Light bulbs, the new IQ Test

Hot stuff - the incandescent lamp

Hot stuff - the incandescent lamp

It’s not often you can find what appears to be an innocent little question that has a powerful answer, but it looks as if asking someone about their choice of light bulb can tell you if their mental capacity borders on what probably passes for normal (whatever that might actually be), or if their brain is little more than would be installed in something that only needs to grunt, and walks around with its knuckles dragging along the ground.

Reading through some of the responses to an article about the long overdue demise of the popularity of the incandescent tungsten light bulb is enlightening, and should also make you worry with some degree of concern about how some people’s brains are wired up. Some of these responses, if you consider they reflect on some folk’s thought processes, might make you want to take a step away from someone you don’t know, just in case.

Greenpeace manage to come of the story looking like a bunch of mindless idiots as usual, with a crazy claim quoted from them that incandescent light bulbs waste 95% of the the energy they use. In the real world, CFLs may be good, but not that good, and something closer to 80% would have been more than adequate to make the case. Smaller CFLs are less beneficial than large versions, as the running gear inside the base consumes a couple of watts, and this has to be added to the rating of the bulb. So a 5 watt bulb will gobble up around 7 watts – 40% more than expected, while a 20 watt bulb eats closer to 22 watts – 10% more. This also shows how one should take care when percentages and real figures are selected by the promoter – always ask what real numbers the percentages refer to – the reality of the numbers may be a lot more significant.

David Walker from Stirling, Scotland, tells us:

The so-called improved CFLs do not illuminate higher-ceilinged traditional domestic properties adequately. They do not suit traditional light fittings. They appear dim and have no equivalent to 150 & 200w bulbs which are necessary to illuminate older properties. The mercury content is of real concern in CFLs. We only use CFLs at home for cupboard lights as cosmetically, they are horrible – and don’t light up the cupboard either. Much more development is required before the nanny state in this country imposes yet another restriction on its citizens.

David clearly has more money than sense if using 150 watt and 200 watt bulbs to light ceilings, the rest of world now uses directed lighting to see what it is doing, and must like to smash his CFLs against the interior walls of his home if mercury is a concern (hasn’t it been superseded?). I suspect he’d be at the head of queue complaining if the government failed to promote any energy saving technologies.

Tim Beeche-Newman, Reading, England, shows why hyphenated names are best avoided:

Low energy bulbs do not, in any case, save as much energy as claimed. This is because unlike conventional bulbs they produce very little heat. Therefore in a house using low energy bulbs the central heating system will have to work harder to make up the difference. Thus assuming one’s central heating system is on for 6 months per year, the actual energy saving is only half what is claimed. Ask any physicist.

A physicist puts him in his place later, but unless you’ve got a very recent, highly efficiently insulated home, the amount of heat gain from incandescent lighting waste is not going to make any difference to the work done by your central heating system. It’s the comparison of a few hundred (intermittent) watts versus a few kilowatts running for a significant period of the year.

Jimmy R, Scotland:

The main reason I am hoarding them is that I object to the bullying attitude of governments over normal bulbs. I am quite willing to change when asked but I have always had an attitude problem with those who try to push people around without cause.

I’m lost here. Other than perpetuating the suggestion that Scots have a massive chip on their shoulder about everything, what has this to do with the goodness or otherwise of CFLs? Jimmy is still free to use what he likes at the moment, unless he’s looking for a fight.

Paw Bokenfohr, Bracknell, United Kingdom, raises a much repeated complaint about dimming:

Something I didn’t see mentioned in your article, is what about those of us with dimmers? I have one in each of the bedrooms; I don’t always want full brightness, especially when I am getting up in the mornings or winding down for sleep. Why should I be made to remove these switches in order to use CFLs? I shouldn’t is the answer. I am all for reducing our carbon footprint and all, but I already recycle, have a low emission car, and my commute is less than 5 miles, and I always shower, never bath. Why shouldn’t I be able to retain my incandescent bulbs? It seems a small thing to ask.

Again, I find myself a bit lost. Our earlier commentator complain that CFLs are not bright enough for them, now we have someone complaining that they are too bright. I know it’s an extremely simple solution, but dimmers weren’t always available (and are wasteful anyway), so Paw could do something radical and daring like having more than one size of bulb fitted, and use table or floor lamps with lower wattage bulbs when winding up or getting up. Paw also demonstrates flawed logic – something which many so-called green schemes foster – by ending up with no net saving. After reducing one’s carbon footprint, instead of reaping the benefit of the reduction, its used as a sop to indulge in something wasteful, thereby wiping out any benefit.

Alison, London, England, gives us the benefit of feminine logic – if it looks pretty, who cares if it wastes energy:

I will resist these energy bulbs for as long as possible firstly because I have just bought a beautiful light fitting that would look terrible with these bulbs and secondly because I suffer from migraine and do not wish to introduce something that could trigger an attack.

And she even managed to find a medical reason to justify never changing.

Chris Markiewicz, Barnet, England, manages to stay on the medical theme, even if he slips a little in his logic:

I have a visual impairment (retinitis pigmentosa), which means I cannot see well at all in low light. The new bulbs leave it almost impossible for me to see well – I often stay in hotels and now many of them use these bulbs and I literally have to feel my way around the hotel room, whereas with the traditional bulbs I can still see reasonably clearly.

While wishing Chris the best with his impairment, I’ll wager that his problem is not confined to hotels with CFLs. In fact, since they use a quarter or so of the electricity of their hot-blooded incandescent brethren, penny-pinching hotels than put light bulbs that are little better than candles in their rooms could afford to put more powerful bulbs in their place, and still use less power. Chris’s hotels probably still had the 10 and 15 watt “hotel specials” in place, as the owners would rather pay 50 p for an old bulb, rather than the £2.50 the CFL would have cost them to replace it a few years ago.

Finally, the physicist’s contribution in response to the drivel from the first correspondent.

Chris Latham (Physicist), England:

There is a factual error in the contribution from Tim Beechey-Newman, Reading. Each unit of electrical energy delivered to the consumer takes about four units of chemical or nuclear energy to generate it. Three units of energy are lost in the generation process and transmission.

Typically, central heating systems running on a fuel such as oil or gas use about one-and-a-half units of energy to generate one unit of useful heat for the consumer. Thus, when everything is taken into account, electricity is an inefficient way to provide heating. Indeed, this is reflected in the high cost of using electricity for heating. Energy-saving lamps, therefore, do exactly what is expected: they save energy.

Actually, slipping my mildly satirical hat off for a moment, it’s all a fairly sad reflection on people’s attitudes, and unwillingness to adopt to changes, and what might be described as the “comfy pair of shoes” syndrome.

Assuming global warming is real, and that there is indeed a tipping-point which represents the point of no return if we don’t change our ways, then don’t bet on the tipping point not being reached if we’re dependent on ordinary people to do anything about not getting there being coerced.


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