The next bright idea

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The light fixture in my bathroom blew a bulb. To fully illuminate the mirror it re­quired three. Instead of just replacing the single burned-out bulb and waiting like an audience for the cho­rus line’s next kick, I splurged and bought 12 LED replacements.

When I opened the box I was disappointed. The bulbs looked like an ordinary carton of Large Grade A eggs nested in a cardboard coop, though according to the colorful pack­aging, LEDs are the “best” choice for both saving money on utilities and for saving the environment. I changed out the entire row and I didn’t hear a squawk.

This episode took place in 2018. At that time I paid a shocking price for the replace­ments until I factored in their advertised av­erage lifespan of 9-22 years. I’d be well into my 7th decade before I’d need to replace another bathroom bulb. By then scientists might have invented a roll of toilet paper that lasts 20 years.

Too soon, however, the hype fizzled. Three months into one bulb’s first birthday, a flicker developed for about 5 seconds ev­ery time I flipped the switch. This continued for weeks (though it felt like months) until the bulb simply gave up. I replaced what must have been a defective product with one of the hallowed nine standbys until a month later (though it felt like a year) a different bathroom bulb quite suddenly went dark. I was down to eight. And because lightbulbs in a chorus line all look the same, and be­cause LED technology burns relatively cool compared to incandescent, I decided to in­scribe a tiny indelible “2018” near the base of the last bulb standing. Like a lightbulb, I’d be screwed if I could remember which one was the sole survivor a decade later.

Fast forward to 2020: I bought my second LED 12-pack. In two years the price had come down a little, but how time burns. The advertised life expectancy must be calculated like dog years, each actual year an equivalent of seven LED years.

I should also mention that my brain has a tendency to run a bit medieval, like in 2007 when the U.S. government phased out incan­descent light bulbs I wondered if we might be heading toward another dark age, but an international ban on this older technology did not dim the world’s lights. Quite the op­posite. Consumers simply chose an alterna­tive technology for their lighting needs.

 

The “ban” on incandescent bulbs never made selling them illegal. They still show up in thrift stores, and the dark alleys of black market smuggling hasn’t emerged because selling used lightbulbs for profit is obviously not a bright idea. The change was ushered in with a simple law that required manufac­turers to deliver a product which met better energy use standards, and as any adult living during the transitional period knows, solu­tions often illuminate new problems.

Halogen bulbs, for example, use 28 per­cent less energy but they burn hotter than comparable incandescents, which not only increases fire risk but also reduces the bulb’s longevity to a year or two.

CFL (fluorescent) bulbs provide a 75 per­cent energy-use savings and a much longer life, but the inferior quality of light they pro­duce persuaded me to avoid them. I’ve also noticed that hotels and motels use these bulbs almost exclusively, which might be explained because customers aren’t tempted to steal them. Still, the deal-killer for me is a danger­ous neurotoxin called mercury, turning their use and disposal into potential health issue.

The flaws in these alternative technologies explain why LEDs have rapidly dominated the marketplace. Besides being dimmable, directional, suitable for many design applica­tions, shatter-resistant and more affordable, an 85 percent energy-use reduction is what the world needs. As for the accepted belief that each bulb lasts a long time, the jury is still out. To compensate for my disappoint­ment I’ve adopted a new goal: to outlive my lightbulbs.

Other toxic technologies like coal, oil, auto emissions, pesticides, aerosols, certain plas­tics used in manufacturing food containers and bottles, chemicals in cosmetics, antiper­spirants, dry-cleaning, and nuclear waste need to be legislated out of existence, a legacy that makes living a long life also worthwhile. Meanwhile, I have a few bulbs left in my sec­ ond box of LED replacements. I’ll surely buy another box before the end of the year.

As you can tell, I admire all forms of il­lumination. The very word reminds me that medieval scribes spent much of their lives elaborately decorating manuscripts with ink, paint, and gilding the panel with silver and gold. Not many of these masterpieces sur­vived, and those that did are rare museum artifacts, salvaged from history, perhaps by serfs who pilfered them from wealthy estate bookshelves but could not get them to burn as efficiently as wood.

David Feela, an award-winning poet, essayist, and author, writes from Montezuma County, Colo. See his works at https://feelasophy.weebly.com/

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From David Feela.