Beyond the Incandescent Bulb
As incandescent bulbs are phased out this autumn, we investigate the alternatives for anyone wanting atmospheric, eco-friendly lighting in their home
By Estella Shardlow on Wednesday 2nd May, 2012
On 1st September 2012, across Europe, the lights are going out.
To be more specific, traditional incandescent light bulbs, which are favoured for the soft, atmospheric glow that they emit and their traditional aesthetic, will become obsolete as the EU puts a stop to their import and production. This means that no British shop will be able to order any more incandescent bulbs.
It is the second phase in the EU’s three-year phasing out plan, a directive geared to steer consumers towards more energy efficient alternatives, which largely means fluorescent bulbs. Last year all bulbs above 60 Watts were targeted for elimination, and in September 2013 it is proposed that all poor performing MR16 lamps will be banned.
The problem with incandescent light bulbs is that they are very inefficient since most of the electrical energy is turned into heat – in fact their light is only a by-product of this ‘incandescing’ or heating of the filament wire inside the glass bulb. They produce perhaps 15 lumens per watt of input power and most varieties convert less than 10 per cent of the energy they use into visible light.
Useful in an Easy Bake oven, not so great for the environment as a large-scale lighting solution. Just imagine the waste that’s created as a building's air conditioning system comes up against the heat generated from these bulbs.
It might seem a storm in a teacup, but for anyone who is passionate about beautiful interiors and stylish lighting design, this is bad news. Compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLi) are the widespread default option, yet they produce a horribly cold, flat light. The Environment Agency has also started to raise issues over their safe disposal. What better way to ruin a beautiful lamp than have a glaringly bright, unattractively coiled fluorescent bulb fitted in it, not only jarring with the classic design but also casting your whole interior in a less atmospheric light? Worse still, their tendency to flicker and emitting of ultraviolet light has been known to trigger migraines or even epileptic fits.
So, is there an alternative that complies with environmental standards yet doesn’t offend the eye?
Fortunately, there are some viable options that we can turn to post-September. The IRC (infra-red coated) bulb produces a very similar warm light and saves 30 per cent of energy. Short of journeying to the Far East where the shoddy eco credentials of incandescent bulbs seem to be less of a concern, the IRC is the closest match to traditional incandescent lamps.
Meanwhile, there is a bulb known in the trade as the ‘Edison’, which is a favourite among interior designers since it emits a pleasant, soft white light, has great looks and is widely available on the web. These bulbs have a low lumen to wattage ratio thanks to their carbon filament and are therefore environmentally sound.
Also worth investigating are the latest LED solutions, which already many lighting design specialists are heralding as the future. This type of bulb does still struggle to produce a reasonable output and they are comparatively expensive, but LED technology is advancing rapidly and prices are gradually falling.
Indeed, the demise of incandescent bulbs will force the lighting industry to more rapidly evolve more aesthetically pleasing and subtly illuminated alternatives. By the time supplies of the traditional bulbs have actually run out – which will be some time after September as retailers can continue to sell their existing stock – there will be even more choice out there. After all, the demand from discerning consumers, interior designers and collectors of vintage lighting certainly won’t go way. Already some stores are becoming aware of this – notably British lighting specialist John Cullen, which has a Lamp Bar in its King’s Road showroom specifically to demonstrate and advise about the different bulbs available.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that the EU directive is primarily concerned with high wattage bulbs and since most vintage lighting including chandeliers and table lamps use small lower wattage bulbs (often as little as 15 Watts for soft mood lighting), these are not under immediate threat.