Affirmation of this dissatisfaction comes from an unlikely source: Michael Siminovitch, a self-described C.F.L. advocate and a professor and director of theCalifornia Lighting Technology Center at the University of California, Davis.
Mr Siminovitch said the technology exists to create C.F.L.s that are comparable to incandescent bulbs. “They can be configured and made today with great color,” he said. “They can also be dimmed. They can also be put together in such a way that they last for a very long time.”
And yet, Mr. Siminovitch said, many manufacturers have been cutting corners and putting C.F.L.s of lesser quality on the market, skewing consumers’ perception of the technology.
Green Inc. recently chatted with Mr. Siminovitch about light bulb performance and efficiency, consumer expectations and “Super C.F.L.s,” among other things. Excerpts follow:
Green Inc. readers have expressed frustration about the quality of compact fluorescents following recent postings. Do you think their criticisms are legitimate?
I think we’re actually seeing heightened awareness of these problems and issues. People are interested in engaging in the energy efficiency equation, [and] what’s happening is that they’re bumping their heads against this now. They’re saying that, hey, this stuff is falling short.
How are they falling short?
A consumer buys a light source to look good and to provide quality lighting inside a space. They don’t normally go to a store to buy a light source to save energy.
Incandescent light sources typically are very flattering in terms of rendering skin and enhancing how we look. Consumers got used to a very high level of color quality in the home. Compact fluorescents can be some departure or produce less color quality in terms of rendering color inside a space.
Some fluorescents are very good, but many are not. I think what we’re seeing today is we’re starting to bump up against our expectations for color quality in the home not being met by the energy efficient technologies. So consumers are dissatisfied — and rightfully so.
The next big [issue] is dimming. Many fluorescents that are available do not dim well. Incandescent lamps dim very nicely. They dim all the way from 100 percent light all the way to 0 percent light. They do it very smoothly and very predictably. Consumers are used to that kind of smooth dimming.
Typically when you dim a compact fluorescent it can flicker, it can buzz, it can create all kinds of what I call “unintended consequences” that disturb the consumer. So the consumer is left with a less-than-satisfied level with this kind of technology.
The third big one is product longevity. Consumers have an expectation that compact fluorescents will last a very long time — significantly longer than the incandescents that they’re replacing. This is technically achievable. Compact fluorescents can last a very long time. Unfortunately, I think we’ve compromised greatly on quality with many compact fluorescents and these things are not lasting quite as long as consumers have been led to believe. This is an issue.
How did we end up with such a low-quality product?
Early compact fluorescents came into the marketplace as a … technology that’s small, very compact and can fit in places where we traditionally put incandescent lamps, and it has the opportunity for great color, long life and all the kinds of attributes we’d like to see in a light source. But it was expensive. It was an order of magnitude more expensive than what we were traditionally using.
So there was great pressure by agencies, by retailers, to bring the cost down on this technology so that we can get big market penetration. Unfortunately, given the lack of really good, understandable specifications, what happened was when you reduce price you inevitably compromise something. In the case of compact fluorescents, we’ve compromised on quality.
By and large the average consumer is buying a light source to provide the right quality of light. In this continuing trend to reduce cost, which is an important driver, we compromised quality.
We’ve gone too far on this thing, and what’s happened is some of these compact fluorescent technologies have become so inexpensive [that] at the same time they’ve lost a lot of their intrinsic quality. And they don’t last very long. And this is bad because the end result here is that yes, we have a very inexpensive technology, consumers will buy it, but they have a long memory.
Product failures instill a lack of confidence in the technology.
What needs to happen to change this light bulb?
When we only encourage energy efficiency, which is very important, we compromise other issues. The market penetration for compact fluorescents in this country, while we’re making good strides, is not very impressive. There’s no reason today why we shouldn’t be using all energy efficient technologies in the home. The reason we’re not is consumers don’t like this technology.
We need to get past that. We need to develop a lighting technology that people really like. They like the color, they like the quality, they like the delivery, and, by the way, it’s energy efficient. …
We need to encourage the industry to do that. The industry is in a very good position to do this. Once we have the education of what we need in the home, the industry can come in and make it.
But consumers are already complaining about the cost of compact fluorescents compared to incandescents. Isn’t increasing quality going to make the price of compact fluorescents go up?
Prices are coming down significantly for this technology, but as I said, there is corresponding reduction in quality. With a tighter specification that speaks to quality issues I think eventually we would see both a maintenance or increase in quality, as well as reduced costs with increased volume.
The main issue here is that there is not a level playing field, and that high quality products tend to be penalized in the marketplace because of the demand for low-cost. If we define a level playing field, then the economies of scale can be applied equally, and we maintain quality while reducing cost.
What can consumers do today to get the highest quality compact fluorescent?
A consumer should do the best job they can to educate themselves on what kinds of light sources are available for the home. And certainly we’re asking consumers to do a lot more than they used to do. If you would go into any hardware store and buy an incandescent lamp they’re all virtually exactly the same. That’s the strength of that technology. They all look the same, they all work the same and they all have great color. The only problem with them is they’re very inefficient.
Moving to compact fluorescent technology is going to require a consumer to become more educated. I think they need to be guided by the kinds of product information that’s available now. Now, the information that’s available now is still not adequate, but it’s better than it was. I look at things like Energy Star. Energy Star is a sorting process where you can see that there’s some minimum standard that these lamps will achieve.
What we’re looking at down the road is a better specification as we get more knowledge to say here’s a light source that really, really works well, sort of an Energy Star plus. I think that’s going to come.
What about California’s “Super C.F.L.” effort?
Here in California there’s a broad collaborative with the utilities to look at next-generation specifications for high-performance compact fluorescents for the home. Also, I think that we’re going to see a big drive down the road with L.E.D., light-emitting diode technology.
But if I look at the near-term horizon, the next one to four years, the bulk of the energy savings that we’re going to get in this country in the lighting arena for residential is going to be compact fluorescents. L.E.D.s are going to follow very quickly, I think that’s going to be another next-big opportunity for us for both energy efficiency and also product amenity.
Compact fluorescent is very close to being a big opportunity to save a lot of energy. By and large there’s going to be a fairly massive market transformation as we convert from incandescent technology to high-efficiency technologies. This is going to require a rapid movement up the learning curve both from consumers and also from manufacturers and their ability to provide the kinds of technologies that consumers want.