Monday, October 4, 2010

The End of the EZ Bake Oven

Congress hath decreed that we must all give up incandescent light bulbs by 2014. That led to the recent closing of the last light bub factory in America. We will now be importing all our incandescent bulbs. Yay us.

My first thought was to stock up, so I can keep my EZ Bake over going if the bulb in it fails. Seriously, this is yet another case of inappropriate use of ("green") technology. Let's take a look at the technologies involved.

The old standard incandescent bulb is very similar to the bulb Thomas Edison invented in 1879. Prior to that the "best electric light bulb was the carbon arc lamp, which had been invented around 1800. The carbon arc was more efficient, but wasn't very appropriate for household use, and only lasted 100 hours (Edison's original bulbs only lasted 40, but were soon improved to last longer, with modern bulbs lasting about 1,000 hours).

An incandescent bulb works by passing an electric current through a filament made of tungsten until it glows from the heat. Tungsten is used because of its properties at high temperatures. The filament is encased in a glass bulb filled with argon, to prevent the filament from burning, which it would do in air. Argon is a chemically inert gas, and the third most common gas found in our atmosphere (after nitrogen and oxygen).

The down side of the incandescent bulb is that it only emits about 2% of the energy it uses as visible light. The rest of the energy is emitted as infrared radiation. That is a plus if you are trying to keep your chickens warm in the hatchery, or baking a cake in your EZ bake oven, but is a nuisance in a factory, where the waste heat must be removed by air conditioning.

Because of this most offices use fluorescent lighting. Fluorescent light bulbs are about four to five times as efficient as incandescent bulbs (about 9% of their energy is turned into visible light) at first. I say at first because they begin to degrade very quickly in use to about 75% of their original light output. That still makes them about three times as efficient as incandescent bulbs.

Fluorescent bulbs work by passing a high voltage through a low pressure mixture of mercury and a "noble" gas (argon, krypton, neon or xenon). The gas becomes a plasma and emits ultraviolet radiation, which causes a coating on the inside of the tube to fluoresce (hence the name) and emit light.

Until recently, fluorescent bulbs haven't been very popular in the home. First off, the bulb does not emit a "full spectrum" of light (even bulbs that say "full spectrum" on them), but emit certain colors only. So even a bulb that appears white to the eye (because it emits the right amount of red, green, and blue colors) will make colors look "odd" (because the color of the object doesn't match the color the bulb emits). The result can make food look unappealing (a boon for dieters), skin tones appear wrong, colors that appear to match in their light will look wrong in daylight or incandescent light, etc.

In addition, the bulb does not stay lit continuously. It blinks on and off 60 times a second with the household AC current. Thus while it appears to be a constant light to the eye, it can cause headaches and visual stress.

But the biggest problem is the environmental impact. In addition, almost everything in the bulb is toxic. A broken fluorescent bulb provides not only broken glass, but various phosphor compounds that are toxic and worst of all, mercury. attempts to clean up the glass and phosphor dust with a vacuum will spread the mercury around. Mercury, being a heavy liquid metal at room temperature, is very difficult to get rid of and will stay in your house until it is absorbed into your body. Assuming you don't break your bulb, when it fails you need to take the bulb to a hazardous waste center - putting it in the garbage, or even recycling is a no no, as most recycling centers don't have the facilities to properly handle the mercury.

Enter the compact fluorescent (CF) bulb. I was once a big fan of CF bulbs, converting most of my household to using them over the last few years.I crowed over the fact that I was saving "40 dollars a year" off my electric bill (um yeah, I don't see that on my bill). I liked the fact that I could put a 27 or 36 watt bulb in one of those cheap "60 watts or less" lamp fixtures and get a decent amount of reading light for my ancient eyes. However, reliability issues have caused me to rethink that, especially for bulbs in unheated areas. They light dimly, if at all, and constantly need replacing. The more research I did the less impressed I was by them.

The compact fluorescent bulb is a fluorescent bulb that has been bent into a "U" shape or a coil so that it takes up less space. It was invented in China, and China continues to produce most of the CF bulbs in the world. The more "popular" ones you see in stores have an "edison base" (they screw into a socket made for incandescent bulbs) and have an electronic ballast that helps with the slow turn on and flicker issues.

However, the electronic ballast does not work at low temperatures, and cannot stand up to weather. Although the bulb claims to have ten times the life of an incandescent bulb (10,000 hours) they often fail to live up to this because of the number of components in the ballast that can fail. The phosphors have been changed to make the bulb appear the same color as an incandescent bulb, but it still has the same problems of unnatural colors as "standard" fluorescent bulbs.

Most importantly, it has all of the ecological down sides of a fluorescent bulb, and more. The electronics contain lead and other hazardous compounds. The production of the bulbs is quite "dirty", using environmentally hazardous solvents. This is the basic reason why the bulbs are made in China.

According to this MSNBC story:

Manufacturers and the EPA say broken CFLs should be handled carefully and recycled to limit dangerous vapors and the spread of mercury dust. But guidelines for how to do that can be difficult to find, as Brandy Bridges of Ellsworth, Maine, discovered.
“It was just a wiggly bulb that I reached up to change,” Bridges said. “When the bulb hit the floor, it shattered.”
When Bridges began calling around to local government agencies to find out what to do, “I was shocked to see how uninformed literally everyone I spoke to was,” she said. “Even our own poison control operator didn’t know what to tell me.”
The state eventually referred her to a private cleanup firm, which quoted a $2,000 estimate to contain the mercury. After Bridges complained publicly about her predicament, state officials changed their recommendation: Simply throw it in the trash, they said.
So while we are saving some energy we are putting poison in our landfills and homes. In order to save how much? The number look large, but consider that the US consumes 29 PWh, while residential lighting accounts for 212 TWh of that. That means if all of the US residential lighting was incandescent (which it isn't), and all of it was converted to CF, then the US would save 140 TWh/year, or in other words would reduce our energy needs by approximately 0.48%.

To save this 0.48% we will introduce deadly mercury into our homes, and eventually into landfills and waterways. Congress has set the precedent that they can ban a product from the US not because it is dangerous or because it is bad for us, but because they feel like it.

Thus the award for inappropriate use of technology in the home goes to the compact fluorescent bulb.


Great article, Mike. You didn't mention that the bulbs are not designed to work upside down or sideways. I got so frustrated at the number of times I've had to replace these new super-duper long lasting bulbs (snark intended). While at a lighting store I asked the owner about the issue. He told me the bulbs are not designed to work well sideways or upside down. It shortens the life of the bulb considerably, thus adding more toxic waste to our already over burdened dumps!

I'm going to print this off and give it to my appartment building superintendants! They recently mandated that we all change the average of 15 lightbulbs in our appartment to CFLs. We've already had to replace more than half of them in less than 6 months!

Post a Comment