American manufacturing icon, General Electric, brought an era to a close today; Friday, September 24, 2010 as it flipped off the lights and locked the doors at its Winchester Virginia light bulb plant. This was the last G.E. plant in America to make incandescent bulbs, an item that has been a staple product for G.E. since Thomas Alva Edison’s innovations in the 1870’s.
This closure is a direct result of the energy conservation measure passed by Congress in 2007 which mandates that incandescent light bulbs are too wasteful and must be eliminated from American homes by 2014. The resulting savings in energy and greenhouse-gas emissions are expected to be immense. But this move also has unintended consequences.
To start with, 200 G.E. employees, most of them in their 40’s and 50’s and many of whom have worked at this plant for decades, are now heading for the unemployment office. Employees interviewed as they left the plant for the last time expressed concern over being able to find another job in this economy, at their age, and with no other experience.
G.E. did look at retooling this plant to produce the new Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFL) which will meet the governments efficiency guidelines for 2014, but the $40 million conversion cost and the much higher level of labor involved in twisting the tubes of the CFL as opposed to making a round bulb would result in a bulb that would have to sell for a price that is 50% higher than those currently being produced in China. They didn’t feel Americans would pay $12.00 for an American made bulb if they could get a Chinese made bulb for $8.00. GE does plan to build a CFL factory – but they’ll build it in China.
Globalization Impacts the Job Market
When our government began pushing for “green” standards and “green” technology it was said that this would result in more jobs as the technologies developed and companies were built to serve these needs. But government regulations and the high cost of labor in the US appears to be shooting this concept in the foot as companies who want to make products to serve this new “green” revolution go overseas to build their factories.
Under the pressures of globalization, the number of manufacturing jobs in the United States has been shrinking for decades, from 19.5 million in 1979 to 11.6 million this year, a decline of 40 percent.
CFL Bulbs and the Environment
Then there are the environmental issues. The Compact Fluorescent Lamp uses considerably less energy to produce an equivalent amount of light than an incandescent bulb. But a prime component of the CFL is mercury; a highly toxic element that is highly frowned upon by environmentalists.
Each CFL contains up to 5 milligrams of mercury, which I admit does not seem like much at first glance. But, when you consider that these are to become the defacto lighting source in our homes, and the number of homes and businesses there are in the US… it adds up quickly.
For example; I counted 29 light bulbs in my home (a very modestly sized bungalow) and 33 more in my workshop. So once I convert all of the se lights to CFL I’ll have around 310 mg of mercury in my living environment.
Is that dangerous?
I wanted to find out, so I went looking. The EPA says only 3.7 micrograms of Mercury is safe to ingest. A microgram is 1 1,000th of a milligram. 310 milligrams (the amount of mercury in the CFLs in my living environment contain 310,000 micrograms, when only 3.7 micrograms are considered a safe level of exposure.
But, this mercury is safely contained inside the CFL right? Yes, it is… as long as you don’t break one. The General Electric web site lists the steps for properly cleaning up a broken CFL, it starts with this warning:
Before Clean-up: Air Out the Room
- Have people and pets leave the room, and don’t let anyone walk through the breakage area on their way out.
- Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.
- Shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system, if you have one.
Also, you cannot throw them away like you did ordinary light bulbs. According to G.E.’s web page on proper disposal of CFL’s you need to take CFLs to a recycling center that accepts them. Their site includes two links to organizations that help you locate companies that will recycle fluorescent tubes and CFL bulbs, but when I followed the bread crumb trail to find out how I am to do this, I ended on a page that stated, “Contact your local solid waste management company for locations and dates of the next suitable recycling event.”
It does say that if state and local regulations do not (yet) prohibit disposing of CFL bulbs with other public waste, wrap the CFL in two plastic bags and be sure they do not get sent for incineration.
But wait … there’s more!
Liz Schwab posted on her blog an article that describes the effects of CFL lights on her autistic son. It seems that the faint flickering that any fluorescent bulb will produce, including CFLs, causes autistic children to become agitated and combative. As soon as she changed the bulb in her son’s room back to incandescent, he settled right down again.
Advantages of CFL bulbs
With all these potential down-sides, is there any good news about CFLs? Yes, there is. Let’s start with the reason that CFLs are replacing incandescent bulbs in the first place; they are much more efficient producers of light.
An incandescent light bulb is better categorized as a miniature space heater than it is a light because only about 10 percent of the energy is consumes is converted to light, the other 90 percent goes out as heat. A fluorescent light on the other hand uses 75% less electricity to produce the same amount of light and produces almost no heat at all.
Most CFL bulbs are touted to last for at least ten times as long as an incandescent bulb. In fact any bulb that is identified as being Energy Star certified has a minimum life span guaranteed. If the bulb goes out too soon, check the bulb for the manufacturer stamp, and contact them to obtain a full or partial refund of the purchase price.
Recent Improvements to CFL Bulbs
New packaging standards are being rolled out whereby CFL bulbs will be shipped in boxes with a self–sealing plastic liner to contain the mercury vapor should the bulbs be broken in transit.
And companies such as ArmorLite are producing a shielded CFL bulb with an incandescent-like outer bulb made of tough plastic that will offer some protection to the fluorescent tube and contain glass shards and mercury vapor should a bulb be smashed.
What’s Up Next in Lighting?
With all of the problems CFL bulbs represent, it’s not hard to imagine that many people are looking for some other option for lighting their home. The most promising technology is the LED.
This is not a new technology as LEDs have been with us for decades but new developments have helped to refine the product to yeild more light and longer life. Several companies are producing an LED product designed to replace standard bulbs in home use.
A typical Listing
A19 9W High Power LED Bulb, Standard, White
Best LED replacement for common 60W incandescent bulbs! Excellent for table lamps, desk lamps and reading lights.
This is a 120vac high power led bulb the size and shape of an ordinary incandescent bulb. It is 2 3/8 inches (60mm) in diameter and 4 3/4 inches in length. The 8 high power leds are made by a US company, and have a unique patented structure. The advanced design yields superior heat dissipation giving the LEDs greater stability and longer life. The bulb is available in daylight white and warm white. The bulb will maintain 70% brightness for 20,000 hours and has a total expected life of 50,000 hours. UL listed.
Disadvantages of LED Lighting
The downside of LEDs is that they are currently quite complex. The interior of the simple looking bulb pictured above contains many light emitting diodes that produce the light. LEDs do produce some heat, and that has to be channeled away from the diodes and dissipated through a heat-sink assembly. The complexity of manufacturing translates into a bigger hit to our wallets – typically LED light bulbs start around $30.00 and go up to $89.95 for the NeoBulb pictured above. Yes, that is per bulb!
As with any new technology, manufacturing costs will come down as they perfect their techniques and find new ways of accomplishing things. But I doubt I’ll ever be able to pop into Dollar General and pick up a box of 4 60 watt bulbs for a buck like I could with good old incandescents.
Oh well, such is the way of the world.