Traditional incandescent lightbulbs are about to start going dark in California.
The old-fashioned bulbs are expected to start disappearing from hardware and home-improvement store shelves beginning Jan. 1, when ambitious energy-efficiency regulations are scheduled to take effect across the state.
Although bulb manufacturers are trying to get a court order preventing the regulations from kicking in, it looks like consumers will soon be left to choose between light-emitting diode bulbs (LEDs) or those oddly shaped, compact fluorescent lights.
The bulbs won’t vanish right away. Retailers will be allowed to sell off their old stock of incandescent bulbs beyond the start of 2018. But they won’t be able to sell any bulbs manufactured after Jan. 1 that don’t meet the new standards.
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Driving the change is energy efficiency. Former President George W. Bush signed a law in 2007 that gradually phases in new standards for bulbs, with the latest installment set to take effect across the country in January 2020. The federal law allows California to implement the regulations two years earlier, state officials say.
The new rules don’t explicitly ban incandescent bulbs. Instead, they impose such high energy standards that the incandescent bulbs will become effectively obsolete.
“Incandescents won’t be able to compete,” said spokeswoman Amber Pasricha Beck of the California Energy Commission. “When a consumer goes into a store they will not see an incandescent bulb.”
The new standards will apply mainly to general-purpose light bulbs and won’t affect most specialty products, including Christmas lights. Some incandescent bulbs will still be allowed, including oven lights and three-way bulbs.
It remains to be seen how shoppers will react. Many consumers still favor incandescent bulbs. They’re cheap and emit a more natural-looking light than LEDs.
“Some people don’t want the LEDs; it’s the color tones,” said Karin Magnes, owner of Light Bulbs Plus in Rancho Cordova. “(Manufacturers of LEDs) need to perfect that color a little bit to get to the color of incandescents.”
Still, Magnes and other merchants said more and more customers are embracing LED technology because the bulbs save energy and emit less heat.
“Most people are used to it now,” said Ryan Tollefson, co-owner of six Batteries Plus Bulbs stores in the Sacramento area. “We sell almost no incandescents now. We’re almost all LED.”
State officials and environmental advocates say consumers will come to love the higher standards. Although LED bulbs are about three times more expensive than incandescent products, they last a lot longer and will reduce electricity bills. The Natural Resources Defense Council has estimated that once all of the 250 million incandescent bulbs still burning in California are replaced with LED products, the state’s consumers will save $1 billion a year on their utility bills.
“It’s really cost effective,” said Noah Horowitz, an energy efficiency expert at NRDC’s San Francisco office. “You also avoid the hassle of having to change the bulb every year.”
An incandescent bulb is built around a tungsten wire, called a filament, and produces light when the filament is heated. For decades the bulbs have been filled with gas, usually a mixture of nitrogen and argon.
Incandescent technology hasn’t changed much since Thomas Edison’s day, and critics say incandescent bulbs are highly inefficient; about 90 percent of the energy is released as heat instead of light. Several years ago, the nitrogen-argon mix began to give way to halogen, which has doubled the bulbs’ lifespan and slightly decreased their energy consumption.
LED technology is considered a quantum leap in energy efficiency. The bulbs use computer technology; light is emitted as an electrical current passes through a microchip. According to the website Sciencing.com, an LED bulb uses one-sixth as much energy as the equivalent incandescent product.
The old bulbs aren’t going out without a fight. The National Electrical Manufacturers Association is pursuing two lawsuits – one in U.S. District Court in Sacramento and the other in a federal appeals court in Virginia – to try to block the new efficiency standards from taking effect. The Virginia case has been settled, with the federal government agreeing to review the nationwide regulations and how they will be implemented.
In the Sacramento case, which is still pending, the industry is going after California’s plan to roll out the new regulations Jan. 1, two years ahead of the rest of the country. Manufacturers are arguing that this will force them to comply with two sets of rules, hurting the industry and leaving consumers with fewer choices.
“It is both difficult and expensive to stop a production line for light bulbs, and instead to make short, special production runs of lightbulbs that satisfy the requirements of a single state,” the association said in its lawsuit. “California consumers will be forced to choose from a much smaller selection of higher priced light bulbs.”