, but I suspect it probably won't be a good thing.  Our nation's regular landfills may slowly transform into toxic waste dumps.

This is one reason why I'm getting rid of all the CFL bulbs in my house.  Currently, I have moved most of them outside, to outdoor lighting, and the few that remain in the house are contained inside thick globes to protect my children from accidental breakage of the CFL bulb.  Eventually I will cycle them all out of my house and my home will be CFL free.

LED Bulb
The final product is the Light Emitting Diode (LED) bulb. These are probably the most advance form of lighting available to the public, and they are becoming increasingly popular. It works by emitting electrons that are able to recombine with holes within the device, releasing energy in the form of photons. That's "light" in layman's terms, real light, not a substitute. LED bulbs are safe and non-toxic. If one breaks, there is no danger, and you can dispose of it like a regular light bulb without significant harm to the environment. Though I would recommend recycling them if you can. It only takes about 11 watts to produce about 800 lumens of light per bulb.  That means I can light my whole ceiling fan for just 44 watts of electricity, compared to the 240 watts used by incandescent bulbs, giving me a savings of about 196 watts.  That's going to show up on my electric bill. Plus the average life expectancy of a LED bulb is allegedly 10 to 11 years, at roughly 6 hours of use every night.  (I like to write the date on these bulbs, as shown in the photograph above, so I will eventually be able to tell exactly how long it really lasted when it finally burns out.) There are only two disadvantages to the LED bulbs as far as I can tell at this time.  The first is cost.  At a whopping $8 each, I don't expect very many people to go out and replace their entire house lighting with them in the near future. However, as more people continue to buy them, slowly, the cost of production will go down gradually.  I suspect that about the time the cost of production equals (or is close to) the cost of production for a CFL, the LED will eventually replace the CFL entirely.  Why?  Because in my opinion, it's just a better product all around, for so many different reasons.  The other disadvantage to the LED bulb is its weight.  It's kind of heavy for a light bulb.  This won't be a problem for most light fixtures, however, if you're using the older kind designed strictly for paper light incandescent bulbs, you're either going to have to replace the fixture, or just settle for the lighter halogen or CFL bulbs.

So what is this Catholic blogger's take on the new light bulbs insofar as Catholic teaching on stewardship of the environment? Well I doubt the U.S. Catholic bishops will be making any kind of official statement on this matter.  They have much bigger fish to fry.  My take on this is as follows.  As a Catholic Christian, I believe in being a good steward of the environment God gave us.  I don't necessarily subscribe to all the latest scientific theories concerning man-made climate change (global warming), but that's beside the point.  Using less electricity helps the environment no matter what theory you subscribe to, so as a good Catholic, that's what I want to do.  At the same time I live in the Ozark mountains of Southern Missouri, and anyone who has visited this area knows that income levels are below the national average here.  So practical cost effectiveness is a major factor.  I am also a husband and a father who deeply cares for his family.  I don't want my wife and children exposed to potentially harmful elements.

That being said, this is my personal advice, based on my educated personal opinion.  If cost is a major factor in your weekly budget, just buy the standard halogen light bulbs to replace your old incandescent bulbs. They will cost more than the old bulbs, and you won't see any real savings on your electricity bill, but in theory, you should break even in the long run because with halogen you won't have to replace your bulbs as much. Just so you know, halogen isn't particularly good for you if inhaled, but it is nowhere near as toxic as the mercury gas contained in CFL bulbs.  As for those swirly CFL bulbs (sometimes hidden in what looks like a standard light bulb shell), on a personal level, and as a personal opinion, I would NOT recommend buying them under any circumstances.  I bought some and now I am sorry.  I want to get rid of them, but I'm trying to do so in a responsible manner by cycling them out slowly.  I will never buy another one now that I know what a danger they can potentially be to my family, friends and guests. As the price comes down on them, they may become more and more attractive, but when I consider the potential health risks to myself and those around me, as well as the potential long-term environmental damage that may soon be caused by them, I just don't think it's worth it.

If you want to save money on your electric bill, and you're on a tight budget, this is what I would recommend you do.  Buy a small stock of cheaper halogen bulbs for regular replacement as needed.  However, at the same time, if you can afford it, spend an extra $8, the next time you go to the grocery or department store, on one single LED bulb. Keep it ready to use when the opportunity arrives.  Repeat this process, about once a month, whenever you visit the grocery or department store, so you're only spending an extra $8 at a time, spread out over months and years.  In time the price of these bulbs will drop anyway.  However, if you phase them into your house slowly, they won't break your budget, as you gradually gain the benefit of long term lighting, that will eventually save money on your electric bill, and you shouldn't have to replace them again for a very, very long time.


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amna zaheer said…
Looking at lighting for your house? You need to Buy led bulbs . The lighting are available in almost every shop thus they are readily available. Led lighting has a number of advantages: they are resilient, eat less energy, and they are wonderful. The attractiveness of the lighting comes in because they come in different shades and styles. Due to their different shades and styles, you can use them in almost every space in your home. Although, the lighting is available in almost every shop, you should be careful of where you buy them from. This is because there are many shops that will offer you bogus lighting. To make sure that you are cheated, you should do adequate analysis before you part with money.s
Louis C. Gasper said…
You have left out the important consideration of the heat emitted by incandescent bulbs. This is not all waste. Lights are used more in the winter, exactly when a boost to home heating is more valuable.

Second, you have taken no account of the implied rate of return to investment in more expensive bulbs. We are always told the total amount of energy savings over the lifetime of a CFL or LED bulb, but whether they are economically efficient depends critically on when those savings are realized. The more delayed they are, the less they are worth as against the higher present investment in buying the bulbs. When I have tried to make this calculation, my conclusion is that the investment in the "more efficient" bulbs pays less return than my investments elsewhere. Therefore, I expend fewer resources if I buy the cheaper incandescent bulbs, saving the money to buy more energy in the future.

You can say that I am wasting energy, but electrical energy is only one resource. I am saving other resources, the value of which is reflected in the higher price of the CFL or LED bulb.

The drive to save energy arose from the oil crisis years ago. Now there is no such crisis. There is ample energy available. The continued drive to save energy is fanaticism, the redoubling of effort when the objective is no longer attainable.

Finally, you should consider the possibility that the prohibition on the manufacture or importation of cheap incandescent bulbs was bought by General Electric and Sylvania and Philips because they want to sell higher-margin CFL and LED bulbs and needed to kill off competition from cheaper alternatives. It's called crony capitalism.
Sheer led said…
Thanks for sharing LED info i am also a big distributor of MR16 LED Bulbs in United Kingdom and interested in related information.