Thursday, April 24, 2008

Replace 5 light bulbs or make a new window?

There has been much talk about alternative energy sources again lately, and a lot less talk about reduction of energy consumption. The development of bio fuels is one such topic – the panacea of the new world?? Errrrm but I thought biofuels actually used more calories in production than they released when used?

I have a problem with this search for "new" energy sources. We all accept that oil is fast running out and some people seem to believe that this is a situation which must be avoided at all cost.

Ah! there’s one of those dangerous phrases "At all cost" . This gives BIG business the incentive to amplify their profits even more, it gives governments the opportunity to tax us even further and it gives scientists the perception that they can rape and pillage in order to deliver Utopia.

But if we accept oil is running out, and who doesn’t? and we are also saying that we are not prepared to let the big corporations have an open cheque book to resolve the problem for us, then what are we to do?

Now that’s a better phrase, What are we to do? WE to do? Not what are you to do, or what are they to do, no, what are we to do?

One of the problems with the modern world is that many of us nowadays, are refusing to take responsibility for our actions. We see this in court cases where there is always someone ELSE to blame, we see it in parenting where there is a move to allow children so much freedom that the freedom of the rest of society is jeopardised, we see it in child protection legislation that tends to forget that the majority of children have parents looking after them and that the rest of our society doesn’t need to be protected to that extent. Maybe the first thing we should start to do is to take back some of the responsibility for our actions.

OK. So how exactly is taking back responsibility for our actions going to help the global oil crisis.

Good Question

Maybe instead of thinking about oil, we should think about energy – after all, they’re virtually the same aren’t they?

Now Al Gore famously called on the Americans to change 5 light bulbs. "If every household in America switched five regular light bulbs for five fluorescent bulbs, it would be the equivalent of taking 1 million cars off the highways for a full year".

Now this is a gardening blog and I have an issue with the hijacking of the word bulb to describe a lamp but hey....

Anyway, that is what he claimed, and it’s probably true.

Ah, you noticed the probably, well, I have a caveat. If we're trying to save energy, it’s no use throwing away perfectly good light bulbs and replacing them with new, so Ian says "when a lamp fails replace it with a low energy version". Now, sadly for AL, he rather foolishly suggested that everyone should change to compact fluorescent energy efficient lamps. Now don’t get me wrong, changing to compact fluorescent will make the sort of energy savings Al talked about.

But, is it good enough to just talk about energy, or do we need to think about pollution as well?. If we start down the pollution road we quickly find an interesting situation. After all, don’t we all now know that fluorescent tubes – you know the 4ft or 8ft long things in offices – sometimes referred to as neons, don’t we all know that they are now considered hazardous waste because of pollutants contained within them.

Now it’s important that you know these tubes are fluorescent tubes because then you’ll see the flaw in Al telling everyone to change to – oh yes - compact fluorescent tubes – so like, compact makes that much difference!

I need to explain, very briefly how all this works before I go on. I apologise to the lighting engineers amongst you who can skip this whole paragraph.

An ordinary light bulb – the incandescent lamp, was invented by Edison in 1880 – well ok not actually invented.

The first electric light was an electric arc (still used today for high performance lamps such as spotlights at rock concerts and large cinema projection systems) invented in England by Humphrey Davy in 1800. Then in 1878 the English physicist Sir Joseph Wilson Swan demonstrated his new electric lamps, with a carbon paper filament ,in Newcastle, England. They worked well but the carbon paper filament burnt out quickly.

In 1879, the American inventor Thomas Alva Edison discovered that a carbon filament in an oxygen-free bulb glowed but did not burn up for 40 hours. Edison eventually produced a bulb that could glow for over 1500 hours.

What Edison did that no-one else on the trail had done was to register his patent in 1880. So in 1880, Eduson registered the first patent for an electric light bulb.

Now Edison was trying to make a light, he didn’t need to worry too much about efficiency and his light worked, it converted most of the energy to heat but it worked and gave off quite a bit of light.

In 1907 Edison patented his invention of a fluorescent lamp but it wasn’t until the 1930’s that GE of America really started to develop fluorescent lighting as an energy efficient light source.
The important bit about how the lamp works is that the electricity causes mercury vapour to discharge some invisible light and that in turn is turned into visible light by phosphor coatings on the inside of the tube. It is the mercury vapour that makes these lamps a hazardous waste.

Break the tube and you release mercury. Mercury is a toxic metal associated with contamination of water, fish, and food supplies

Now just how toxic is toxic?? Well, official advice from the Department of the Environment in the UK states that if a low-energy compact fluorescent lamp is smashed, the room needs to be vacated for at least 15 minutes. That toxic huh? Now note that I’ve moved on to low energy lamps, the modern low energy lamp. The compact fluorescent lamp – vacate for 15 minutes if one gets broken.

OK – so maybe the UK is being over cautious, here is some advice from an American website:

The mercury in compact fluorescent bulbs poses no threat while in the bulb, but if you break one:
- open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more
- use a wet rag to clean it up and put all of the pieces, and the rag, into a plastic bag
- place all materials in a second sealed plastic bag- call your local recycling center to see if they accept this material, otherwise put it in your local trash. Wash your hands afterward.

So after all this rambling where have we got to.?

We want to save energy and save pollution. To do this we are going to replace the light bulbs in our house when they fail with a better option.

All we have to do now is find the better option – and there's a big problem.

The only better option I can find is daylight. Stop thinking about artificial light and put back some daylight.

So next time a light bulb fails start to ask yourself whether a window would be a better option!

If not then maybe one of the new LED lamps. There is a 32 watt LED lamp that is designed as a street lamp. There is no mercury pollution but there are still phospors involved and there is talk of a risk of cancer for people working on the manufacture of LEDs. Other pollutants are present, after all, when all the hype is over, an LED is a solid state device and I presume there will be a level of lead solder present in the manufacture White LED’s containYttrium Aluminum Garnet and Gallium Nitride with links to Alzheimers being suggested for aluminium pollution, and pollution of groundwater by Gallium, Indium, and Arsenic being found near semiconductor manufacturing plants.

Of course, making glass for that window??

Finally, I want to tell you how I came to write this piece and thank some of those unbeknownst contributors.

A few days ago there was a discussion on Kitchen Garden International which a few of us hijacked and started to talk about low energy light sources and pollution. Kate, over on
was involved.

Then someone else on KGI posted a link to Micheal Pollan’s new article "Why Bother"
which I read and liked.

Then I visited Patrick’s Bifurcated Carrots site and he had a piece about the Pollan article

So all this weighed on my mind and then today, a lamp failed and I had to replace it. I didn’t have a CFL or an LED lamp so I had to use an incandescent and that is when I started to write!

Don’t do as I do but do as I say!



Kate said...

This is a good thing to think about. We have to reduce, not just find-another-source.
Here is an idea I used for Earth Hour, a while ago. I put 6 solar lanterns outside all day. When it got dark I brought them in. Nice light but they do have AA batteries and are constructed of somethings - I don't know what.At least, though, they don't use mains electricity to produce light. May I suggest we blog at night rather than in the day because our screens light up the room a bit (and they are on day or night) and we don't need to have the room light on at all, if our eyes are OK which mine are not, and rapidly deteriorating by the blog-minute. Did you really start writing this at 12.44am Ian?

Patrick said...


I'm really in complete agreement with you. I don't know if you have ever seen Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. If not, let me tell you the hypocrisy involved in watching Gore talk about flying from city to city all over the world, including shots of him passing through airport security and sitting on the plane, just so he could give his lecture and tell the audience to switch to CFLs, was all almost too much to bear.

One thing Pollan explained very well in The Omnivore's Dilemma was if you are any kind of commercial operation with share holders, you must see a year after year increase in profit of about 10%, or you will simply cease to exist. In the case of food that means food companies must either get you to pay more for the same food or get you to eat more. In OD, Pollan showed pretty clearly how food companies actively pursue both of these strategies. The principle way companies get you to pay more for things is to offer an 'improved' product, which is one of the reasons we see so many processed foods around and not much in the way of basic foodstuffs.

It's the same with light bulbs. Light bulbs are very big business, because everyone needs them. The problem is (like you so clearly said) is the technology is very old and no one owns the patents on it anymore. There is no way to get consumers to pay more for standard light bulbs, so we have to be taught to buy newer technologies, forced by law even if we don't do it willingly.

There is a place and time for CFLs or LED lights, but there are also many reasons to use older bulbs and you mentioned several of them. There are also people with medical or simple comfort issues where they cannot tolerate the slight flicker of CFLs or lack of light spectrum.

In not too many years more and more people will be living partly or totally off the grid, with their own solar panels, windmills or other energy sources. In this case they will have their own practical limits on energy use, and why could these people be prevented from using normal light bulbs if they choose?

A few days ago when I was going to leave a comment, I was going to ask you why you didn't express any interest in heirloom varieties of plants? I've already left enough of a comment for today, but let me just say briefly that a lot of these same issues are tied up in plant varieties.

If you want to be sure you are growing heirloom varieties you must get your seeds either from another seed saving gardener (who knows what they are doing) or you must buy them from a company that only sells heirloom varieties. I don't think Kokopelli is still in operation in France, but if so they would be one possibility. The only other two places I'm aware of are the Heritage Seed Library (where you have to be a member) or Real Seed Catalogue in the UK. Links are on my blog.

Ian said...

Thank you to both of you for your constructive comments. Kate, yes, I did post this at 12.44 am although it had taken me a while to write it before that. I tend to write and hone in a WP and then cut and paste into the blog.
I do a lot of my blogging and internet browsing at night and often with only a small light on in the room. My eyesight is not good enough to sit in the dark, but I only need a little light to see the keyboard.
Patrick, I am interested in heirloom varieties and will start to search them out. As you know this is the first year I have been doing any kind of vegetable gardening and my attitudes have changed dramatically since January when I started. KGI has certainly been an inspiration to me as well as your own and Kate's blogs. Also, now, I can start to save seeds for the future.

Kate said...

I get really annoyed about this light globe thing - buying more and different stuff is not an answer.What I am beginning to see, though, is something I tossed around with all night (not again!)and will write about soon, is that here at least, the price of oil is beginning to bite - petrol, transport and manufacture of goods - everything is going up fast. What should then happen is that things that require fewer inputs should become relatively cheaper. This will, I hope, boost the speed of uptake of low-energy input things like local food and anything with low embodied energy.And mean all those silly eco-products will have to be exactly that - ecological, in order to be economical.A rough sketch but something that could draw us all towards the cool, shady cave that I mentioned once before.

ilex said...

Very thoughtful piece, Ian. I like the way your mind works and the way you put it to paper.

Johnny 5 said...

As someone who sells light bulbs for a living, I am less enthusiastic than most about compact fluorescent bulbs. This is due to the fact that the ones currently available contain significant amounts of mercury. If one of these bulbs should break inside of a person’s home, it could cause a challenging disposal situation. It is my belief that the technology should progress to a point at which the mercury levels are low or nonexistent before people changeover their entire homes. Another consideration is that as these bulbs burn out, they will most likely be thrown away as though they are normal rubbish and landfills will have incredibly high levels of mercury in their soil as a result.

Ian said...

Thank you Kate and ilex - as always, supportive comments from you both.

Johnny 5 thanks for your comment. I also used to sell light bulbs in the UK specialising in TH and other studio products. I agree with what you say but believe the answer is in developing ways of recycling these lamps. Mercury is such a useful tool in the production of light.

In Sweden they have developed a recycling plant that takes mercury vapour lamps, extracts the vapour, reconverts it back to liquid mercury which they are then able to resell back into the manufacturing process.

I firmly believe that these sorts of initiatives are far better than the constant quest for new materials.

The problem is that manufacturers see profit in a new, "better", line whereas there is little gain from developing recycling so we need national and international governmental support.

Krissy said...

Most CFLs today on the market contain less than 5mgs of mercury and there are CFL options out there that contain as little as 1.5mgs of mercury- which can hardly be called a “significant amounts of mercury” considering that many item in your home contain 100s of times more of mercury including your computer. Mercury levels in CFLs can never be “nonexistent” since mercury is a necessary component of a CFL and there is no other known element that is capable of replacing it. But CFLs actually prevent more mercury from entering the environment. According to the Union of Concerned Scientist, “a coal-fired power plant will emit about four times more mercury to keep an incandescent bulb glowing, compared with a CFL of the same light output”.