SALT LAKE CITY — Many Americans haven't realized it yet, but the standard light bulb may soon go the way of the sundial and the buggy whip.
The most popular models of the famed Edison light bulb will be phased out over the next several years because of a federal law passed in 2007. But there are moves afoot in Congress to overturn the law and save the traditional bulb because of concerns about the practicality — and even the safety — of the new-generation bulbs.
Thomas Edison invented the first practical electric light in 1879, and his incandescent bulb changed the world. But in 2007, Congress and President George W. Bush approved new efficiency standards that say, in effect, "Sorry, Tom. Not good enough."
The incandescent bulbs generally do not meet new standards for energy efficiency and use far more electricity than their modern counterparts. The shelves at home improvement stores these days are filled with a bewildering array of light-bulb options. There are compact fluorescents, LED's, halogens and hybrids in addition to the familiar incandescent bulbs.
"Compact fluorescents are practically flying off the shelves nowadays," said Todd Smith, electrical specialist at the Home Depot store in Holladay. The compact fluorescent bulbs last far longer than incandescent bulbs and use one-fourth the electricity.
"In terms of energy efficiency, there's no comparison," Smith said.
Prices have also become much more attractive lately, partly due to subsidies from electric utility companies. In the long run, Smith said, homeowners will save a lot of money because the new bulbs last so much longer.
Nevertheless, Texas GOP Congressman Ron Paul has proposed a repeal of the 2007 law and conservative organizations have started a petition drive to overturn it.
Still, some customers are hoarding incandescent bulbs in anticipation of the big change less than a year from now. Beginning on Jan. 1, 2012, manufacturers will phase out the 100-watt incandescent bulb. The 75-, 60- and 40-watt versions will disappear in the two following years. Some other bulb sizes, as well as specialty incandescent bulbs will remain available.
Home Depot shopper Rick Funk expressed annoyance at federal intrusion into such matters. "Well I kind of think that there's probably too much regulation," Funk said. "I think it's kind of up to people's choice on what kind of light bulbs they want to use. I don't mind saving energy. I guess I don't like being forced to do so."
Although some opposition to the phase-out clearly stems from political and philosophical concerns, there are also practical objections to the new-generation bulbs. They typically cannot be used with dimmer switches, just to cite one complaint heard often in home-improvement stores.
Many users are infuriated by the way fluorescent bulbs slowly flicker to life when the switch is thrown. "It's a little irritating sometimes with the slow start-up time," said Home Depot shopper Terry Farr. "But once they're at full light capacity, they're fine."
Many users complain that the startup time is particularly slow and may not reach full brightness in a cold environment. Even in a warm home, the startup time can be aggravating in hallways, stairways and other areas where a person doesn't expect to spend more than a few seconds.
Another complaint is the color of light produced by fluorescent bulbs. Many users prefer the color of incandescent bulbs, especially for such tasks as applying makeup, doing art projects and other tasks where accurate color perception is important.
Manufacturers have made progress on some of those issues in recent years, improving the performance and offering bulbs that produce several different colors of light.
One of the biggest barriers against widespread acceptance of the new bulbs has been a relatively high purchase price. But lately, that disadvantage has disappeared for many shoppers. Prices for compact fluorescent bulbs have dropped drastically, partly because Rocky Mountain Power pays subsidies to manufacturers to bring down the price.
"Helping customers be more energy efficient is a resource just like a power plant, " said Rocky Mountain Power's Dave Eskelsen. "And it's less expensive than building a new power plant. "
Many shoppers worry that the compact fluorescent bulbs are also a health threat because they contain tiny amounts of toxic mercury.
Experts generally argue that people should be aware, but not worried, about the mercury. Contrary to a myth circulating on the Internet, a broken compact fluorescent bulb does not require a homeowner to hire an expensive hazardous waste cleanup crew. "It's important it be cleaned up and disposed of appropriately," said Neil Taylor, an environmental scientist for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. But homeowners themselves can do an acceptable cleanup, Taylor said, "and then there shouldn't be a health hazard."
The mercury does create extra hassles in the clean-up process. The US Environmental Protection Agency has issued a detailed three-page procedure for cleaning up a broken fluorescent bulb.
The EPA recommends good ventilation to let mercury vapors out of the house. Larger broken pieces can be picked up by hand and placed in a plastic bag. Smaller pieces can be scraped up with a piece of cardboard or stiff paper. Smaller pieces, as well as dust, and the mercury itself should be picked up with a sticky piece of duct tape, used much like a blotter on soiled areas of carpet, flooring and tabletops. "The mercury will stick to the duct tape and then you can just put that in the plastic bag as well," Taylor said.19 comments on this story
Experts say a vacuum should never be used to clean up mercury. "A vacuum cleaner cannot handle the mercury," Taylor said. "It passes right through the vacuum cleaner and is spread throughout the house. So the worst thing you can do is vacuum mercury."
Final cleanup is done with a wet paper towel. After the cleanup procedure, the EPA recommends leaving windows open and fans running. "The room should be ventilated for several hours," Taylor said.
In some states, laws require recycling of used or broken fluorescent bulbs or disposal at certified hazardous waste facilities. Most experts recommend that procedure to keep mercury out of landfills. But Utah's laws are looser than some other states. "Because of the small amount of mercury that's in the bulb," Taylor said, "it's not considered a significant hazard. So you can just place it in the regular trash."