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Congress keeps incandescent light bulbs burning, for now

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By Julie Muhlstein
Herald Columnist
It doesn't look like a political football. It looks like the symbol of an idea popping into a cartoon character's head. And it looks like what it is -- a 100-watt incandescent light bulb.
Even so, it's also a political football.
During these dark days around the winter solstice, when we keep lights on longest, have you noticed what Congress did?
A $915 billion spending bill passed by Congress last week includes a rider blocking enforcement of rules that would have restricted the manufacture and sale of incandescent light bulbs. Passed by the House on Friday, and the Senate on Saturday, the bill funds the departments of Defense, Education, Energy, Homeland Security, Labor, Health and Human Services, Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Tacked on are provisions delaying coal dust regulations in mining and blocking Guantanamo Bay detainees from being transferred to the United States.
So what grabbed headlines? Plain old light bulbs.
Energy legislation signed in 2007 by President George W. Bush included a phase-out of incandescent bulbs over three years, starting Jan. 1 with the 100-watt bulb. Last week's votes in Congress prohibit enforcement of the rules, aimed at energy efficiency, for the current fiscal year ending Sept. 30.
A Texas congressman, Republican Joe Barton, called the delay "an early Christmas present for all Americans" and said the action "restores the freedom, at least temporarily, for you to choose the light bulbs you want."
I'll admit that, for a time, I was grouchy enough about the government banning old-style bulbs that I just kept buying them. For years after newer efficient ones became available, I continued to screw in the old types despite knowing they use considerably more energy and don't last nearly as long as CFL or LED -- compact fluorescent light and light-emitting diode -- bulbs.
Call me a late adapter. It took a nudge, too. The first CFL bulb I tried was a free one left on my porch by Everett's Northwest Neighborhood Association.
Neil Neroutsos, a Snohomish County PUD spokesman, said the utility worked with neighborhood groups to provide some free CFL bulbs. The PUD, which has about 320,000 customer accounts in Snohomish and Island counties, has also sold more than 4 million CFL bulbs at a discount. The bulbs are more expensive than old incandescents.
Since putting that first CFL bulb into my porch fixture, I have slowly incorporated them into my century-old house. I now have CFL bulbs in my basement, in one bedroom, and one in the living room.
Only one CFL bulb has ever burned out. It needs to be recycled, not just thrown away, because of the mercury inside. I'll eventually get around to taking it to a free recycling place – either the PUD office, a Bartell Drugs store, or the Snohomish County Household Hazardous Waste facility in Everett.
Just one of my CFL bulbs, in a reading lamp in my bedroom, doesn't measure up to the incandescent bulb it replaced. It takes awhile to warm up and the quality of light isn't great. Still, I plan to keep trying new-style bulbs. If the fact that they rarely need changing isn't payoff enough, I like that at least the cost of something -- lighting my house -- is going down through less energy use.
Neroutsos said that in households served by the PUD, about a third of bulbs now being used are energy-efficient types. "An average home has about 30 fixtures," he said, so about 10 of the bulbs are likely to be CFLs.
"The light quality has gotten better," Neroutsos said. And the energy savings is significant. Neroutsos said that depending on how many hours a CFL bulb is on daily, it will use about a quarter of the energy used by an incandescent bulb. "If you use a lot of light in your home, a switch to all CFLs will save 75 percent on lighting," he said.
More expensive but with a much longer life is an LED bulb. "Some marketers say you buy one when a child is born, you'll still be using it 20 years later," Neroutsos said.
A large LED bulb can cost $30 to $50, he said. An LED bulb's light is a direct beam, not the diffused light of other bulbs. Neroutsos said some businesses have switched to LED to save on maintenance costs of frequent replacement, and that the city of Everett is using LED technology in some traffic signals.
Another LED plus is that the bulbs don't contain mercury, so they don't have the disposal dangers CFL bulbs do. In 2012, Neroutsos said, the PUD plans to offer discounts on LED bulbs.
Dave McKee is chief operating officer of Seattle Lighting, which has 14 stores around the Northwest. The stores see both customers who embrace energy-saving technology and those who hate the idea of losing the incandescent bulbs they grew up with.
"Some are afraid. We've had people buy cases of bulbs -- not a lot, but it's happened," McKee said. "Other people are looking for technology that does meet new energy standards."
If people are willing to make changes, McKee said, "no doubt they will see a saving."
For now, thanks to Congress, no one has to change by year's end. If you plan to hoard 100-watt incandescent bulbs, you have months to do it.
Go ahead if you want, and kick that political football on down the road.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460;
Recycle CFLs
For free recycling of CFL light bulbs, bring them to a Snohomish County PUD office, to area Bartell Drugs stores, or to Snohomish County's Household Hazardous Waste facility at 3434 McDougall Ave., Everett.
The waste facility is open 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. each Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Story tags » Energy SavingsHouseSenatePUD

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