Taking Stock of the Incandescent Light Bulb "Ban"

Jason Lomberg, North American Editor, PSD



So how’s that incandescent ban treating you?

Six years in, questions abound regarding the ban’s necessity, its effectiveness, and whether a ban exists in the first place.

Back in 2007, President Bush signed the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) which, among other things, set maximum wattage requirements for general service lamps in the lumen range of 310-2600. In 2012, the Act effectively banned the 100 W bulb, in 2013, the 75 W bulb, and in 2014, 60 and 40 W.

EISA allowed for a range of exceptions, including traffic lamps, 3-ways, and bug lamps, among others. And two separate pieces of legislation delayed implementation of the ban, first in 2012, and again in 2014, when Congressional Republicans slipped a small rider into the 1,500-page budget bill that withheld funds for federal enforcement of the lighting efficiency standards.

So does this amount to a ban? Yes and no.

The Act never officially mentions a “ban,” and as the government’s Energy Star program explains, “The standards are technology neutral, which means any type of bulb can be sold as long as it meets the efficiency requirements.”

But you’d be a fool to ignore EISA’s clear intent – the bill’s summary specifically states that “Thomas Edison’s 1880’s-era lightbulb will be replaced with new technologies.”

For all intents and purposes, it’s a ban (especially since a new rider goes into effect by 2020 that requires light bulbs to be 60-70% more efficient than standard incandescents).

Meanwhile, alternatives thrive, each with their own drawbacks. The most infamous example, CFLs, contain harmful mercury, a limited color rendering index (CRI), and for many, an aesthetically displeasing spiral shape. That and they’re incompatible with dimmable fixtures.

LEDs are exponentially more efficient than all lighting peers, but they sit atop the pricing food chain. While most LEDs sport a lifetime measured in decades, many consumers balk at spending $5+ on a single A-19 bulb.

Halogen incandescent bulbs skirt past EISA’s efficiency requirements, but their higher operating temperatures produce higher color temperatures, which give them a generally cooler look than the warmer, inefficient tungsten bulbs.

Then, of course, there’s the question of consumer freedom – should we forcibly retire legacy technologies, possibly prematurely? Solid-state lighting is the future, and the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (a trade group responsible for more than 95% of the light bulbs sold in the US) has already spent millions complying with the new standards.

I’ve personally retrofitted the majority of my house with LED lighting, but not everyone is ready and willing to make that long-term investment. And I’ve already had several bulbs fail a decade (or more) early.

Many consumers still prefer the unmatched – if inefficient – glow of a warm incandescent bulb, and I can’t argue with that.