Image: Light bulbs
John Brecher  /  msnbc.com
As incandescent bulbs, left, are phased out, Americans will be left with two lighting alternatives now in their infancies: LEDs, center, and CFLs.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/25/2011 3:57:27 PM ET 2011-01-25T20:57:27

Americans are about to suffer a cruel breakup: Their 130-year love affair with the incandescent light bulb is coming to an end.

Home décor retailer IKEA sent a reminder of the bulb’s dwindling shelf life this month, announcing it would halt the sale of traditional venerable bulbs at all of its U.S. stores.

Under federal law, incandescent bulbs are being phased out beginning next year when American manufacturers no longer will be allowed to make 100-watt bulbs. By Jan. 1, 2014, the only incandescents left on the market will be three-way bulbs, plant lights and appliance lamps – plus the final, old-school stragglers from 2013 assembly lines which could become pricey novelty items.

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But while Thomas Edison’s invention is slowly being dimmed into retail oblivion, consumers have been slow to accept the two emerging alternative technologies, known as CFLs and LEDs. The main complaints: CFLs, or compact fluorescent lights, cast a harsh, greenish beam, unlike the warm, amber glow of incandescents. LEDs are expensive and relatively unknown among American shoppers. Neither variety is universally available in dimmer form and, therefore, not always ideal for people partial to mood lighting.

Our national farewell to the incandescent bulb — essentially the same device Edison patented in 1880 — is not coming with ease. In their final months of retail life, incandescents still dominate market share, accounting for about 82 percent of sales, followed by compact fluorescent lamps, at 17 percent, and light-emitting diodes at about 1 percent, according to some estimates.

“I loathe all fluorescents. The light they throw off is so cold,” said Judy Pokras, a recipe book author from Boynton Beach, Fla. If, in 2014, she is somehow able to find and scrounge traditional bulbs from overseas stores, she’ll buy them via the Internet. “That is, if LEDs haven’t been perfected by then so that they give off a warm glow and throw as much light as incandescents do now. … But I will never buy CFLs!”

While CFLs seem harsh on the eyes to many people and may pose disposal problems, they use about 80 percent less energy than incandescents and last up to 10 times as long. Lighting comprises about one-fifth of the typical monthly electrical bill. A typical household could save $10 to $50 a month by switching all incandescent bulbs to CFLs or LEDs, according to industry and consumer sources.

If every American home replaced just one incandescent bulb with one CFL, the corresponding cut in greenhouse gas emissions would equal the amount of pollutants produced by more than 800,000 vehicles, reports Greenzer.com, a shopping site that caters to the environmentally conscious. What’s more, CFL technology is slowly improving: some CFLs now can be used with dimming fixtures.

So which is the better option?

“Better is really a subjective conclusion,” said Rob Davis, vice president of energy services at San Diego-based GreenHouse Holdings, which offers "integrated solutions" to help customers reduce energy consumption.

“Considerations of cost, longevity, convenience (and) color … all factor into consumer opinion,” Davis added.

For a price check, just scan the shelves at a Walmart store. CFL bulbs generally run $3 to $4 per bulb. Several brands of LED bulbs for household lighting range from $10 to $25 a piece. But the lifespan of LED bulbs – the darling of many environmentalists – will average 40,000 to 60,000 hours, almost seven continuous years. CLFs generally last about 6,000 to 10,000 hours – or eight to 13 continuous months.

Wal-Mart has said it plans to meet each of the stepped deadlines in the looming federal ban on incandescents.

There are three basic cut-offs in the law. Dec. 31, 2011, marks the last day U.S. manufacturers will be allowed to distribute traditional 100-watt bulbs. Jan. 1, 2013, is the last day 75-watt incandescents can be manufactured for sale. Jan. 1, 2014 is the final day for the manufacturing of 60-watt and 40-watt bulbs.

Despite wheezing household budgets, lighting experts don’t anticipate congressional extensions of those restrictions.

“No, and manufacturers are already prepared for the changes,” said Marcel Fairbairn, president and CEO of Wellington, Fla.-based LED Source. The law “effectively bans the sale of most incandescent light bulbs.”

If you’re thinking about simply driving to Canada to buy old-fashioned bulbs, forget it.

“Other countries are ahead of the U.S. in adopting green lighting technology,” said Gina Lee, marketing director for American Illumination, a maker of LED products. “The European Union, Canada and Australia are all committing to banning the sale of incandescent bulbs much earlier than us.”

Antiquated stragglers
And the antiquated stragglers — the bulbs that have long allowed us to read, cook and play in our homes at night — will quickly dwindle from store shelves soon after 2014 arrives, Lee added.

“As time goes on, (they) will become more scarce, and the cost for incandescents will then rise,” she said.

Edison’s invention — or, as lighting experts call it, “the type A incandescent” — will become a vintage collector's item. But talk about staying power: The bulb that continues to eclipses the two newcomers in the illumination market is “for the most part, practically the same gizmo” that Edison designed and built, said Davis of GreenHouse holdings.

“Not bad, considering all the changes and inventions happening” since then," he said. Think of all the amazing advances in medicine, travel, communications, computing, entertainment and other fields.

“I cannot begin to envision Thomas Alva Edison imagining some of the technologies we consider commonplace today, (like) hand-held scientific calculators, cellular phones and laser pointers. Yet his light bulb was here to usher in all of them.

“We may be bidding farewell to the incandescent bulb,” Davis said, “but it is most assuredly a fond farewell.”

Bill Briggs is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com and author of the new book, “The Third Miracle.”

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