How Many Legislators Does it Take to Change a Lightbulb?

compact fluorescent bulbincandescent bulbThis is a joke (the title) that works rather well, while being a serious issue as well. It’s all about trying to reduce our energy waste here in California, and contribute to the commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The idea is to change from the garden variety incandescent bulbs (see left) to the compact fluorescent ones (see right). It’s striking that more people don’t already use them. Ordinary bulbs (apparently 2 billion of them sold every year in the USA) convert only about 5 percent of the energy that they consume into light. The rest is just wasted heat.

For the same amount of light output, compact fluorescents use much less energy: A 25 Watt compact fluorescent gives about the same amount of light as a 75 Watt incandescent… and it lasts over 10 times longer. The technology has improved quite a bit too, so there’s none of that flickering, funny spectrum of colours, etc, that some of us remember from fluorescent lights when we were younger. It is a real alternative that is not being used. Old habits are hard to break.

California assemblyman Lloyd Levine is trying to introduce legislation (under the above name!) to phase out the use of the incandescent bulb in California (except in some special cases) by 2012. *Read more here, for example.) This is the same fellow who last year introduced legislation to get supermarkets to recycle plastic bags. This is clearly a guy who recognizes the value of taking a small thing and multiplying it by millions – or billions – to make a significant difference. I don’t know if this will work, but this is really good stuff to do indeed. I wish him (and us all) the best of luck.


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56 Responses to How Many Legislators Does it Take to Change a Lightbulb?

  1. Mary Cole says:

    I think that this legislation sounds like a great idea, as appart from anything it will raise the profile of incandescent* fluorescent lightbulbs, and hopefully people will be actually using them before the target date of legislating by 2012. I’m probably being hopelessly naive here, but I do believe as individuals we can act to make a difference. Even relatively small changes like changing the type of lightbulbs we use is worthwhile. It’s pleasing that the incandescent* fluorescent bulbs have recently significantly come down in price and are more widely available too. It’s tempting to feel powerless when considering issues like energy waste and the environment that it is only on a political level that changes can be made. If we all change our light bulbs and take other simple measures like shutting computers down at night and switching off TVs and other appliances by the mains, it’s got to make some difference. I have read that 5% of all energy used is in the United States is consumed by computers by which are not switched off at night. I don’t know if this is true, but even if it were half this amount, it is quite scary, given the USA’s overall energy consumption. I also think that the energy situation is actually now so serious that we are beyond the point where these gestures I mentioned are going to be enough, but we as individuals have to start somewhere!

    [*change made to reflect typo acknowledged by comment’s author later in the thread – cvj]

  2. Clifford says:

    Yes, that’s absolutely right…. the issue of feeling powerless (or not) is an important one. If people decide that its all too late anyway, or that there’s nothing the individual can do to make a difference, then we’re truly doomed. So things like this can really make a difference to that feeling of involvement in the process that we should all have. The plastic bag idea last year was great too. Yes, the standby electricity usage is really high indeed, but I am not sure of the amount. I wonder if there is a way of changing the design of various devices to make that less costly? I’m not convinced we’ll get a significant number of people to change that habit…


  3. Plato says:

    There are a lot of things that “effect change” Clifford.

    If it is based on what “once was” there could be motivating factors that would hold people from accepting such changes? It could mean, that what once was, will cost something greater then what is implied by just changing the light bulb.

    Recognition of a “simple light bub idea” took time to be accepted into the way the culture is, and slowly, by “cost savings” one would realize the benefit. I changed all of mine.

    I think if one has not be a part of these “dramatic changes in some way” it would be easy to say what “should” transpire? The “depth of the situation” would have asked the politician to see how great “an effect” it might have currently by making those changes.

    This comment here does not mean to support the “rejection of change” but to open up the understanding that such changes can and do affect people in the wake of things.

    Hard nosed, or “just sensitive,” and we might have an philosophical way which we deal with things? Society can be changed quite easily “by assimilation,” and on “subtle levels of engagement?”

    Advertising does it all time. What do you want to convey in the picture? Cartoon copy of Politicians changing the light bulb?

  4. spyder says:

    There is an underlying message in all of this as well, one that is hugely critical and important. Changing lifestyles and habits is not an easy path, particularly when so much of the base and infrastructure of this country is predicated on the use of highly-profitable, cheaply-manufactured tools (incandescent lightbulbs in this case) that require replacement on an ever-shortening time cycle. So much of the matter of our lives–the products, goods, foods, beverages–ends up as wastes, either through their use, or from their planned obsolescence (food sell by/ use by dates). And each one of those items requires the release of carbon (mostly energy production, but in the processing materials as well) that furthers the erosion of our capacity to live on the planet. We are quickly approaching an actual point along the arrow of time, at which the processes of global climate change will be extraordinarily difficult to resist, and in most cases be terminal to the majority of life (see below–sorry about the length). Water wars are already beginning; and in CA, which is experiencing a terrible drought, 14 million more people are living today than there were during the extreme water shortages of the mid-1980’s. Saving energy through use of compact flourescents saves water used in energy production, and reduces the release of greenhouse gases and thermal pollution. How simple is that?

    If the critical mass of the population fails to begin to act to self-correct, they will be unable to resist the constant pull of hopelessness into the blackhole of nihilistic anarchy.

    According to the UN/IPCC report, the world will be a much hotter and less hospitable place by 2100. These are the projected impacts…

    +2.4°: Coral reefs almost extinct:
    In North America, a new dust-bowl brings deserts to life in the high plains states, centred on Nebraska, but also wipes out agriculture and cattle ranching as sand dunes appear across five US states, from Texas in the south to Montana in the north. Rising sea levels accelerate as the Greenland ice sheet tips into irreversible melt, submerging atoll nations and low-lying deltas. In Peru, disappearing Andean glaciers mean 10 million people face water shortages. Warming seas wipe out the Great Barrier Reef and make coral reefs virtually extinct throughout the tropics. Worldwide, a third of all species on the planet face extinction

    +3.4°: Rainforest turns to desert:
    The Amazonian rainforest burns in a firestorm of catastrophic ferocity, covering South America with ash and smoke. Once the smoke clears, the interior of Brazil has become desert, and huge amounts of extra carbon have entered the atmosphere, further boosting global warming. The entire Arctic ice-cap disappears in the summer months, leaving the North Pole ice-free for the first time in 3 million years. Polar bears, walruses and ringed seals all go extinct. Water supplies run short in California as the Sierra Nevada snowpack melts away. Tens of millions are displaced as the Kalahari desert expands across southern Africa

    +4.4°: Melting ice caps displace millions:
    Rapidly-rising temperatures in the Arctic put Siberian permafrost in the melt zone, releasing vast quantities of methane and CO2. Global temperatures keep on rising rapidly in consequence. Melting ice-caps and sea level rises displace more than 100 million people, particularly in Bangladesh, the Nile Delta and Shanghai. Heatwaves and drought make much of the sub-tropics uninhabitable: large-scale migration even takes place within Europe, where deserts are growing in southern Spain, Italy and Greece. More than half of wild species are wiped out, in the worst mass extinction since the end of the dinosaurs. Agriculture collapses in Australia

    +5.4°: Sea levels rise by five metres:
    The West Antarctic ice sheet breaks up, eventually adding another five metres to global sea levels. If these temperatures are sustained, the entire planet will become ice-free, and sea levels will be 70 metres higher than today. South Asian society collapses due to the disappearance of glaciers in the Himalayas, drying up the Indus river, while in east India and Bangladesh, monsoon floods threaten millions. Super-El Niños spark global weather chaos. Most of humanity begins to seek refuge away from higher temperatures closer to the poles. Tens of millions of refugees force their way into Scandanavia and the British Isles. World food supplies run out

    +6.4°: Most of life is exterminated:
    Warming seas lead to the possible release of methane hydrates trapped in sub-oceanic sediments: methane fireballs tear across the sky, causing further warming. The oceans lose their oxygen and turn stagnant, releasing poisonous hydrogen sulphide gas and destroying the ozone layer. Deserts extend almost to the Arctic. “Hypercanes” (hurricanes of unimaginable ferocity) circumnavigate the globe, causing flash floods which strip the land of soil. Humanity reduced to a few survivors eking out a living in polar refuges. Most of life on Earth has been snuffed out, as temperatures rise higher than for hundreds of millions of years.

  5. Thomas Larsson says:

    Perhaps the funniest part of the Nobel banquet 2005 was the joke in Roy Glauber’s speech: how many theorists does it take to change a lightbulb (answer: three. One to climb the ladder, one to turn the ladder, and one to figure out the double-valued representations of the rotation group). The next day, my daily newspaper mentioned the speech, but changed the word double-valued to double-sided, like it was some kind of pneumonia.

  6. Charles T says:

    What a coincidence. I bought my first one last week and sure enough a couple of days ago a bulb blew in my basement and it’s now installed.

    Now, I regard myself as an ultra-rational person. It’s patently clear, that despite the initial cost, these bulbs are cost-effective and over their lifetime will save you money. So why exactly did it require a tremendous act of willpower to make myself buy the fluorescent bulb in the supermarket?

    I offer you a couple potential reasons:
    1. They are more expensive (3 times as expensive if I remember correctly). Not rational, but buying a new stock of 6 bulbs still cost a huge amount of money compared to 6 old ones. This makes it psychologically harder to actually buy them.
    2. Habit and distrust of new things – especially if there isn’t anything wrong with the old one.

    On the other hand, I value my time. I’d rather pay for the cost of keeping my computer, TV etc in standby. But that’s also a rational economic decision. Also, living in a cold country, for much of the year, all my electronic equipment is just offsetting my (thermostatically controlled) heating bill. Most people never seem to take this into consideration.

    However, photons are just photons so I am quite pleased with myself that I overcame my phobias.

  7. Plato says:

    I think this is the thing about “energy conservation” people do not think about, unless it does cost you money. But “buying in volume” always gives you a “certain discount per unit,” so, if in the long run your intention is to replace them, then replace them all with a supply on hand.

    Energy Conservation is about cost savings as well, and looking to where costs are incurred, you tend to look for those things which will reduce your dependency on the grid. You have to remember in “most countries” capitalist systems have “for profit on consumption” so you are going to pay just like you pay for oil/gas.

    Innovation to contend with these rising cost, to get away from “gouging,” forces one to move in what you can do to retain your independences and live comfortably while the system can force you into the poor house. Deprive others?

    While there are the eco-conserns here in terms of the ways we are doing things I think looking at ways to keep people, healthy, warm/coo,l is important as rights, to human dignity.

    Bee’s topic on geothermal is a case in point. That asks, how else could we remain cool using the earth, either way, to help heat our homes or cool them? How to use sewer systems, and gravity in place of “electrical pumping systems” on your acreage.

    Wind mills, and Germany’s response to Kyoto and the “cost saving” by using wind generation by investing in Kyoto to reduce emissions. It had to be cost effective?

  8. andy says:

    I’m a big worrier about global warming and I have been since 1989. I’m thinking that the consequences of a +6.4 K change that is listed in spyder’s post are probably not the actual events that would transpire. I would be more than willing to read any information provided in a link or a literature reference though. So I’m basically asking “spyder” to provide a reference. And I’m asking for that without meaning any antagonism. I’m on his/her side. And thank you Professor Johnson for blogging on this. It’s the most important issue bar none.

  9. andy says:

    Oh come on, is no one going to tell me why we’re going to have giant methane fire balls in the sky?

  10. Aaron F. says:

    Mary Cole — I don’t mean to be an ass, but I think you said “incandescent” where you mean “fluorescent.” Just to make sure you know! 😉

    I think this is a great idea… but, as usual, California is the only state even considering putting it into practice. I cringe to think how long it will take for similar measures to appear in the rest of the U.S., and the rest of the world.

    Speaking of which… have any of you visited any countries whre fluorescent bulbs are the norm, and incandescents rarely used?

  11. Aaron F. says:

    p.s. While we’re talking about energy-efficient light, I think I should mention the Light Up The World Foundation. They are bringing electric light to places it’s never been before… and in a totally renewable, energy-efficient way!

  12. Richard says:

    I have two problems with these light bulbs. First, the light spectrum has a distinctly cold color balance. Second, 75 watt incandescent bulbs (equivalent to a 25 watt fluorescent bulb in light output) are just too bright for me. I prefer fairly subdued lighting in my house, except for certain purposes like reading small print. If someone were to market warm color balance bulbs in a variety of light output ranges, from low to moderate, I might be interested.

  13. Clifford says:

    Richard – are you sure you’re not thinking of the older ones? I find the colour balance to be fine, compared to how they used to be. Also, surely it is so easy to change any unhappy output by a better choice of lamp shade, etc. Do you really use bare bulbs to light your home, etc? If you do, I recommend exploring some covers of various sorts…. makes for a lot of decorative fun too! As for brightness…. just get 15 Watt ones. You are not required to get 25 Watt ones.



  14. Clifford,

    Actually this is a REALLY BAD development for a lot of people with disabilities…check my post on the subject out here.

    Fluorescent lightbulbs can cause a host of unpleasant symptoms in people with autism, balance disorders, and a bunch of other neurological conditions. My bf, for example, can’t handle them for very long — being a bit of a greenie he did try puting a coiled fluorescent bulb in his desklight at home and foudn that it very quickly caused a bunch of problems and he had to replace it with an incandescent one.

    While I am in favour of energy efficiency where possible, I don’t support it at the expense of access for disabled people. This would cause a huge problem for disabled people since it would presumably make it difficult for them to have incandescent bulbs even in their own homes. That beign the case, I hope you and other will reconsider your stance on the issue.


  15. Clifford says:

    Hi IP!

    Thanks for this, but I don’t see that this will be a problem. The legislation will almost certainly make allowances for such possibilities. I don’t know if it does for this case, but I already recall some exceptions made in the proposed legislation. Even if it is not explicit, I think that the protections already in place for people with disabilities would kick in to protect them from a blanket law of this sort. I could be wrong, but I suspect this will work rather well here. This is one of the things that the USA does rather well in creating new law, I would say. One to watch, of course.


  16. Clifford,

    Even assuming these allowances actually do exist, the availability of incandescent lightbulbs will be severely limited by the reduction in the market, and all public places will have fluorescent lighting. This will limit access for people who are sensitive to fluorescent lighting as well as might life a bit harder for them by making it harder to get hold of the common lighbulbs that they will need for their homes.

    I haven’t seen mention of exceptions regarding people with disabilities, and as people with disabilities seem to be largely invisible to the public (even many socially aware people, it seems!), I doubt many people will take disabilities into account in considering this bill, which is a shame.

    So while this may be green, it’s damaging to *people*. I’m all for environmental friendliness, but not when it comes at the cost of disabled people being able to access public places and resources they need.


  17. Rae Ann says:

    We’ve been using the compact flourescent bulbs for a few years, and they really do last longer and save on the electric bill. They have also gone down in price by about half in the 3-4 years since I first bought some. The prices will continue to reduce as more people buy them and they become more profitable for the manufacturers.

    I kind of hate the idea of legislating this kind of thing, but maybe in California that is the only way to get people to adjust? 😉

  18. Mary Cole says:

    Aaron – you are of course absolutely correct. I wrote ‘incandescent’ when I meant ‘flourescent’. It was Monday morning! Thanks for the link to the Light Up the World Foundation. I don’t know of any countries where flourescent bulbs are the norm, but they have become much more common recently in the UK. It wasn’t long ago that they were not only much more expensive than incandescent bulbs (although in real terms cheaper due to their greater efficiency), but they were not so widely available. Now all the supermakets stock them and they are all much cheaper and I’ve even noticed a very inexpensive budget range.
    Clifford – Jenny asked what a blog was as there is some sort of schools ‘blogathon’ going on today to do with children using the internet safely. She has had a great time looking at the photos on Asymptotia, and particularly likes the ones on your astronomy posts. Thank you!

  19. andy says:

    Still no takers on explaining the +6.4° events? Is anyone else worried or confused about that bit?

  20. Clifford says:

    IP:- I agree with you, but I don’t agree that the situation is as bad as you say. Even though it is not the “right way” to do things, there’s a lot of legal recourse -that is regularly used- if a practice (or legistlation) discriminates against people with disabilities. I find it hard to believe that this will not be thought through. It may be a bit messy at first, but I am confident that it will work properly. I don’t know what to say about public places since public places have been using such lights (altough mostly the less comfortable industrial tube ones) for decades now, so it will not really be a genuinely new situation resulting from this legislation (although maybe a matter of degree)… the issue is being forced to use it in ones home. I think that is workable along the lines I mentioned.

    Also, these bulbs are improving rapidly. Are you sure that your friends have used the most recent technology avaiable? I wonder if people are working directly to improve the bulbs to take into account the problems you allude to? Have you looked into that? I have not. I’d say that would be the first place to focus our efforts rather than stopping such a measure entirely… the law will take some time to come into effect, you see.



  21. Clifford says:

    andy…. I don’t know any thing about that.

    Rae Ann:- It is not a California thing. It’s a human thing. Most people do not think through the impact that a small action on their part can have, because they do not intuitively take into account the mutiplicative factor of several million or billion. It’s like this with everything we do. So we need ways of helping everyone develop new habits that serve the big picture. Legislation is a tool created by society to help in these matters. It is a legitimate tool, which when used carefully, produces spectacularly powerful and valuable results. There are numerous examples. The same guy introduced legislation to help supermarkets promote the use of recycling of bags. Nobody thinks (or if they thiink, they seldom act) much about the huge numbers of bags that they use every time they come back from the supermarket/grocerystore. Most of those bags end up in land fill and the environment where they create a huge amount of damage to animals, air, etc…. Now supermarkets must recycle, and they are required to have sturdy and reusable totebags at the checkouts for you to buy to encourage you to reuse your bags. This is just wonderful. I think that this is a good use of legislation, if there ever was one…



  22. The problem with fluorescent lights isn’t, as far as I know, one of improving technology. The problem is that fluorescent lights flash many times per second. This flickering isn’t perceptible to most people now, but it *is* perceptible to many autistic people and other people who have neurological conditions that make them hypersensitive. For them the flashing can be really uncomfortable — hence unpleasant side effects.

    As regards balance disorders — the mechanism seems not to be very well understood at the moment. It may be that the flashing makes eye-tracking difficult and thus makes it difficult for people to use visual depth cues for balance. Or it may be to do with the fact that fluorescent lights emit a lot of blue light, and it’s thought that this may also affect eye-tracking which could make it difficult to pick up visual depth cues.

    So it seems that *any* light that produces a flashing strobe effect (however quickly) would be a problem for lots of people.

    Even though it is not the “right way” to do things, there’s a lot of legal recourse -that is regularly used- if a practice (or legistlation) discriminates against people with disabilities.

    This puts the burden on people with disabilities. Why not go back to the drawing board with the proposal and find somethign that actually works for everyone and doesn’t exclude people?

    so it will not really be a genuinely new situation resulting from this legislation (although maybe a matter of degree)

    Of course it’s a matter of degree. The situation is bad enough already for a lot of people. But some public or semi-public spaces are lit with incandescent bulbs. My bf, for example, has (and has to have) university exams in a room with incandescent lighting.

    It may be a bit messy at first, but I am confident that it will work properly.

    Many disabled people have already seen legislation mess up when it comes to access, and thus can’t be laid back about new proposals that might also mess up. I think it shouldn’t be left to people with disabilities to pick up the pieces of legislation that is (however well-meaning) a little misguided. Let’s get some legislation that works.

  23. Clifford says:

    Again, I don’t agree. Why shouldn’t it be left to people who have concerns to help people construct legislation that works well, in cases when they might not have been aware of all of the implications of their proposal? This is why we elect officials, and why they are our representatives. So indeed this is the *right time* for people who have thoughts such as yours to come forward and help the legislation be the best that it can be. How else can the legislators know about concerns if it is not for the people who have the concerns to come forward if those thing have not been thought of?

    Let’s get some legislation that works.

    That statement is meaningless and powerless if people don’t step forward and help improve proposals…. This is what the system was designed to do, no? I don’t see how else it is supposed to work.

    In summary: Yes I agree there are concerns, no I don’t agree that because there are concerns that means that the whole thing is misguided. It just needs to be improved. It is an iterative process.



  24. Clifford says:

    So it seems that *any* light that produces a flashing strobe effect (however quickly) would be a problem for lots of people.

    Really? Maybe this is true, maybe it is not. I don’t see how you get to your conclusion. Are you quoting known research here? There’s a lot of work done on increasing the flicker rate to really very high frequencies. The old bulbs people remember flickering a lot were tied to some fractional multiple of the 60Hz of the power supply. But those days are long gone. The new designs are very different. Perhaps they can be made even better. Flicker rates are up at tens of KHz in some designs by using on-board electronics to control the system as opposed to just slaving to the power supply… maybe things have changed a lot. Maybe they can change even more. In your experience, are the problems experienced by your friends universal for all known available designs? Etc. etc., etc. This is what I mean by not condemning the idea out of hand. Maybe there are avenues to be researched more thoroughly, and the legislation appropriately staged, to make it work. Good legislation comes from everyone working together…not declaring it unworkable at the outset.



  25. Why shouldn’t it be left to people who have concerns to help people construct legislation that works well, in cases when they might not have been aware of all of the implications of their proposal?

    It should, but *before* it’s passed into law, not after.

    I don’t see how increasing fluorescent light usage in public, or in the homes of people with disabilities, can be a good thing, nor can I see how it could be improved.

    There are other initiatives that could address energy efficiency — the government could look into other energy-efficient light sources instead. Or could subsidise fluorescent light production for people’s homes. That way it wouldn’t affect access. But I don’t see how this particular proposal can be fixed.


  26. The other day, one of my compact fluorescent bulbs burned out. That’s news. It isn’t news when one of my older incandescent bulbs dies.

    I started replacing bulbs about six years ago. I do have a bunch of light fixtures that use “decorative”, non-standard sized bulbs. They drive me nuts. One day, the fixtures will go. My dining room light and a hall light are the two main holdouts for high use lights.

    Fluorescent lights do not like dimmer switches.

    Some of the early lights take a second or so go turn on. I’ve put them into fixtures with two or more bulbs, and included at least one faster bulb there.

    I have a kitchen light fixture that is rated for 60 watts. A 60 watt incandescent light is just not bright enough. It’s a small enclosure, but i found a compact fluorescent bulb that fits, and provides 100 watts equivalent light (for 20 watts). The wattage rating is heat, not light or power. So this saves the fixture.

    Something like 25% of electrical energy used in the home is lighting. Saving 2/3rds of that is 16%. That’s big.

    In summer, less waste heat means less air conditioning. Double the savings when the a/c is on.

    Much of my own house’s energy budget goes to heat in the winter. I’m working on improving insulation. One of the rooms is nearly unusable in winter because of poor insulation issues. Even adjacent rooms get cold. Poor insulation makes for discomfort too. They cause drafts.

  27. Clifford says:

    Fluorescent lights do not like dimmer switches.

    There are compact fluorescents that work fine with dimmers, by design.


  28. Thomas says:

    IrrationalPoint – the issues of fluorescent “flicker” and their neurological effects are moot, the flicker is now at >10 kHz and totally imperceptable.

  29. Thomas says:

    While I myself am typing by the light of compact fluorescents (it’s 1:11 AM here), I’m not sure if I support this legislation. I don’t see that the net effect of all California and its lightbulbs could make any measaurable difference on global climate. This law seems to be rather political and symbolic; unlike California’s emissions standards, it will not effect the market outside California. Also unlike emissions standards, it makes a substantial aesthetic difference to millions of consumers – cold spectrum vs. hot spectrum – which will spark resentment and anger over what will be perceived an “over-intrusive” government. Maybe the political backlash over this small but very visible (pun intended) law will do more to hurt larger, more ambitious CO2 proposals in the near future.

    Outright criminalization of incandescents seems a rather immature, authoritarian approach to climate control – something a grade-school kid might come up with on a school essay. I’d prefer a more liberal and economically-savvy approach – educate and inform! Many are unfamiliar with the (VERY NEW) CF technologies – misconceptions abound, confusing them with the flawed older fluorescents (annoying flicker, painful spectrum, etc.) Also, many are unaware that switching to CF is cost-effective DESPITE the high cost of the bulbs! Consumers don’t have great attention spans, unlike Clifford most of them make no effort to research the technologies they use. California should take an educate-and-advertise approach, maybe with public ads, or by placing CF’s in prominent public places. Or subsidize/tax-break the CF’s for a temporary period, to bait the consumers with a flood of artificially cheap bulbs.

    A confusing change like incandescent–>CF is necessarily slow; it should be made appealing and sexy, not bureaucratic and unpopular.

    -my $0.02

  30. Thomas says:

    Another thought – many public buildings and businesses already have the OLD, ugly fluorescents from previous rounds of legislation – these are very visible ogres which scare people away from fluorescents very effectively, I’ve noticed. Perhaps if they legislate/subsidize businesses to switch to the new, improved CF’s, that would make a tremendous impact on the IMAGE of fluorescents and encourage consumers to make the switch?

  31. Thomas,

    No, even with high frequency flickering, the flickering is still perceptible enough for some people (ie, those who are either generally hypersensitive, or who have neurological conditions that make them rely on eye-tracking a lot) to cause unpleasant side effects. My bf bought one of the new ones last week to test it in his home and wasn’t able to use it for more than half an hour.


  32. Lab Lemming says:

    On the other hand, fluorescent lights are generally not hot enough to burn people’s fingers. Which is a big improvement for some people.

    IP, have you looked into white LED’s? They are expensive, but should be continuous.

  33. andy says:

    I thought the flicker was caused by the alternating AC voltage so it should be at 60 hertz. I suppose I’m wrong about that.

  34. Clifford says:

    andy… I already commented on that. 60 Hz is a long way out of date. See above.


  35. andy says:

    oh I missed that. 🙂

  36. Lab,

    I’d like to see a lot more development into LED lights. From what I understand, they are energy efficient, and could be far more inclusive for people who are sensitive to fluorescent lights.


  37. Thomas: you can try googling “fluorescent lights” and the name of the condition you’re interested (eg “autism”) to find more info. The point is clearly not moot.

    For the record, the fact that fluorescent lights produce a whiter light than incandescent bulbs also causes problems for me when I have migraine, or pre-migraine type headaches.


    I think it’s a shame that people who are relatively privileged allow that privilege to make them complacent towards the needs of other people. The current situation with regard to access for disabled people is totally inadequate. If this proposal gets anywhere, it will be more inadequate. So saying “it will sort itself out” is something only the able-bodied can afford to say.

    You aren’t usually so indifferent to equality and access issues.


  38. Clifford says:

    IP:- I’m very confused as to why you are angry with me. I think that you’re a bit unfair in branding me in the way you chose to in your last comment. I explicitly addressed your remarks, admitted that your concerns should be taken into account, and encouraged further refinement of the proposed legislation in the light of what you said. I also asked politely about further facts of the case, research that has been done, and tried to supply more information about the bulbs in case you were not aware of it. I also made other suggestions about research. Others also suggested LEDs, as an example of further research that would allow the original intention of the legislation to be preserved.

    How is engaging in a discussion with you, discussing methods of compromise, and asking for more information, etc, to be considered indifference?

    I’m saddened by this. Friends should be able to disagree on approaches without being labelled by each other in this way.


  39. Thomas says:

    IrrationalPoint – a quick google clearly shows that it’s the 60Hz flicker of old fluorescents which bothers the autistic. Nothing about the 20-65 kHz (that’s THOUSANDS of hertz, as in one cycle per twenty microseconds) of the new bulbs, with their high-frequency semiconductor ballasts. I’m plain incredulous that these oscillations – at three orders of magnitude above line frequency – are detectable by any human eye under any conditions, period.

  40. Thomas:

    It’s not that people can *see* the flickering, it’s that they notice the *effects* of the flickering (eg, on eye-tracking for visual depth cues). I’ve done the google again and most of the articles discuss fluorescent lights, not just the old ones. My bf has tried new fluorescents and they have the same problems as old fluorescents.

    Also, some people have problems with fluorescent lights because they produe a whiter or bluer light than incandescent bulbs. Bright lights are a problem for many autistic people. This could maybe be improved in future, but at the moment, it’s a problem.


    This piece of legislation, if it passes, *will* affect access. I can’t see how this particular piece of legislation can be tweaked so as not to produce access problems. Other kinds of legislation (eg, for the state to subsidise development of LED lights for the general market) might be workable, but they are not what is being proposed. Supporting this particular initiative, well-meaning as it may be, will present problems for people with disabilities. If one wants to see energy-efficiency legislation that doesn’t pose these problems, this proposal will have to be scrapped and rewritten completely. If someone comes up with some particularly brilliant way around this that I haven’t thought of, more power to them. But I can’t see one.

    It may be the fluorescent lights will one day be improved somehow, so that they don’t pose these problems. However, until they are, I think it would be irresponsible to ban incandescents, even with the time gap the proposal suggests.

    What makes you confident that this will work out? How do you suggest that other people’s needs be worked into this to make this proposal non-discriminatory?


  41. Clifford says:

    IP, here’s the problem. Data upon which to base a real discussion is lacking. You easily put me and others at a disadvantage in the discussion by declaring attempts to learn the facts as evidence of oppression. I’m keeping an open mind about what you say, and have asked for more information. I’ve also suggested that this is the way legislation is to be improved… by supplying information and making a coherent argument, not just declaring it “bad legislation” at the outset. That is not a productive way to argue for something. I am not encouraged to be “confident that this will work out” if this is the way that concerned citizens engage in discourse. There is a process.

    So to the data:

    (1) have you read the proposed legislation that you have declared to be bad legislation? I have not. Can you point me to a link on the web, please? I have listened to the proposer’s interviews on the subject and he sounds like a reasonable guy. He mentioned a number of exceptions to be made. Perhaps he’s already made some provision for problems of the sort you mention. If not, would it not be a good idea to write to him and tell him about it, supplying him with data to help him improve the legislation?

    (2) You say:

    It’s not that people can *see* the flickering, it’s that they notice the *effects* of the flickering (eg, on eye-tracking for visual depth cues). I’ve done the google again and most of the articles discuss fluorescent lights, not just the old ones. My bf has tried new fluorescents and they have the same problems as old fluorescents.

    Once again, it has to be said (as others have) that several tens of thousands of times per second is how the new designs (available to all) flicker. I don’t think that the visual system can detect that at all, directly or indirectly (the “effects” you refer to). I suspect that people are responding more to their memory of the old 60Hz flicker bulbs. Perhaps I am wrong. I’ve asked for more information from you. You have not supplied it. It is not enough to quote the case of your boyfriend, as unfortunate as things may well be. Using your boyfriend as primary evidence is akin to the time when -as an argument against legislation based on the fact that smoking is bad for your health- people would bring up their Uncle Bill who smoked ten packs a day and lived to age 150.

    You have a choice here. You can take the easy route and call me insensitive and an oppressor, or you can use this as an opportunity to make your argument stronger – please point me/us to data, informed discussions, studies, etc., about the neurological effects of the new bulbs’ 10+ KHz flickering. I’ve tried to find some, and I cannot. Better yet, point it out to the people proposing the legislation so that if they have not already considered that and made provision, they can do so. This is how democracy works, I think.

    This way of carrying out the discussion (supplying data) is better than the approach you’ve taken so far.

    As regards the spectrum. I’m puzzled why this is not easily fixed with a filter, as we do with lights typically anyway, using various decorative shades, chandeliers, glass domes, etc. Could it be that your boyfriend is having problems with the spectrum, (and you , as you say you get migraines from white light) – problems easily fixed by not using the bare bulb as a light source?

    Once again, I’m sorry that your boyfriend has a problem, and yes, I could be wrong….. but …. data…..

    It’s not fair to accuse someone of being insensitive because they ask you for concrete information, and to make sure that you have command of the facts of the matter.



  42. Clifford:

    A quick google will turn up a bunch of articles, as I said before. Not many of them explicitely mention the age of the lightbulbs, but most of the articles are recent, and I assume they are discussing new-ish lightbulbs

    As regards the kind of light produced by fluorescents, there ought to be a way of getting around this. Depending on the reason for one’s sensitivity to them, lamp shades etc may or may not work (they help me when I’m migraine-y, although they don’t make any difference for my boyfriend, and I have no idea what effect this has on people with autism). This is fixable in people’s own homes, but not in public places where lamp shades aren’t generally used, so it’s still an access issue with regard to public places. Perhaps this can be gotten around, but it hasn’t been gotten around yet.

    As regards autistic people, many of the articles my google search turned up mentioned that new bulbs flicker less and are therefore better for autistic people than old bulbs, but that the new ones still cause problems.


  43. Clifford says:

    So no data then? Just assumptions? A mention of a “bunch of articles”, but no links to them. And no actual look at the legislation?

    This is hardly the concrete basis upon which to declare that someone is “indifferent to equality and access issues”, wouldn’t you say?



  44. Aaron F. says:

    Sensitivity to fluorescent lights is something I hadn’t thought about, and it definitely throws a wrench into the works! Here’s a smattering of web literature on the subject.

    This interview seems to say that color balance — not flicker — is responsible for fluorescent sensitivity in some people. The color of the curly fluorescent in my room looks very warm — warmer, in fact, than the incandescent bulb in my flashlight! — but maybe there are bad features of the spectrum that I can’t see.

    This page seems to say that the fastest human neurons can fire no more than 1000 times per second. Since Thomas says new fluorescents flicker more than 10,000 times per second, it seems to me that people who are sensitive to the new bulbs cannot be responding directly to the high-frequency flicker. HOWEVER, the high-frequency flicker could be getting aliased to a lower frequency that does irritate the brain.

    If I understand correctly, the reason that incandescent bulbs don’t flicker is that they don’t cool down noticeably in the 1/240th of a second that it takes for the alternating current in your wall to go from high to zero. Why isn’t it possible to coat fluorescent bulbs in a glow-in-the-dark material that would keep them glowing continuously? It wouldn’t eliminate flicker completely, but it should reduce it.

    I suspect that people are responding more to their memory of the old 60Hz flicker bulbs.

    If that were true, it would be very bad… it would mean that no amount of technological development could make fluorescent lighting feasible for people who were sensitive to the old, slow bulbs.

  45. Clifford says:

    Aaron F. Thanks getting us a tad closer to real information. Spectrum issues are a lot more convincing than flicker rate issues.

    However, I’d like to point out that the interview:

    (1) took place in 1999;

    (2) is not specifically about fluorescent lights, and in the places it mentioned them, makes no mention of what type of fluorescent lights are being discussed – there is no mention of Compact Fluorescent Lights. . Do CFLs have the same spectrum as the fluorescent lights that were common in public spaces and the like? Looking at mine -this is not a scientific test- I would say no. I have the old style long tubes in a strip in part of my kitchen, and I have the new CFLs in other parts of the house. They look very different in terms of quality of light to me. I could be wrong, though. Any data on that?

    I repeat that the article is very non-specific, and was also dated 1999. I hope that there are more up to date studies (hopefully, at least some blind tests) on this.



  46. Aaron F. says:

    Good discussion of this on Ballastexistenz. Two commenters (Julia, Changer) have problems with the new compact fluorescents; two (M, Jace) do not. Angel and Sappho’s son have problems with LED lighting; apparently, some or all LED lights are driven with high-frequency pulses.

    Javik says that new flashlights use halogen bulbs, not incandescent, which would explain why my compact fluorescent bulb looks warmer than my flashlight, even if it isn’t warmer than an incandescent. Javik also says LCD monitors don’t flicker, and don’t give him a headache, but aren’t LCD monitors backlit by fluorescents? Maybe those are only the older ones…

    Persephone and this page both say that indirect fluorescent lighting can be better than direct. If that worked consistently, it would be a cheap and simple solution!

  47. Aaron F. says:

    Do CFLs have the same spectrum as the fluorescent lights that were common in public spaces and the like? Looking at mine -this is not a scientific test- I would say no.

    Haha… I’m glad I’m not the only one up blogging instead of sleeping! On Ballastexistenz, Axinar points out that even compact fluorescents don’t have a totally smooth spectrum.

    Yep, I never could stand those flourescents in the house – no matter how much they try to tweak the coatings, they still have a nasty spike in the green part of the spectrum.

    Also, enough people report discomfort from compact fluorescents that I’m not convinced that flicker can be ruled out as a cause. Does anybody know whether aliasing, as I mentioned before, can happen in the human visual system?

    Above all, I’m with you, Clifford, in that what we really need is blind testing. LEDs would be a great place to start, because you’ve got total control over their flicker rate, and you can also run them with no flicker at all. It would be so easy to do! If only I were a psychologist with a bunch of fluorescent-sensitive friends!!!

  48. Clifford says:

    Thanks. Would be nice to have some concrete information. What you’re pointing to seems only a slight amount more informed than we are. After a bit of reading, much of what I see there and in several other similar discussions shows that many people are thoroghly confused about what bulbs are being discussed. People are remembering those long strip lights in their offices or in the bank, etc. This is not what people are talking about. The discussion is about CFLs. I’d like to see more information about what people have tested and tried about CFLs, and not anecdotal blog chatter about fluorescent bulbs in general. That’s all I ask.

    It is nice to see that people on that thread you pointed to are at least talking about being constructive and contacting the legislator and informing him about the concerns, etc. This is the right thing to do to help craft improvements in the legislation, as I said above.

    As to the indirect lighting issue, I’ve mentioned this a few times, above. I don’t understand why one would stop at a bare bulb in the first place -it is rather garish and ugly whether it be incandescent of fluorescent- but maybe that’s just me.



  49. Aaron:

    It does seem to be the case that the effects of fluorescents can be reduced (not eliminated) by using indirectly fluorescent lights or certain filters or the Irlen method. This doesn’t seem to work for everybody though, and I’ve only been able to find mention of it regarding autistic people.


    You’re asking for research that isn’t being done to any large extent. This isn’t “sexy” science and there isn’t much active research on why CFLs affect autistic people and others who are sensitive to them.

    If you need “proof” that this is an issue though, you can try reading these (recent) articles that mention sensitivity to fluorescents.

    This article by the Autistic Society of Michigan recommends not using fluorescent lights in places that autistic people used. Copyrighted 2002-2006.

    The Austitic Society in the UK mentions it too. Page updated in 2005.

    Also, you may be advocating the use of CFLs but what most people use *now* and what is easily available are older types of fluorescents. I checked for compact fluorescents in shops the last time I had to change lots of lightbulbs in my flat, and could only find 60Hz energy-savers. Other bulbs may be more widely available in the US, or indeed more specialist shops in the UK, but I’m wondering how widely available the kilohertz CFLs are, when I couldn’t find them in any supermarket in central Edinburgh, or cornershop within walking distance of my flat. As I say, the situation may be very different in the US, but that’s the situation in the UK.

    Also, there was some speculation in my posts, but I clearly said that it was possible they could be got around. The rest was not speculation, it’s based on my experience of lots of people I actually know and work with. I work with autistic kids. Bf chairs a charity organisation for people with Meniere’s so I’ve seen a lot of the info they work with (unfortunately not available on the web, but I’m sure you can telephone a Meniere’s organisation help-line and find equivalent info).

    I searched for the bill but haven’t been able to find the text since the bill hasn’t yet been presented to the Assembly. I’ll keep checking and when I find it, I will get back to you on this.

    All I have tried to point out is that there are issues here and an awful lot of people report having negative effects from fluorescent lights. You can ignore that if you want, and continue to support this bill because there isn’t much research on people sensitive to CFLs and therefore no easily available “proof” that they don’t work. If you do, I don’t see how I’m being harsh in describing your attitude as indifferent. Or you can accept that people who report this sensitivity may be reporting a real problem that ought to be addressed before a state gov bans the sale of accessible lightbulbs.


  50. Clifford says:


    Thanks for (finally) sending some information along. I’ll have a look. As I said before, I’m keeping an open mind. I’d like to encourage you to be so too.

    As for availability of CFLs in corner shops in Edinburgh….. I believe we are discussing California State law, not laws in Scotland. Edinburgh is not in California. The KHz CFLs can be found in any store selling bulbs here, at least in major metropolitan areas, and I believe part of the point of the legislation is to increase availability further, so that people can have the choice to make, and learn that the bulbs are not the evil things people so readily claim, based on their memories of the old strip lights. Prices will probably begin to equalize as well.

    It is a test case. Nobody is suggesting that suddenly everybody in Scotland will have to do this before the infrastructure is in place, and before the kinks are ironed out. This is how good structures are put in place….. you test it out, you iron out the kinks (with the participation of members of the populace), and then you roll it out to the rest of the world once the prototype has been perfected.



  51. If you reread my last post, I wasn’t suggesting that the situation in Edinburgh was identical to California, or that the same legislation would be introduced here.

    Re info. There is much more if you google “flourescent lights autism” or “fluorescent lights meniere’s” or variations on that theme.

    As I said before, I think it’s irresponsible to introduce legislation before the kinks have been ironed out. There are lots of ways of being more environmentally friendly, but I think this measure is misguided. I would be happy to see initiatives to develop LEDs, and I would be happy to see research into CFLs, or initiatives to encourage people to buy CFLs. But banning the sale of incandescents, when a lot of people report negative effects from them, is irresponsible and discriminatory.

    On a slight tangent…

    I know you mean well, but I hope you can see that those of us who are affected by this on a day to day basis can’t afford to be so confident. This is for the same reasons as I can’t afford to regard sexism or racism with an attitude to the effect of “Oh, things will get sorted out. Anyway, if discrimination happens, there are legal recourses.” Because that’s sort of…beside the point. Whether we have legal recourses is not the immediate point — discrimination shouldn’t be happening (and in some cases, it’s legal, eg it’s completely legal in many states to discriminate against mothers in employment, so we don’t always have the legal recourses that we should.). And when it’s something that profoundly affects your life, we can’t always relax and assume it will be sorted out, because change only comes about when people kick up a fuss. That’s why I have blogged about things people can actually do about sexism, for example. You’ve also blogged about minorities in science, and you do stuff about minorities and involvement in culture and the public sphere etc. So may you can understand why it comes across as a little bit condescending and indifferent to be told that things will just sort themselves out (I know that you didn’t mean it that way, but that’s how it can come across).

    That’s off topic (and is more general than the lightbulb issue), but I hope you understand the point I’m making.



  52. Clifford says:

    Nowhere in what I said in the above did I claim that things would just “sort themselves out”. You invented that. What I said to you was that things can be improved by people with legitimate objections and clarifications coming forward as part of the standard process and helping to make the legislation better. This is where the “kinks are ironed out”, to use your phrase – through debates and amendments, before it is adopted. So it is not irresponsible or discriminatory to bring the proposal forward, it is actually the process we all participate in as part of our democracy. I suggested this as an alternative to the far from constructive approach you seemed to be suggesting, which was to simply come in and declare it bad or unworkable legislation at the outset and begin calling people “indifferent”, and now “condescending”.

    In these matters, whether it is lightbulbs, minorities, women, or whatever, it’s very easy to sit at the sidelines and cry foul, and to accuse people of making mistakes when they are at least trying out ideas. The real hard work comes in trying to help them make their ideas work, and not going for the knee-jerk response of labeling everything discrimination. In these ambiguous situations, where motives can easily be misjudged, I find that it is better that you give people the benefit of the doubt until you have clearer reasons to think otherwise. I suggest that you (please) try this approach. More good may be achieved in the long run.


  53. I still don’t think this legislation is workable, nor have you suggested any alterations that could make it work. At present, from what I have seen of the legislation in press releases (available at Levine’s webpage), it is discriminiatory because it would ban the sale of incandescents, which at present are the only easily available lightbulbs that don’t sem to cause problems for people.

    I do think there are other better proposals that could be made that would lead to the same sort of end (eg, LEDs as we’ve mentioned, or encouraging peopel to use CFLsin their homes if they’re able to). But I think replacing incandescents with CFLs without it first being clear that new CFLs don’t cause these problems (or developing ones that don’t) is irresponsible. At the moment, that is far from obvious, and that’s why I think this is bad legislation.

    I will be happy to be proved wrong in this. I would love to see a way in which this legislation could be made workable.

    What I said to you was that things can be improved by people with legitimate objections and clarifications coming forward as part of the standard process and helping to make the legislation better.

    What part of this am I getting wrong? Thinking this piece of legislation is unworkable is also part of the standard process. People are allowed to object to legislation without being told they are sitting on the sidelines and crying foul. I did look up information on this legislation and have thought about it, and I have come to the conclusion that it’s bad legislation. If thinking that sometimes some ideas can be mistaken makes me a knee-jerk egalitarian, fine.

    I said it would be discriminatory for this legislation to be in force, not for it to be debated.

    I’m going to withdraw from this thread since we seem to be talking cross-purposes, and that isn’t getting anywhere in term of the original topic. I’d be happy to discuss further by email if you’d like. The last part of my last post wasn’t about this debate although you seem to have interpreted it that way. I’m sorry to have pissed you off.


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  55. Francesca says:

    So environmentalists are forcing us to use something that ends up hazardous waste?! (Not to mention fluorescents cost more to manufacture-energy and resources wise-not to mention the unkown cost,including environmental, of disposing of them.) Keep in mind that the glass and metal in the proven and innocuous incandescents can be reused or safely thrown away. One of the reasons for mercury pollution in this country already is businesses and factories and schools throwing away all those cheap flickering monstrosities people already spend so much time under. This is in addition to the potential danger to humans in handling them-how many light bulbs have you broken in a life time?

    Something you may not know, natural incandescent lights can made to out last fluorescents. Why not legislate for that if you must. If you actually do care about the environment, not to mention human well being, ban fluorescent lights! I’m starting to think this really is just about controlling the individual.

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