Recently we came across an online discussion on light bulbs where one participant was concerned about her LED lights. The bulbs, she said, warned her to recycle the bulbs properly because they contained mercury. And she was concerned that, like CFL lamps, the latest replacement for incandescent bulbs included mercury.
Adding to the confusion, she named the line of light bulbs, and this line does include LED bulbs.
But we want to empower buyers with knowledge, so we took time to continue the discussion. First we addressed her need to recycle the bulbs. While we provide light bulb recycling kits for businesses that go through a lot of bulbs, the independent consumer can often look to local hardware stores or light bulb suppliers for free recycling. We pointed her to a couple of stores near her.
Second, we assured her that we had never heard of an LED bulb with mercury in it. This is one of the primary selling points of LEDs. After looking into the line of bulbs she mentioned, we were able to confirm that their LEDs contain no mercury.
However, that line also includes covered CFL lamps. That means they outwardly look like traditional light bulbs even though they use CFL technology. Since these are energy saving lamps, we realized that she had probably made an honest mistake in thinking that they were LEDs. They certainly looked more like LEDs than like CFLs.
This got her curious, and she dug up the original boxes. Sure enough, they were CFLs. CFLs require mercury to operate. LEDs do not. And we share this story for anyone who might be unclear about a similar situation. If they are LEDs, they do not contain mercury. And as a bonus, because they're rated to last for so many years, LED lights also represent less general waste over time.
When legislation went into effect (2012 to 2014) that basically banned the traditional incandescent light bulb, some people might have been confused to still see incandescent bulbs on store shelves. What might have been even more confusing was learning that a 43 watt bulb could suddenly replace a 60 watt bulb. And it suddenly cost a little more than they were used to spending on light bulbs.
What was the deal? What was the new light bulb legislation about, and how were stores still selling incandescent bulbs?
The Light Bulb Legislation
First, the new legislation didn't ban incandescent light bulbs. Signed into law in 2007, the legislation didn't ban any specific bulbs or technology, but demanded that general use light bulbs (40 watt to 100 watt) meet new efficiency requirements. They had to produce a certain amount of light for each watt of energy used. And sadly, the beloved incandescent bulb -- inherently inefficient (most of its energy is released as heat) -- didn't meet the standards.
But there was a "new," more efficient incandescent bulb available as the legislation went into effect. A new bulb that, in fact, had been around since the 1950s. It was called a halogen bulb.
Now let's also be clear that the legislation didn't stop the sale of inefficient incandescent light bulbs. They just couldn't be made or imported in the USA. So for a while, you'd still see the old bulbs on shelves. And while they last, you can still get them from Lighting Supply.
You'll also be able to continue buying other types of incandescent light bulbs that weren't phased out through this legislation.
Halogen Light Technology
As the general use incandescent bulbs were phased out, halogen lights began replacing the old bulbs and selling alongside CFLs and the newest technology, LED light bulbs. Again, halogen technology has been around for decades. Since it uses a filament that "incandesces" to produce light, its bulbs are still incandescent bulbs. They're made much like other incandescent bulbs, but there are some additional halogen gases inside the bulb, and the gasses are under higher pressure -- which means that the bulb itself has to be made stronger. In fact, the bulb is often made of fused quartz, which is why these are also sometimes known as quartz halogen bulbs.
Halogen technology allows incandescent bulbs to burn more efficiently, producing about the same amount of light on nearly 30% less energy. This is why these bulbs began replacing old incandescent bulbs when the legislation went into effect.
From the user's perspective, there's one small difference between traditional incandescent and halogen light bulbs. Many people love the "warm" (yellow) glow of an incandescent light bulb. It's why some hoarded these bulbs before the bulbs disappeared. Halogens have a similar look, but they burn a little "whiter" to the eye. Not a big difference, but worth noting.
There's one more difference that affects the use of some halogens. This is because halogen bulbs burn very hot. Even hotter than traditional incandescents. So in the case of mini halogens and projection bulbs, you don't want to touch these bulbs with your hands, as this can leave oil residue on the bulb. This can cause oily / non-oily parts of the bulb to heat up differently, which can weaken and eventually break the bulb. Wear gloves when installing these bulbs. This doesn't likely apply, however, to general use halogen bulbs.
The Shapes and Applications of Halogen Bulbs
Having been around for decades, and long before LED technology became popular, halogen technology has found its way into a wide array of light bulbs to serve different applications. Besides lamps for general lighting and PAR shaped floodlights, halogen lights can be found in vintage cars, projectors, and stage lighting, and are even used as indicator lights. They come in a variety of shapes, including miniature bulbs, single and double-ended halogen lamps, and MR16 halogens, often used in track lighting and display case lighting.
On that note, we should point out that halogen lights have a high CRI -- they rate roughly 100 out of 100 on the Color Rendering Index. Because of this, they're commonly used in product displays. They do a great job at this, but in applications where the heat from the halogen is a problem (think about perishable food or museum settings), high CRI LED lights can be a terrific substitute.
In the end, there's nothing so new about halogens, except that they've been newly discovered by many people. They've been a reliable lighting source for decades and are widely used, now in many more households than they used to be. But with the era of LED lights upon us, many halogens are being upgraded to the lower temperature, higher efficiency, and longer lifespan of LEDs. Still, with their lower initial cost, high CRI, and incandescent familiarity, halogens can be a great lighting choice for some time to come.
Who Invented the Light Bulb?
We've talked about this before in our blog called, "Did Thomas Edison Invent the Light Bulb?" It basically comes down to how you define invention of the light bulb. There were those who had gotten wires to glow from electricity long before Thomas Edison patented his bulb in 1880. One notable name was Joseph Swan, who publicly demonstrated his bulb a couple years before Edison's patent. But Edison was the first to produce bulbs that were practical to use ... and was the first to provide a central electricity plant to light those bulbs.
What are Incandescent Filaments Made of?
In the strict sense, if you can get something to glow by passing electricity through it, that can count as a filament. When you hear about how many times Edison "failed" in the process to create a light bulb, this was partly because he was testing so many different filaments to strike a balance between cost, durability, and the ability to produce light.
Edison's early incandescent bulbs used carbon filaments made of bamboo, and some of today's decorative "Edison bulbs" or "filament bulbs" (see next section) still use carbon filaments. But it wasn't long before the industry moved on to tungsten filaments.
Today, scientists are working once again on incandescent light bulb advances, and one of these uses a substance called graphene as the filament.
What are Incandescent Edison Bulbs?
Were Incandescent Bulbs Banned?
Certain "general lighting" (40 watt to 100 watt) incandescent bulbs were phased out of production and importation in the USA because they were so inefficient compared to other options. This means they don't produce much light for each watt of energy used. The technology of incandescent bulbs, however, wasn't banned. Bulbs using this technology simply have to meet certain efficiency standards in order to be manufactured or imported in the USA. There are similar laws in nations across the globe.
By the way, this legislation did not affect a wide variety of specialty incandescent bulbs, including decorative bulbs and rough service bulbs.
Are Halogen Bulbs Incandescent Bulbs?
Halogen bulbs produce light by making a filament incandesce, so they are indeed incandescent bulbs! But they are more efficient than traditional incandescent bulbs, as they use halogen gasses inside the bulb, and their gasses are under higher pressure. This allows them to produce more light for each watt of energy used, and this is why they're sold in many stores as replacements for the older style of incandescents. Halogens burn hotter and just a little whiter than traditional incandescents.
How Long do Incandescent Bulbs Last?
Popular "general lighting" incandescent bulbs typically have a rated life of about 1000 hours. This means that, under testing, after 1000 hours about half the bulbs will have burned out and half will still be going. So in simple terms, you can rely on them to work for about 1000 hours before burning out.
This partly depends, though, on how often they're turned on and off. Did you ever notice that bulbs usually burn out when you turn them on (rather than while they're already lit)? This is because turning the light on sends a jolt of electricity that's more likely to break the filament than the continued current is. So if you're turning a bulb on more frequently, this could reduce the life of the bulb.
Having said that, filaments can be made to last longer. There is a balance between material costs (which affect retail costs), efficiency, and longevity. If you wanted to pay more for bulbs or have them not burn as brightly, for instance, you might be able to produce a bulb that lasted much longer. Certainly there are bulbs that have lasted a long time, including the famous "centennial light" that has been left running almost continuously for more than 100 years.
Who knows, maybe with new technology -- like the use of graphene filaments -- we will one day see incandescent bulbs that burn more brightly and last much longer. Meanwhile, the technology of LED bulbs gives us bright, long-lasting bulbs already. With today's low LED prices, these bulbs often pay for themselves in energy savings within 1-2 years.
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