Light bulb moments

04/03/21 19:37

We live in a world that’s habitually overflowing with “stuff” and simultaneously suffers from shortages. Usually there’s an abundance of the things we don’t like, such as taxation and Brussels sprouts, and not enough of the things that we do.

I ordered a couple of jars of jam a wee while ago and was advised that there was a national shortage in boysenberries “so we will not have any for a month”. Happily the jam arrived the other day, so the jam makers must have tracked some down on the black (berry) market.

I’ve written before about the Great British Brick Shortage, and also the potential impact of Brexit on contracts. There have been three cost increases for structural steel in the past few months, and that has an impact on what’s reaching the sites. Elsewhere, furniture made in the EU is slower to reach Scotland due to lorries backing up at the ports and extra customs checks.

Plus of course what’s at the forefront of everyone’s mind, pharma companies are ramping up production of Covid-19 vaccine, but so far there isn’t enough to inoculate everyone everywhere, although progress is encouraging. However, I made another unwelcome discovery when a lightbulb blew and I realised I needed to buy some more. Not only can you no longer buy old-fashioned incandescent bulbs, but halogen bulbs are being phased out, and compact fluorescent bulbs are pretty much unobtainable as well … so it's LED bulbs or nothing. 

The original idea was to ban old fashioned lightbulbs since they use more power to produce less light, as they’re around 1% efficient in terms of converting electrical energy into light. They also have a limited life, because a tungsten element heated to red heat lasts almost indefinitely (as in a thermionic valve), but raise it to white heat so that it emits life, and its life shortens considerably as the filament burns off tungsten which slowly coats the inside of the glass in a dull grey film.

However, compact fluorescents have a mercury coating which is toxic, so they aren't really any more environmentally friendly because they’re more tricky and expensive to recycle so folk sometimes don’t bother and fling them into the bin instead.

With an architect’s eye, the quality of light produced by the cheaper LED bulbs isn't great, and they don't last as long as they're supposed to. I don't believe that typical LED bulbs will last for “50,000 hours”.  In that case, you'd buy a bulb and never have to replace it in your lifetime.  The best now state “15,000 hours” in the small print, presumably after having been chased by the EU over misrepresentation, and it’s likely they'll be engineered to fail after a shorter period than that, so the manufacturer can sell more bulbs. 

I guess the driver circuits overheat, just as cheap ballasts in compact fluorescents go "phut" after a while. And don’t forget Jevon’s paradox: because LED bulbs use less electricity, people perversely buy more lights and put them in places that serve little purpose, using them in less efficient ways because it doesn’t cost them any more than what they were paying before.

Unlike certain political parties, I don't normally fall for conspiracy theories, but in this case the engineered-in obsolescence is probably true, because it happened before. Just have a search for “The Phoebus Cartel”, which sounds like a Frederick Forsyth thriller or an indie rock band from Michigan, but was actually an international carve-up designed to ensure that incandescent bulbs ran slightly brighter than necessary, and that caused them to have considerably shorter lives.

Even in those days, firms knew how to make lamps which would effectively last forever – neon discharge lamps, for example. If you can afford to buy an expensive light source that lasts for a long time (avoiding ten minute wonders like the xenophot capsule lamp), in the long run it will work out cheaper in terms of capital and running costs than a cheapo LED from the Pound Shop. Plus it will be better for the environment on three scores – made from more sustainable materials, will use less power over its lifetime, and won’t have to be thrown away so frequently. In the words of Homer Simpson, “Win Win Win”.

Apart from apprehending the truth of how we’ve all been royally hoodwinked by consumerism, there’s another way to look at this.  Rather than arguing about which type of artificial lighting to use, why not try maximising natural light using more and larger windows, rooflights and sunpipes, so you rarely need artificial light during the daytime.  Likewise, rather than arguing about replacing oil and coal and gas fired boilers with biomass or hydrogen fired boilers, why not super-insulate the building fabric and perhaps you won’t need a traditional boiler at all?

Rather than arguing about which energy to use, use as little as possible. Perhaps that's the ultimate light bulb moment…

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