An ‘illuminating’ look at new lightbulb regulations

Published 4:47 pm Friday, August 4, 2023

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How many people does it take to change a lightbulb?

I don’t know, but I would assume the answer is however many people work at the US Department of Energy.

Silly jokes aside, if you haven’t heard the news, a ban on selling incandescent lightbulbs went into effect on August 1 as a part of new federal energy efficiency regulations. Those regulations were first announced by the Department of Energy last April, but efforts to phase out incandescent bulbs have been in the works as far back as 2007.

So what do these new regulations mean? And how do they affect us?

I know personally that the intricacy of the lightbulb industry is not at the top of the list of things I pay much attention to usually, so I had a lot of questions about this too. I dug around and read several news articles from the Associated Press, CBS News, The Verge, and Popular Science for more information, and here’s an overview of what I’ve learned:

“What are incandescent bulbs and what are they being replaced with?”

Incandescent bulbs were first patented by Thomas Edison back in the 1880s, and they work by running an electric current through a filament that heats until it starts to glow, thus producing light. Edison used carbonized cotton thread in his first bulbs, but modern ones have changed over the years so that they use tungsten filaments now.

The problem, however, is that only a small percentage of the electric energy running through an incandescent bulb is converted to light. The rest is lost through heat. (As an illustration, I would liken this to using a water hose that has several holes in it. Sure, you get water sprayed out of the nozzle, but you’re also going to be losing substantially more water along the way.)

The new standards say bulbs must produce at least 45 lumens (the measure of brightness) per watt of electricity. But, scientifically speaking, incandescent bulbs just aren’t capable of being efficient enough to make the cut. (They’re typically only 15 lumens per watt.)

Without incandescent bulbs on the market anymore, people will be switching over to the LED (“light emitting diode”) products instead. Instead of a filament, LEDs use a microchip to conduct an electric current.

“What’s the benefit of LED lights?”

Unlike incandescent bulbs, LED lights generate almost no heat (sounds great for summertime!) and typically use up to 90 percent less energy. They also tend to last much longer too.

And, as more and more consumers have already started buying more LEDs instead, the prices have become more affordable over the past few years. According to a recent survey conducted by the Department of Energy, almost half of all US homes use LED for their indoor lighting. It used to be only four percent in 2015.

With the switch to LED bulbs, it’s estimated that Americans will collectively save over $3 billion on their utility bills, and can reduce the country’s carbon emissions by 222 million metric tons over the next three decades.

“Is it illegal to have incandescent bulbs at all now?”

No! That would just be silly.

You don’t have to toss out your incandescent bulbs yet if you don’t want to. You can still keep and use them until they run out. But you’ll be out of luck the next time you want to buy some replacements.

As noted in the previous section, however, switching over to LED bulbs will probably save you money in the long run because they’re much more energy efficient. With the current state of the economy, who wouldn’t want to save some extra money these days?

There may even be some local energy efficiency programs available to help people with the switch. (But I must admit I didn’t dig deeply into that possibility here.)

“Are there any exceptions to the new regulations?”

Yes, but not really for regular lamps you’d use in your home. The exclusions include things like the light inside your oven, bug lamps, traffic lights, and other similar kinds of lights. So unless you’re an appliance repairman or someone who replaces traffic signals, you’re not really going to need those kinds of incandescent bulbs anyway.

“If you have to get a new kind of lightbulb, do you also have to buy a new kind of lamp?”

Perhaps I was the only one pondering this last question (as mentioned before, I don’t frequently contemplate lightbulbs or any sort of basic knowledge on the subject), but I wasn’t sure if LED lightbulbs work in lamps that had previously been using the old kind of bulbs.

Anyway, the answer is that you don’t need new lamps. LEDs were created as an efficient replacement, so they should work just fine in any lamps you have because that’s what they’re made to do. You just have to make sure you’re buying the right equivalent. That information can be found on the packaging.

“Anything else?”

I think that covers everything. I hope it was useful for anyone scratching their head about the headlines.

In the grand scheme of things, the shift away from incandescent bulbs isn’t a big deal. Many people were already making the switch to something that works better. (Remember, for example, when a mobile phone was just a bag phone you kept in your car? Imagine if we’d never upgraded past that!)

Apologies to Thomas Edison, but I’m pretty sure his legacy will live on anyway. Even if his lightbulbs don’t.


Holly Taylor is a staff writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at or 252-332-7206.