The great CFL debate is back! And the Tea Party stalwarts, along with the always-entertaining Joe Barton, are plunging in to defend us from overweening governments that have the nerve to tell us which side of the road to drive on and what color taillights cars should have.
As usual, the lamp (lightbulb, in common speech) discussion is stuck on flicker, color, use with dimmers, and the helical shape of CFLs [what in the world is that one about?] (all of which have improved enormously as the industry learns and innovates) and misses some interesting dimensions. The most important problem with low-energy alternatives to incandescent lamps is their low luminosity, the amount of light a square millimeter of surface emits. This means a given number of lumens requires a relatively large object (think of the filament of a conventional incandescent, not the glass envelope). That’s good when you don’t want harsh shadows, and you don’t have to conceal the lamp itself, but it makes the light very hard to control and direct. An incandescent filament, for example, can be placed at the focus of a parabolic reflector to project a very well-behaved parallel beam of light that can be further directed where you want it and where you don’t, or at the focus of an ellipsoidal reflector that will put almost all the light through a very small opening at the other focus; lcd and CFL lamp output can only be more or less corralled into a fuzzy cone. This rules them out for theatrical lighting and a variety of architectural/decorating uses where contrast and control are important. There is no CFL spotlight. Almost any application can use a halogen source, which is about 25% more efficient than a standard incandescent; not nearly as good as fluorescent or LED but not chopped liver.The way to use energy for light is to use it where it does the most good, which is not always where it makes the most light; the planet can tolerate a certain amount of incandescent lighting for aesthetic purposes. Unfortunately, as long as we are allergic to a carbon tax charge, which gently but firmly guides society towards just such an optimal portfolio of choices, we are stuck with these regulatory kludges.
The next section of this post is about the device that (with its associated plumbing) has added more years to life expectancy than all of modern medical science, and even chicken soup, namely the [water] closet (toilet to most of us). Another regulatory intrusion luddites and grinches and grouches like to complain about is low-flow closets; the standard is 1.6 gallons per flush (compared to as much as 5 in older closets) and the early models gave rise to predictable grousing about flushing twice, incomplete clearing, etc. An unexpected outcome of their wide adoption has been much reduced liquid flow in sewers (though this is an advantage for sewage treatment plants, which do better with less water and more yuck).
Last year, I installed a closet from American Standard rated at 1.28 gallons per flush. It’s not a compressed-air pressure type, just a gravity tank with completely conventional controls, but it is the most reliable, no-extra-flushes, no-clogs toilet in the house, a better performer than the thirsty monster it replaced. So again, technological progress continues after the first baby steps and teething problems presented by a new regulation; this is not a closet that saves lots of water and is “almost as good”; it’s better in every way (though more expensive than the typical builder’s special model).
Both of these technologies raise a persistent question about consumers’ response to price. We are getting all bent out of shape about gas prices, that are posted in big red letters along the street, but CFLs save a fortune in electricity, a bigger fortune when you are air conditioning, a smaller one when you are heating your house with a furnace, and unless you live in one of the few places where water isn’t metered, like Sacramento, CA, the closet is a pretty good investment just on selfish grounds. Homeowners and landlords persistently leave very attractive investments like these on the table (a cloud on the horizon for the carbon charge), and it’s still not clear why, or what can be done about it that isn’t paternalistic.