Somewhere, Mr. Edison Gently Weeps

A New Yorker cartoon from several years ago shows a vast, cubicle-filled office, with a manager explaining that the "dim fluorescent lighting is meant to emphasize the general absence of hope."

Fluorescents aren’t all that bad. In fact, they’ve steadily gained market share in recent years. But from now on their popularity will rest not on consumer preferences, but on the force of law. If there’s anything about fluorescents that involves the general absence of hope, it’s that Congress has been able to mandate them with so little opposition.

The new energy bill, signed by President Bush this past Wednesday, is noted for its huge hike in auto fuel economy standards and in ethanol mandates and subsidies. The former will kill people, by causing cars to be downsized and less crashworthy; the latter will waste huge sums of money.

Less well known is the bill’s boosting of appliance efficiency standards, despite the fact that items like top-loading washing machines have already been ruined by the stringent standards currently in effect. (That’s Consumer Reports ‘ assessment, not mine.)

But for those bugged by nitpicking flexings of government muscle, the most irritating provision may well be the bill’s banning of incandescent bulbs.

The bulbs aren’t banned outright. Rather, beginning in 2012 a set of increasingly stringent lumen-per-watt standards will eliminate conventional incandescents. 100-watters will be the first to go. In their place we’ll have to use compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) or other new-fangled lights.

The reasoning, apparently, is that the public on its own is too dumb to realize what a great thing CFLs are, given that their energy savings far outweigh their higher prices.

The fact that growing numbers of people, on their own, have turned to CFLs doesn’t count for much; for our esteemed congressional representatives, the burning question is: Why hasn’t everyone? Why is the CFL market share only 6 percent here, compared to 80 percent in Japan?

Well, there are some good reasons:

1. Some people hate the light that CFLs give off. Lots of people, in fact; not just the ones in that New Yorker cartoon.

2. Unlike incandescents, CFLs take time to reach full brightness after they’re turned on — from 30 seconds to three minutes. The first time I used one, it was so dim I thought I’d bought a dud. Only when I walked back into the room later did I realize the need for patience. (And only then could I make out the small print on the back of the CFL package mentioning this.) If you’re used to full brightness at the flick of a switch, forget it.

3. CFLs can’t be used with most dimmers or timers, and they don’t fit in many fixtures. I’ve got several of those Y-shaped ceiling sockets that hold three 60-watt bulbs, but if I replace all three bulbs in a socket with CFLs, I can’t fit the glass cover back on. (According to one customer service rep at Westinghouse, you shouldn’t mix CFLs with incandescents in the same socket, so forget about inter-bulb harmony.)

4. Some CFLs can’t be used in totally enclosed fixtures or in base-up recessed downlights. They can also interfere with radios and televisions.

And here’s another lovely reason for hating CFLs, if you typically clean up the mess when a bulb breaks rather than call in your servants:

5. CFLs contain tiny amounts of mercury, and so EPA has a four-step program on how to clean up a broken CFL! First step: "Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more." I suspect EPA is overdoing it, but who am I to argue?

Finally, there’s the question of whether CFLs really do reduce the use of electricity. Back in 1987, the small town of Traer, Iowa, handed out 18,000 fluorescents to its residents, in a free giveaway aimed at cutting power consumption. How did that work out?

Despite the fact that over half of the town’s households participated, electricity use actually rose by 8 percent. Once people realized they could keep their lights on at lower cost, they kept them on longer.

With this sort of history as a guide, what business does Congress have leading us into a questionably-illuminated future?