Trendwatch: Edison light bulbs

One of the fun parts of rating new homes for programs like Energy Star and Greenbuilt North Carolina is that we get to see a lot of new homes.  Whenever there are new trends in residential design, we know about it.  And every once in a while, there’s a trend that I instantly start hoping will go away.

What’s the latest?  Nostalgic light bulbs.


They’ve shown up all of a sudden, and they’re in almost every house I see these days.  The fixtures are designed to expose the bulb, and inside is an old-timey incandescent light bulb with the exposed filament.  It’s hard to imagine a more inexplicable thing to be nostalgic for.

Sometimes I like to imagine an alternative reality where the compact fluorescent light bulb was invented first.  In my alternate reality people complain nonstop about the cheap low-quality “new” incandescent light bulbs.  They burn out in 1/10 of the time of the other ones!  I’m changing them all the time!  They cost 3 times as much to operate.  They get hot.

People would start putting them in closets and then filling the closet with so much stuff that it would start fires.  The number of cases would pile up and one day authorities would report that 12% of house fires were starting in closets.  I like to imagine that people would start sending email forwards about how dangerous these new incandescent bulbs were.  It’s got to be a government conspiracy.  Don’t fall for it.  Especially if you have children in the home!

Sadly (as my husband keeps reminding me) we live in this reality.  The one where incandescent light bulbs were invented first and people are stuck on them.  What’s funny about this trend is that these bulbs don’t even share the one advantage of regular incandescent light bulbs.  They’re not even cheap.  At a major national hardware store, they’re running between $7-$10 each.

What would be funny if it weren’t so wasteful is that these bulbs use MORE energy than the regular incandescent light bulbs that we’re trying to replace.  A 60 Watt regular bulb produces 780 lumens, while a 60 Watt “Edison” nostalgic bulb produces only 345.  That means you need to burn about twice as many of these things to get the light output of the old, inefficient technology that we have good replacements for.

You can get about the same light output that the 60 Watt non-nostalgic incandescent will give you from a 13 Watt CFL that costs about $1.50.  You can take that bulb back to most stores and they will recycle it safely.  Or, if you have the extra cash, you could go for the equivalent Cree LED that uses 9.5 Watts and at the time of this writing sells for about $12.50 each.  Or you could spend $15 or more on two nostalgic bulbs, that will use about 12 times more energy.

I can only assume that this trend is partly explained about the upcoming (?) now defunded semi-phase-out of incandescent bulbs.  Wikipedia has a good explanation of the history – starting with bipartisan legislation that made sense in 2007 and was signed into law by George W. Bush, followed by the change of heart in congress that led to multiple attempts to repeal or defund it.  Check out the “light bulb freedom of choice act”.  I suppose “freedom to pointlessly waste energy and generate excess power plant emissions that everyone else’s kids have to breathe” was either already taken or deemed too long and confusing for the public.  Anyway, nostalgic bulbs have always been such a miniscule sliver of the market – used in actual historical applications (I’ve seen them at the Biltmore house), that they’re exempted.

So think of using these things as an expensive way to exploit a loophole allowing you to “choose” to waste a lot of energy.  I have no idea why anyone would want to do that.  But if you’re not convinced, think about it this way:  this trend won’t last forever.  And when it ends, it’s going to get harder to buy replacement bulbs.  Regardless of what happens politically in the US, the lighting industry has largely moved on.  And you’re going to have open-bulb fixtures in your house where you’ll have to make the decision to special order these things and change them all the time, or look at a CFL or LED bulb, or replace the fixture.  So if you’re not the sort of person who goes around replacing their light fixtures every 5 years or so, you might want to consider just letting this fad pass you by.

Copyright 2013 Amy Musser