Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Penny Unwise

A friend who came to visit just gave me a couple of supposedly “instant on” fluorescent light bulbs. Unlike typical fluorescents, when you flip the switch, these turn on without that pause that makes fluorescents so useless in many lighting situations: Stairwells, task lighting, security lighting, and more. But there’s a catch. The instant on bulbs only give a dim wattage at first. Supposedly, 90% of their final wattage. Sure does not feel like it. They come on dim and then they slowly power up. You’ve probably encountered them in hotel rooms. You turn on the lights and think at first that the hotel has only provided a 40 watt bulb and there’s no way you can read by it, let alone see anything in the room clearly. Then, slowly, the lights get brighter. Usually by the time you decide to abandon the room for whatever outside activities there are, because the room is so unappealing.

That’s nice for hotels. They save money when guests don’t use the rooms for much more that storing their luggage and sleeping. But what the heck are we doing trying to hobble ourselves in our homes to save a few pennies of electricity? I have a bulb clamped to a cable in my furnace room. My friend thought that would be a perfect place for the fluorescent bulb. Not at all. I never turn that lamp on unless I am (usually frantically) trying to figure out what catastrophe is occurring in there. I need strong light right away. When water is leaking or machines are acting up, you don’t want to wait to be able to see them as clearly as possible.

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of boneheaded advice about how to save a few pennies on gasoline while driving. The craziest is the dictum to turn off the car while waiting at a stoplight. They did this in Greece when I visited. The Greeks also did not use their headlights. They only used running lights, to save the electricity they obviously needed from their car batteries to keep re-starting their engines. Which of course made it hard to see other cars and a lot more dangerous to drive. Used to be, the Russians didn’t use windshield wipers. At least they had the excuse that wiper blades weren’t commonly available. (Such was life in the totalitarian Soviet Union with its rigid trade barriers. They also couldn’t get bubble gum.) But can you imagine driving in the rain or snow around people not using windshield wipers?

Do you see where I am heading here? There are a lot of legitimate ways to save energy. But there are a lot of stupid ways. I did put compact fluorescents in a lamp that is on a timer. It comes on every evening, for security purposes, in a room that is seldom occupied at night but makes the outside world perceive that someone is at home. I’m saving a few kilowatts and a few pennies. But I could save lots more by not using a timer and by never having the lamp on. Not going to do that. It’s security lighting.

Getting off the grid is probably a smart idea, but most of us don’t want to or can’t afford to spend the $10,000 to $20,000 to get solar panels on the roof and generate our own electricity. And some of us live in places where the public utilities won’t let us do it anyway. Some of us don’t even have a roof with good sun exposure. Meanwhile, tiny economies can help people struggling with enormous power bills. But only a little. I’ve heard advice that we shouldn’t shower or wash our clothes as often. That’s absurd. Water and electricity and even gas are not scarce resources. They are simply becoming expensive ones as the various thieves—-uh, capitalists-—in the free markets run up the prices.

Throughout history, the peasants stank and were dirty. They didn’t have access to enough water or clean clothes. Do we really want to re-brand ourselves as peasants, and revert to that miserable situation?

But I figured out what to do with the fluorescent light bulbs my house guest gave me. I’m putting them in the guest room lamps.

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