The quiet death of the incandescent light bulb

On August 1st, the incandescent light bulb finally went away and hardly anyone noticed or said anything. Although you can still use them if you have them, it is illegal to manufacture or import or sell them. It is hard to remember that the proposal to do away with these bulbs created right wing outrage that the government was trying to eliminate people’s freedom of choice, even though its initial replacement of halogen bulbs and now LED bulbs are far more energy efficient. Neither the incandescents nor the halogens meet the strict new energy efficiency standards.

Incandescent bulbs create illumination by running an electric current through a filament that heats it until it glows. Edison’s first practical light bulb used a carbonized cotton thread for that purpose; modern bulbs use tungsten filaments in an inert gas.

But incandescents are not very efficient. Only roughly 5% of the energy used by an incandescent bulb produces light; the remaining 95% or so is lost as heat. This is why you let an incandescent bulb cool off before unscrewing it.

They also burn out frequently, requiring replacement roughly every year.

The light-emitting components in LED bulbs, by contrast, are manufactured via the same process used to make computer chips, which makes them extremely efficient. They generate almost no heat and use up to 90% less energy than incandescent bulbs while lasting up to 25 times longer, according to the Energy Department.

The total savings each year is estimated to be around $3 billion and reduce carbon emissions by 222 million metric tons over the next 30 years.

The initial move to eliminate incandescents sparked the usual backlash from those who see any move towards energy efficiency as something to be viewed with suspicion as some left-wing plot against real Merkins, even though the original law setting the initial standards that eventually led to the complete phase out was passed overwhelmingly by Congress in 2007 and signed by George W. Bush. That was then, before Republicans went totally bonkers. By the time Barack Obama became president, the nutters were up in arms and serial sex abuser Donald Trump (SSAT) pandered to them by scrapping the standards.

The Energy Department rules, which date back to the Obama administration, have been whipsawed in the political process for years. Some conservatives and Republican lawmakers long denounced them for interfering with consumer choice and placing undue burdens on business. Under former President Donald Trump, the Energy Department scrapped them in 2019; the Biden administration subsequently revived them.

The dead-enders swore that their bulbs would have to be taken away from their cold dead hands, as this report from 2011 describes.

The effect will be to make current 100-watt bulbs obsolete — and that has sent conservative lawmakers, libertarians, some environmental activists and owners of Easy-Bake Ovens into a frenzy of activity to get the law repealed or, at least, to stockpile the bulbs before they disappear from store shelves.

“I do care about my carbon footprint, not to mention my light bill,” said Dana Carpender, a cookbook author in Bloomington, Ind. “But unless something dramatic happens to bring down the cost of alternatives, I will be stashing away a pile of incandescents.”

But as with so many outrages over minor issues, these protests eventually fizzled out by around 2014 when 40 and 60 watt incandescents were phased out.

The years-long political grudge match over Thomas Edison’s legacy ended with a whimper on New Year’s Day, when federal energy-efficiency rules barred the manufacture and import of traditional 40- and 60-watt incandescent bulbs. And this time, conservatives reacted with little more than a shrug.

No tea party protests took place outside Home Depots, demanding a return to the bulb that served as a staple in American homes for more than a century. Most Republican lawmakers ignored the issue altogether — a contrast to recent years in which the plight of the light bulb was an applause line in GOP stump speeches and the subject of repeated rescue attempts in the House.

All this is a far cry from the days when even a minor reference to the light bulb “ban” was catnip for conservative voters.

During the past Republican presidential primary, nearly every one of Michele Bachmann’s campaign speeches included a dig at President Barack Obama over the standards. “President Bachmann will allow you to buy any light bulb you want,” she said at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in 2011, repeating a line in her stump speech.

In the House, Republicans approved several measures to block enforcement or defund the rules. (A spokeswoman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee said Friday that GOP lawmakers will keep trying.) Conservative broadcasters like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck regularly pound the same theme, and Beck said in August that he would fire employees that buy compact fluorescent bulbs.

Tea party favorite Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has held up the light bulb rules as a prime example of Big Government run amok.

While light bulbs are no longer contentious, it has been replaced by anger over moves to replace gas stoves with electric ones.


  1. Oggie: Mathom says

    I am trying to remember the last time i bought an incandescent bulb. I remember, when Wife and I were younger, light bulbs were on the shopping list every other month. And the grocery stores devoted what was, in retrospect, an amazing amount of shelf space to light bulbs. We spent, on average, about $10.00 a month on freaking light bulbs.

    I have not changed a light bulb this year. I have not bought light bulbs in about five years. And I have about a dozen in my cupboard. Which should, at the current rate of use, last me out the decade.

    Which is, obviously, a bad thing since I don’t have the choice to but bulbs that, though individually cheaper, are fare more expensive in the long run. It is also a bad thing because it killed the Easy Bake Oven. And it destroyed the light bulb industry. And the new bulbs are used as cameras by the Deep State Surveillance Watchers. And they make Trump’s hair look orange.

  2. OverlappingMagisteria says

    I found an incandescent recently and put it in a socket. I forgot how HOT those things get! I used to procrastinate my homework by melting crayons against them.

  3. garnetstar says

    Flourescent light bulbs gave a kind of blue light, they had mercury in them, and they were too big to fit into standard lamps or light fixtures.

    But OK, LED bulbs fix every one of those problems. You can get them in 40, 60, and 100 watt equivalents, you can get them in any color light you want, including perfect matches to Soft White and Bright White incandescent bulbs. You can get LEDs where you can dial in any color light you want to and change the light color any time you want to. They’re the same size and shape as incandescents and so fit into every lamp and light fixture. They’re not very expensive now, and, as @1 says, they last almost forever. Some that I have are going on fifteen years of use now.

    When consumers started buying LEDs, every need was satisfied, so they all shut up. Cooks like gas stoves better, though, there may be more resistance to getting rid of those.

  4. Oggie: Mathom says


    Cooks like gas stoves better, though, there may be more resistance to getting rid of those.

    There are also many houses like mine that would require a new electrical system to be able to use an electric range and oven.

  5. Allison says

    I’m a little confused.

    You mention halogen bulbs — but they are also incandescent, plus they run hotter. Even when the quartz inner bulb is enclosed in an outer bulb, they’re pretty hot, and I don’t think they were ever sold for ordinary household uses (e.g., the usual 40w/60w/100w ones.) I think they’re used in auto headlights (great for blinding other drivers.) And they were being used in theatrical lighting instruments. Are they also outlawed?

    You don’t mention flourescents. (One of the commenters did.) Nobody ever talks about them. Were they outlawed?

  6. Oggie: Mathom says


    It is not specific models of light bulbs that are banned. Rather, the efficiency standards have been drastically improved making incandescent bulbs, save for specific uses, unlawful to manufacture or import.

  7. SailorStar says

    Regarding fluorescent: just this past winter, the overhead, long-tube, fluorescent lights in my kitchen burned out. I’ve been in the house 20+ years with the same bulbs. When I went to the small neighborhood hardware chain, all they had were LED long-tube lights. So I bought and swapped them out. No idea how long these LED ones will last.

  8. rojmiller says

    >> Cooks like gas stoves better, though, there may be more resistance to getting rid of those.
    >You mean cooks who have never used an induction stove.

    We bought an induction stove last month after suffering with an electric one since 2017. Previous to that we had a gas stove for 30+ years. Electric stoves are painful to use in comparison to gas, but induction stoves are great. Still getting used to ours, but it seems comparable to gas in terms of temperature control and quick heating.

    The downsides: cost -- in Canada induction stoves cost about 33% more than a comparable electric. And you likely have to get a new set of induction-friendly pots and pans.

    But if gas stoves are eliminated, guess what will likely happen to the cost of induction stoves as production is ramped up on them?

    While production is ramped up it will at least give right-wing folks a little while to complain, and once again predict an end to life as we know it if we ban gas stoves.

  9. mnb0 says

    “right wing outrage that the government was trying to eliminate people’s freedom of choice”
    Lately I have been watching several YT videos from Just Not Bikes. The USA has eliminated the right to not own and drive a car, so with a few exceptions the country is unlivable for me.

  10. sonofrojblake says

    I went from induction hob sceptic to tolerator to evangelist. Never thought I’d make the move from gas (what always struck me was that you never see a gas hob in a restaurant kitchen). Now I tell anyone who’ll listen that they simply have to get one.
    1. environment blah blah yeah whatever all that yes.
    2. controllability, reliability and repeatability -- far and away superior to the old gas.
    3. I can set a timer on my hob and have it switch off rings independently automatically when they’re done. Don’t underestimate the value of this.
    4. if you’re not using it, it’s just some more countertop
    5. it is almost embarrassingly easy to clean compared to having to practically bloody dismantle the gas rings if you wanted to do it properly

    Induction ftw.

  11. steve oberski says

    As long as I can continue to get R20 100 watt incandescent bulbs for my 27″ Grande lava lamp I’m OK with this (actually bought a dozen last order so I should be good).

    Lavarand was a hardware random number generator designed by Silicon Graphics that worked by taking pictures of the patterns made by the floating material in lava lamps, extracting random data from the pictures, and using the result to seed a pseudorandom number generator.[1]

    I believe that Cloudflare uses a variation on this to generate entropy for their random number generator.

  12. says

    @5 CFLs were not outlawed. They were always a transitional technology, i.e., something to use instead of incandescent bulbs, before LEDs scaled up and came down in price. There’s no sense to make/buy them anymore because LEDs are so much better in every respect.

    15-20 years ago, I used to do a lecture in my freshman electrical circuits class where we compared the comparable lifetime costs of incandescent, CFL, and LED lights (cost of blubs plus cost of energy for a given value of running hours). It always surprised most of them when the “expensive” LEDs came out so much cheaper (and this was when a simple LED bulb might be >$10).

    Given the extended lifespans of LEDs, I used to say that eventually, kids will grow up in a world where they’ve never seen someone change a light bulb. You can imagine such a person getting their first apartment, a light goes out, and they call their parents or do a ‘net search on how to repair it.

  13. says

    Here’s a funny thing to consider. Most modern homes have 15 amp breakers for lighting circuits. This was fine if you had several incandescents running on that circuit. With LEDs, a 15 amp breaker is overkill and then some. I think I could turn on every light in my house and the total would be drawing less than 15 amps.

  14. Dunc says

    #jimf: the breaker on a circuit is sized to protect the cable, not the appliances connected to it. Here in the UK, with 230V supply, we generally wire lighting circuits with 1mm^2 cable and 6A breakers, even though a modern lighting circuit might draw less than 1A.

  15. steve oberski says

    jimf @16

    You can now buy 1600 watt power supplies for desktop computers, in no small part due to the massive power requirements of high end graphics cards.

    This would pretty much preclude plugging anything else into the same 15 amp circuit.

  16. anat says

    I have one incandescent bulb (probably burnt out) in my drawer. I use it as a darning mushroom to mend socks.

  17. Kimpatsu100 says

    And to think that actress Elizabeth Hurley voted to leave the EU because she wants to return to incandescent bulbs.

  18. says

    @17 Dunc,
    Yes, I am aware of that. My point is that the system (breaker, wire, receptacles) was designed for much higher loads, and thus, is now way over spec’d.

    @18 steve oberski,
    Sure, but the same situation arises with a far more prosaic space heater. My point is directed at circuits used specifically for lighting.

  19. says

    > what always struck me was that you never see a gas hob in a restaurant kitchen

    Two Reasons:
    1) Most restaurants run at super low profit margins. Restaurant quality gas stoves are cheap.
    2) Most cooks have never used an induction top and don’t want to switch from what they know.

    Where you will find induction stoves are in high end restaurants, if they have a Michelin star they are vastly more likely to have induction stoves. Induction stove tops have no waste heat and that makes the kitchen a lot cooler. You save both ways there, as you need less cooling power too.

  20. says

    There is a bitter irony in something more expensive actually being cheaper in the long run because you don’t have to replace it so often. I used to buy shoes at a discount outlet but they fell apart very quickly. Now I spend much more money but my shoes and boots last for years (I do a lot of walking and I hate wearing heels so fashion doesn’t matter to me). That’s fine when I can afford to spend a couple of hundred dollars on footwear, but the people who can really use those long term savings often can’t afford the initial cost.

    While the newer bulbs aren’t quite that expensive, I can see some people being wary of the expense and maybe not replacing their bulbs until enough burn out that they can’t put if off any longer.

  21. John Morales says

    Much as valves (which are basically incandescent light bulbs) were replaced by transistors.

  22. Jazzlet says

    Do you do much stir-frying? if you do how does that work? I bought the range stove I have partly so we could use two woks at once without the risk of instability that we experienced on a standard width cooker, even with the woks on the diagonal rings. The stove also has two extra powerful (for domestic cookers) rings so we get the intense heat needed to stir-fry properly. We are very satisifed with the results, and while I can see induction being good for all of the other kinds of cooking we do I have doubts about getting enough heat for stir-frying, because even with slightly flat bottomed woks there isn’t much surface area at the bottom where they’d make contact with the hob. I guess it might be possible in a flatter wok, but relly don’t know, hence the question.

  23. John Morales says

    Jazzlet, doesn’t matter much unless you practice wok hei.

    Also, the magnetic field extends some centimeters above the surface, so lifting the wok up a bit for tossing makes little difference. Doesn’t literally need contact.

  24. VolcanoMan says

    I use LED almost exclusively now, but I do miss the humble incandescent bulb. Sure, they are inefficient, mostly producing heat, but sometimes that heat is desired -- for example, in November and March/April (decently cold months in the Prairies of Canada), I used to be able to keep my poorly-insulated garage above freezing (which is useful when you want to work in the garage) just by keeping the lights on (which was necessary anyway when working in there, because it has tiny windows). Now I need a space-heater for those months (I generally refrain from working in there in the dead of winter), PLUS I run the lights to be able to see. I’m sure the amount of energy consumed in either method is similar, but every 2-3 years, that space heater dies and I need to replace it, while incandescent bulbs were cheap (I could buy dozens for the cost of a space heater big enough for my needs) and as they’re only on when I’m in there, they could last many years (1,000 hours is typical).

  25. John Morales says

    VolcanoMan, you’re using a space heater for 3-4 months of the year, and they die on you every 2-3 years?!

    That’s… quite remarkable.

    Bar heaters, in my experience, last forever unless physically damaged.

  26. Jazzlet says

    Thank you John, and yes we do practise wok hei (although I’d no idea that was what it was called) hence the need for the extra powerful burners.

  27. Jazzlet says

    Patrick Slattery
    Thank you, looks like I’d have to fork out a lot of money for what I need. I suspect I’ll go on using the gas.

  28. VolcanoMan says

    @John: yup. In my experience, it’s the fan that fails. I guess they use cheap bearings or whatever, don’t know. But I’ve gone through 3 of them in under 9 years, and that’s different brands at different price points too, so it’s not just shoddy workmanship (the 4th is doing okay so far, but it’s 1 winter old and I can’t predict how long it will last).

  29. John Morales says


    VolcanoMan, maybe don’t get one with a fan. Quite doable.

    I take it that during the interval (i.e. Dec-Feb) the heater is on, since the excess heats from the inefficient lighting appliances suffices. A few hundred watts, presumably, at most.

    Fans are more for local heating, you don’t need one for an enclosed space, and there are plenty of space heaters without fans and low-wattage to boot.

    Anyway, yes. Same point for lava lamps, of course. Much heat, some light.

  30. says

    The comments here lead to the ultimate combination of incandescent light bulbs and cooking:

    The Easy-Bake Oven

    I remember the TV commercials for these when I was a kid. Basically, a box with a 100 watt incandescent bulb inside. It just shows how hot a single bulb can make a small, enclosed space.

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