When the sun rises on the first of September 2012, it will seem as though nothing very much has changed. We’ll get up, take showers, make breakfast, drink coffee and, if the weather’s good, visit a market or read the paper on the balcony. There’ll be little to indicate that an age that’s lasted over 130 years has just come to an abrupt end: the date marks the introduction of an EU-wide ban on filament light bulbs. A good time, then, to pay our respects to an everyday object we’ve come to take for granted.
The traditional light bulb is a classic, a staple of everyday culture and existence that combines unpretentious design and functions according to principles so simple that a child can understand them: electricity is passed through a coiled filament nestled in a glass bulb filled with a pocket of inert gas, which then glows and emits light. In a traditional light bulb, only five per cent of the energy created in this way is emitted as visible light, the remainder lost in unused heat radiation. (As a point of comparison, an energy saving bulb converts some eighty-five per cent of energy used into light; with an LED lamp, that figure climbs an additional five per cent.) The traditional light bulb is, it seems, something of a dinosaur whose days are numbered. That’s certainly how the EU sees it: a directive issued in 2009 stipulates that all light bulbs in energy efficiency classes D, E, F and G are to be removed from the market by 2012. In line with the directive, all 60, 75 and 100 watt bulbs were banned between 2009 and 2011. The last bastion of the classic lamp, the 40 watt filament bulb, is due to fall on the first of September. What will remain thereafter are halogen, LED and energy saving lamps.
Go online and you’ll find a multitude of voices, initiatives and documentation both for and against the ban. Some see the hand of a nefarious light cartel secretly pulling the behind the scenes in the ban, intent on replacing the classic light bulb with more expensive (and dangerous) alternatives and reaping billions of euros profit as a result. On the other side, there are those who denounce the backward-looking nostalgia lovers standing in the way of an environmentally-aware future. It’s certainly a fact that energy saving lamps can – should they break – pose a threat to us. Operated with mercury vapour, they contain a material that the German ministry responsible for environmental matters says is especially dangerous for pregnant women and young children. To that effect, the ministry has already issued detailed instructions to consumers on what they should do in case of breakages. To that opponents add another charge: whereas traditional light bulbs emit a soft and warm white light conducive to a sense of comfort, especially in the home, energy saving lamps emit a colder, more aggressive blue white light that signals to our hormonal system that we ought to remain alert and awake. Halogen lamps emit a similar kind of light to the traditional light bulb, but they too will be banned in 2016. That leaves LEDs as the only real alternative available on the market. Although possessed of remarkable longevity (lamps that emit a comparable light to filament bulbs last anywhere between fifteen and twenty-five years), there are still issues regarding the exorbitant cost of so-called retrofit bulbs and dimming capacity that have yet to be resolved.
Those who decide to ignore the ban will be able to stock up on traditional bulbs for a while yet by buying up bulbs manufactured before the ban from EU producers as well as through handlers such as Amazon, thereby extending the lifespan of the classic filament bulb. Those who don’t manage to lay their hands on a stockpile of the soon to be banned bulbs might want to take a cue from the centennial bulb, a bulb in a fire station in Livermore, California that’s been burning since 1901 (albeit at four watts rather than the original sixty). A cheap source of traditional light, perhaps, but not exactly suitable for reading.
Text: May-Britt Frank-Grosse
From today, we’re featuring 40 watt filament bulbs by the British vintage label MIMIME. As the first of September is the end of the road for traditional filament bulbs, it’s for the very first and last time we’ll be able to do so….