Light Bulb Ban Looms

With a Federal ban on sales of incandescent light bulbs fast approaching, manufacturers are still scrambling to invent suitable substitutes.

With a Federal ban on sales of incandescent light bulbs fast approaching, manufacturers are still scrambling to invent suitable substitutes.

AP (“LED bulbs hit 100 watts as federal ban looms“):

Two leading makers of lighting products are showcasing LED bulbs that are bright enough to replace energy-guzzling 100-watt light bulbs set to disappear from stores in January.

Their demonstrations at the LightFair trade show in Philadelphia this week mean that brighter LED bulbs will likely go on sale next year, but after a government ban takes effect.

The new bulbs will also be expensive — about $50 each — so the development may not prevent consumers from hoarding traditional bulbs.

The technology in traditional “incandescent” bulbs is more than a century old. Such bulbs waste most of the electricity that feeds them, turning it into heat. The 100-watt bulb, in particular, produces so much heat that it’s used in Hasbro’s Easy-Bake Oven.

To encourage energy efficiency, Congress passed a law in 2007 mandating that bulbs producing 100 watts worth of light meet certain efficiency goals, starting in 2012. Conventional light bulbs don’t meet those goals, so the law will prohibit making or importing them. The same rule will start apply to remaining bulbs 40 watts and above in 2014. Since January, California has already banned stores from restocking 100-watt incandescent bulbs.

Creating good alternatives to the light bulb has been more difficult than expected, especially for the very bright 100-watt bulbs. Part of the problem is that these new bulbs have to fit into lamps and ceiling fixtures designed for older technology.

Compact fluorescents are the most obvious replacement, but they have drawbacks. They contain a small amount of toxic mercury vapor, which is released if they break or are improperly thrown away. They last longer than traditional bulbs but not as long as LEDs. Brighter models are bulky and may not fit in existing fixtures.

Another new lighting technology, organic light-emitting diodes, or OLEDs, has had problems reaching mass production. OLEDs are glowing sheets or tiles, rather than pinprick light sources, as LEDs are. They’re used as vibrant color screens for smartphones, particularly from Samsung Electronics Co. But making OLEDs that are big, bright, cheap and long-lasting enough for use as light sources has proved difficult, in part because they use chemicals that are sensitive to oxygen and spoil unless sealed very carefully.

So, essentially, with next to zero command from the people, our government has banned a vital technology that’s been with us for over a century . . . with no suitable replacement in existence? Whose bright idea was that?

It’s wonderful that necessity is literally becoming the mother of invention here. But most of us have dozens of light bulbs in our homes, some of which are rarely used. Currently, powerful, long-lasting bulbs that produce beautiful light can be had for about a buck each. We’re really supposed to replace them with unproven technology that’s 50 times as expensive?

FILED UNDER: Science & Technology, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Andyman says:


    A 23-watt compact fluorescent (100-watt incandescent equivalent) costs $3-$5. So after your hoard of floodlights is exhausted you can pony up an extra $2 and save yourself money over the course of the bulb.

    The LED lights are a neat demo, but they’re hardly the only option for consumers in 2012.

  2. @Andyman

    When one of my current lightbulbs burns out, I can just throw it away with no worries.

    CFLs? Nope they require special handling thanks to the mercury inside.

    Like James said, whose boneheaded idea was this? Oh yea, the governments.

  3. Yet another disillusioned pawn says:

    A vital technology? The last time I bought a 100 watt bulb was was in 1970.

  4. John Burgess says:

    The fact that current florescent bulbs give off a different ‘white’, one that varies among manufacturers and even the bulbs in the same box matters, too.

    I’m sure LEDs and OLEDs will serve better, but until the price comes down considerably, they’re going to be a hard sell. Government seems to be getting into the ‘You must buy this’ mode, though, so maybe I’ll have them sooner than I think…

  5. LED technology needs to improve still. Two years ago, I tried decorating a Christmas tree with those LED X-mas lights. Looked absolutely horrible.

  6. James Joyner says:

    @Andyman: We’re using compact fluorescents in many places in our home already and have for some time. But, for example, we have recessed lights in our den, basement, and kitchen on dimmers. None of the new technologies dim nearly as effectively as cheap, old fashioned incandescent bulbs.

    @Yet another disillusioned pawn: We’ve got a handful of 100-watt bulbs in the house. They’re invaluable for reading lamps, closets, and attacks in particular.

  7. Franklin says:

    CFLs? Nope they require special handling thanks to the mercury inside.


    Folks, mercury evaporates. Break one of those bulbs and it’ll be safe to breathe within 5-10 minutes (IIRC). Not to mention, there’s a massive net savings in mercury compared to powering your incandescent bulb with a coal plant.

    You can complain about government interference and all that, I’m with you. But don’t let the misinformation police scare you.

  8. Andyman says:


    As long as the bulb doesn’t break there’s no special handling required. So one solution is to stop smashing the light bulbs in your house. Failing that, I really don’t think the amount of mercury involved is something to stress over.


    I’ve noticed a lot of CFL’s advertising their “new, improved” white lately. I think you’ll see a warmer white become standard in the near future.


    The size of the bulb is a major inconvenience at the moment. I haven’t done any home remodeling recently, I wonder if the newer recessed lighting fixtures are made deeper with CFL’s in mind.

    I’m generally sympathetic to the idea that there’s a lot of inertia in purchasing habits and that they tend to be self-reinforcing. Thus there’s a role for gov’t in providing a nudge to introduce a greener, cleaner, etc. technology. But I’m also genuinely sympathetic to the idea that one shouldn’t have to remodel one’s house every time a fancy new lightbulb technology is invented. I’d like to see a solution besides just pushing back the deadline; maybe a trade-in system where you have to return an old incandescent to get a new one… that way you can replace the incandescents in the fixtures you already have that need them, but when you’re buying new lighting, it has to be with CFL’s in mind. Eventually the changeover would take effect.

  9. Franklin says:

    LED technology needs to improve still. Two years ago, I tried decorating a Christmas tree with those LED X-mas lights. Looked absolutely horrible.

    I’m guessing it looked a hell of a lot better than the burned out strands we have every single year. We try to box them away carefully, but every single year we’ve got to go out and buy at least two new strings of lights because enough bulbs are burned out that they are rendered useless. We finally gave up and started buying the LED ones, with no problems so far.

  10. Dan Nexon says:

    James: yes, CFLs are clearly aesthetically and functionally inferior. That doesn’t mean that there is “no replacement” for incandescent bulbs. It just means that we’re trading energy efficiency for an annoying buzzing sound when we try, and fail, to dim our recessed lights to the level we’re used to.

  11. Franklin says:

    Update to my above post: OK, yes, CFLs are supposed to be properly disposed of, like batteries. I haven’t had one burn out yet, so I forgot.

    I was responding to the typical whining about the supposed danger if you broke one. Yeah, you want to clean it up and air the place out, but it’s not anywhere near the grave danger that some anti-CFL people have made it out to be.

  12. James Joyner says:

    @Dan: I used the modifier “suitable” for a reason ;0

    A radically more expensive product that’s grossly inferior is indeed a substitute of sorts.

  13. reid says:

    While I agree with James in principle, the whole thing is overly dramatic and a little deceptive. CFLs have gotten pretty good, and they are a suitable replacement for most people and purposes. They’re also not 50 times more expensive. I thought newer ones use less mercury, too. It would probably make more sense to heavily tax incandescents rather than ban them, but the argument could be a little more honest.

  14. alkali says:

    My wife has informed me that if I ever replace the bulb in the main light fixture in our kitchen with a CFL, I’m in big trouble. I haven’t got the heart to tell her that I did so a year ago.

  15. michael reynolds says:

    CF bulbs produce lousy light. They don’t appear to me to last any longer than incandescent. They don’t work in the cold. They don’t work in a lot of fixtures. But above all they produce lousy light. Ugly light. Soul-sucking, depressing, grim, miserable, everyone-looks-like-a-zombie, British winter light.

  16. JKB says:

    Well, the savings are dubious. If you do a comparision, you only get into any real savings when you replace lights that are on long periods of time with CFLs. Plus, repeated cycling severely reduces the life of CFLs. Couple that with their cost and you quickly realize now you should leave on lights you previously only powered when needed. So what will happen is that a modicum of savings will occur by replacing long running lights with CFLs but this will be severely offset by the continuous running of lights that used to be cycled a lot to save replacement costs. An aside is that incandescents put out heat so in winter a nearby table light would provide radiant heat while sitting allowing the whole house temperature to feel comfortable at a lower setting.

    Oh and the deep effects, the increased costs to the Obamacare as more doctor visits due to headaches and eyestrain from forced CFL usage.

    All in all, just another BUBAR (Bureaucratized Up Beyond All Reality)

  17. JKB says:

    Oh, and for a fun test, get one of those touch-free electric circuit testers. Now, bring it near an incandescent , then compare that to how far out you get EM from the CFL. Not a huge problem for ceiling and remote fixtures but can have an effect right next to your head for a reading light.

  18. MstrB says:

    Actually regarding CFLs, the EPA recommends households recycle the bulbs to prevent the release of mercury into the environment. Some states and local jurisdictions have more stringent regulations than EPA does, and require that households recycle CFLs and other mercury-containing light bulbs. For example, California, Maine, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Vermont and Massachusetts all prohibit mercury-containing lamps from being discarded into landfills.

    For Business/Commercial Use, the CFLs are considered a hazardous waste and designated as “universal wastes*” under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Requirements. Businesses and industries that qualify as universal waste handlers must follow specific requirements for storing, transporting and disposing of CFLs. Like anything else, states will have varying rules on the handling of universal waste.

    *The universal waste regulations govern the collection and management of this and other widely generated wastes (batteries, pesticides, lamp bulbs), to help facilitate environmentally sound collection and proper recycling or treatment. These regulations ease the regulatory burden on retail stores and others that wish to collect these wastes and encourage the development of municipal and commercial programs to reduce the quantity of these wastes going to municipal solid waste landfills or combustors. In addition, the regulations also ensure that the wastes subject to this system will go to appropriate treatment or recycling facilities pursuant to the full hazardous waste regulatory controls. The federal universal waste regulations are in 40 CFR part 273. States can modify the universal waste rule and add additional universal waste(s) in individual state regulations

  19. reid says:

    It’s been awhile since I’ve compared CFLs, but they’re not all created equal. Yes, some produce lousy light, hum, and take seconds to come on (especially old, cheap ones), but some are fine. Maybe I’m not too discriminating. I’ve also bought some that do dim (not as much as an incandescent will and they cost more, admittedly). If you get a good one that’s 2700-3000K (warm), you probably won’t be disappointed. I’ve been waiting for LEDs to mature.

  20. CMCarroll says:

    Since this is the third time this has popped up this AM: This story is fear mongering, silly, ill-informed nonsense.

    The Upton Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 no more mandates $50 bulbs than automotive CAFE standards mandate premium gasoline. EISA 2007 applies the same basic logic of vehicle mileage requirements to illumination and power consumption. Household lighting consumes nearly half of all electrical generation.

    As for that CFL Hg argument? Reducing coal fired electrical generation by a quarter (less than half the expected impact) will reduce the amount of atmospheric mercury vapor by TWO THIRDS. Almost all atmospheric mercury is generated by coal combustion.

    Unfortunately, you’re too young to remember the removal of Lead (Pb) from gasoline. Lead levels in young children, particularly in urban areas, have decreased by nearly 80%. Despite the claims of GM, Exxon, and others the world did not come to an end and production of gasoline did not stop.

  21. Jay Tea says:

    Someone suggested taking a bunch of CFCs into Congress, going into the offices of some of their biggest backers, and drop them on the floor. Let them deal with the mess they created.

    This is just one of so many areas where the left doesn’t approve of the people exercising their right to choose. Are there any areas outside of sex where “choice” is permitted?


  22. Scott O. says:

    pssst, James, I got a line on some primo 100s. Top notch stuff dude, just in from China. Let me know and I’ll fix you up.

  23. Herb says:

    Mean old nanny state, coming to take my light bulbs. First they told me I couldn’t take my horse out on the highway….now they’re telling me I can’t use incandescent light bulbs.

    Only wait! It’s not a ban on incandescents so much as a transition to a new efficiency standard, which most current incandescents do not meet. Indeed, it’s possible that your recessed lights and dimmable lights may already contain bulbs that meet the new standards or are exempted completely. (Should check it out…)

    Much of the industrialized world has already implemented this change, among them Commie Australia and freedom-hating Brazil. The EU is doing it too. The global market for incandescent bulbs is drying up even without the US government’s help.

    Also, this phase-out has been in the works for years, and it will be years yet before its complete. It’s not sudden and it’s not jarring. It was structured in such a way that in order for households to comply, they need only replace old burnt-out bulbs with newer energy efficient ones. (Doesn’t have to be this unproven LED bulb….)

  24. MstrB says:


    Where did you get your lighting data from? The DOE’s Energy Information Administration puts lighting (indoor and outdoor) at 8.8% of household electrical consumption. Commercial energy consumption is 20% for lighting (38% for lighting when you control for commercial electrical use only).

  25. mantis says:

    This is just one of so many areas where the left doesn’t approve of the people exercising their right to choose.

    It has nothing to do with energy consumption folks, it’s just the left wanting to control your life.

    Jay, why don’t you go lie in an asbestos bed and eat paint chips or something? For freedom!

  26. mantis says:

    Lead paint chips, that is.

  27. Val says:

    Outrage over a light bub!!!! Oh the dang gubermint. People get a life.

  28. lighthouse says:

    Overall, the ban on the popular simple cheap safe types of
    incandescents makes no sense, from any perspective…
    not just re freedom of choice,
    not just re usage safety,
    not just re there not being an electricity shortage for paying
    customers (and even less so in the future, with all the renewable and
    low emission alternatives)
    – but also the overall society energy savings are small, less than 1%,
    as from US Dept of Energy own figures:

    Besides, notice how light bulb manufacturers have pushed for and
    welcomed this ban on cheap unprofitable light bulbs, as also covered
    on that website with documentation and references.

  29. lighthouse says:

    RE LEDs – like CFLs before them-
    they have recently been found to have
    serious home breakage and disposal concerns,
    having lead, arsenic and toxic vapor content, according to University
    of California (Davis and Irvine) research

    They suggest wearing safety protection when breakage occurs and that
    the bulbs should be recycled.

    They also maintain that there was insufficient product testing before
    LED bulbs came onto the market. There was a law that was supposed to
    take effect on January 1 that would have mandated such testing, but it
    was opposed and blocked by industry groups, and has been put on

  30. Neil Hudelson says:

    I think what is lost in all of this, and Herb touched on it, is that CFL’s are



    It is an energy efficiency standard that many incandescents already meet. Furthermore, specialty incandescents are not banned, including:

    • appliance;
    • black light;
    • bug;
    • colored;
    • infrared;
    • left-hand thread;
    • marine;
    • marine signal;
    • mine service;
    • plant light;
    • reflector;
    • rough service;
    • shatter-resistant;
    • sign service;
    • silver bowl;
    • showcase;
    • 3-way;
    • traffic signal;
    • vibration service;
    • G shape with >5-inch diameter;
    • T shape of 10-inch length; and
    • B, BA, CA, F, G16-1/2, G25, G30, S and M14 lamps of <40W.

    Obviously, many won't use a lot of these bulbs, however I like the fact that my 3 way bulbs are going nowhere.

    And while there are not enough incandescents out there that meet the requirements, that is changing pretty quickly. GE and Phililps have both announced they will have 72 watt incandescent bulbs that fully replace 100 watt bulbs–and I think one of the two already have a variety of those bulbs for sale (but short of running down the street to lowes, I can't provide you with name/price of those bulbs.)

  31. Neil Hudelson says:

    Wow, I messed up that formatting. Apologies.

  32. mantis says:

    Thank you Neil. The Chicken Little freedom defenders among us are, as usual, full of shit. Much ado about nothing.

    Now could we focus on some important issues regarding freedom, like how can we make sure gay people have none?

  33. lighthouse says:

    Neil you have a point, kind of…

    Re incandescents,
    the common idea that “similar Halogens will be allowed”
    only applies temporarily, with current levels of energy use, and probably in smaller ranges and with a more difficult purchase availability, judging by post-ban EU

    USA has 2 phases of light bulb ban,
    2012 and 2020, bulb lumens 310-2600

    So regular incandescent 25 watt (and less) bulbs
    and many regular 150 watt bulbs (and over) bulbs will not be banned

    The EISA specification says the sales of 150W bulbs
    (or more exactly bulbs over 2600 lumens) will be monitored,
    If the sales rise by 100% then they too will be banned
    and will have to be “sold at retail only in a package containing 1 lamp”
    ( USA regulations and updates, Canada delay and SC/Georgia repeal Bills )

  34. Liberty60 says:

    This change is a result of a desire to conserve energy.

    Our national energy consumption is directly linked to our foreign policy, and the three wars that we are currently fighting, to maintain access to oil.

    I also think it is interesting how no one seems to think it is asking too much of young men to go over and get killed to support our energy policy, but asking people to switch light bulbs is an unbearable burden.

  35. Liberty60 says:

    Oh, and for the free market fundamentalists among us-

    I am happy to let the “free market” handle this problem, but we need to solve the free rider problem.

    Namely, that cheap energy, and the means to get it, has long been a staple policy of federal, state, and local governments and heavily subsidized for decades (think dams, power plants, even the special tax breaks we give oil companies); not to mention the massive public investment in foreign policy (see above) that allows you to use electricity without concern.

    Maybe those who use CFLs should be allowed to deduct this massive public expenditure from their taxes, and shift the burden to those who want to use incandescents.

    Cheap energy, as it turns out, is actually wildly expensive.

  36. Tlaloc says:

    A radically more expensive product that’s grossly inferior is indeed a substitute of sorts.

    This is surprisingly silly for you, James. In the first place they are not radically more expensive. Given that they last on the order of 50x as long and cost on the order of 16-50x as much you’re already at worst breaking even. And then when you consider the lower energy costs it becomes clear that a LED is a vastly better deal than an incandescent. Same goes for CFL. They cost slightly more initially but the cost over lifetime is WAY less.

    to put it another way let’s turn this quote around:
    ” So, essentially, with next to zero command from the people, our government has banned a vital technology that’s been with us for over a century . . . with no suitable replacement in existence? Whose bright idea was that?”

    If these are a vital technology why has it seen no improvement in over a century? That by itself is an enormous red flag. Incandescents are archaic at this point.

  37. shecky says:

    This is one area where I simply can’t get too outraged. Very good CFL bulbs have been on the market for years now. The local 99 Cent Store often sells them 2 for a buck. Good color. CFLs have never buzzed or flickered like the old tube flourescents, at least not in the last 10 years or so that I’ve almost completely switched over. In most instances, you’d never know the difference, other than CFLs generate less waste heat. There are dimmable CFLs, halogens are increasingly common, and LEDs seem around the corner. Let’s be honest if we’re going to make an argument over government mandates.

  38. manicmom says:

    I still haven’t seen any studies on the collateral costs of using these things. How many work/school days are missed due to these lights? Fluorescent lights cause migraines and epileptic seizures in sensitive people. (Guess how I know!) How many work / school sick days can be attributed to poor lighting?

    Of course I am aware that fluorescent lighting has been used in commercial and educational settings for decades. That’s a major reason my employer allows me to work from home — I can’t tolerate the lighting in the office. Also one of the reasons my children were educated at home — can’t tolerate the lighting in the schools.

    I have to carry light bulbs with me when I travel — and replace the bulbs in hotel room fixtures for the time we are using that space.

    Okay, I’ll grant you that our case is somewhat severe, but I can’t help wondering how many other people are impacted by these things and don’t realize what the problem is?

    (Multi-million dollar government-funded research project anyone?)

  39. Pat says:

    Why do we have this legislation in the first place?
    Connect the dots:

    1. The bill was passed during the “ultra-big-business” Bush II years.
    2. The bill benefits GE and Philips, by removing all the lower-cost, nonprofitable bulbs from the market, and requiring purchase only of much more expensive, and much higher-profit-margin, bulbs, which GE and Philips have spent millions in developing.
    3. GE and Philips realized that they could not turn a profit on their newly-developed bulbs by competing with the conventional incandescent bulb. This is because the energy savings, paired with lack of performance, are not going to win over the average consumer. Instead, these giant companies’ marketing strategy hinged on massive lobbying efforts to pass the ban on most conventional incandescents. See this link that shows a powerpoint presentation of Philips’ marketing strategy:

    When a Republican president passes a law that increases government control over a private market, you can be sure that there is a money trail that smacks of poor ethics.

    I’m surprised the media have not caught on to this side of the story. They are too involved with mocking the small-government Republicans who oppose this ban. Mocking is really the highest level of journalism, isn’t it?

    There is no earthly reason for the ban…if the new bulbs are a better idea, let the market prove it. Trash this law and let us proceed with more sensible uses of our time.

  40. AJ says:

    I just ordered 2 cases (240 bulbs) of 60-watt incandescents. They are 5000 hour bulbs, so they should cover our house for 10-15 years. I will probably buy a couple more cases every 6 months or so until the 60-watt incandescents are banned in Jan. 2014. I am not just “delaying the inevitable” because we will have enough incandescents to last the rest of our lives (and I’m only 33). I refuse to allow the government to overreach by forcing me to use migraine-causing, depressing, crappy looking, falsely advertised light bulbs! CFLs are NOT as energy efficient as advertised (because they don’t take into account the large start-up energy use in conjuction with the frequent on/off usage in average households), and they do NOT last as long as advertised.

  41. Lighthouse says:


    Good comment and link regarding manufacturer profit policies
    The political-industrial machine behind the ban is also extensively covered on with documentation and copies of official communications