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Inferior Holiday Lighting: Another Cost of the Futile Climate Crusade? (Malthusianism is gloomy in practice, not only theory)

“[LEDs are] not the same. They’re weird-looking. They’re sized different and have these unusual ripples. If you have those interspersed with your traditional lights, they’re going to look dumb.”

- Interviewed consumer, AP Piece, December 21, 2009

An AP piece yesterday by by Sean Murphy, Many Take Dim View of New-Fangled Christmas Lights, is another example of some of the problems that occur when an (inferior) product is forced on consumers in the name of “energy sustainability” (aka, the futile climate crusade).

Small, unsafe, high-insurance-premium micro cars are bad enough (do these things work on the highway?). But also troubling is the assault on quality lighting–and more lighting per se–that hinder those whose mood is elevated by brightness and the many who have trouble coping with the dark. (Of course some can go too far with holiday lighting, as with any pleasurable activity.) But many need all of the high quality lighting they can get to neuter their Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) syndrome.

And so this holiday season–the time of year when many turn the winter blues into a winter wonderland–consumers are finding themselves increasingly stuck with LED lighting. Some wonder how ‘green’ the ecolights are compared to what is in your attic. Others have tried and given up on solar LED as the ‘green’ way.

Reprinted below is Mr. Murphy’s essay on consumer angst with LED lighting. (And it does not sound like energy savings if buyers are racing from store to store to find the lighting they want and need, does it?)

NORMAN, Okla. — To Steven Walls, it’s beginning to look nothing like Christmas, anywhere he goes.

While more people make the switch to energy-efficient lights for their holiday decorations, Walls this year insisted on decorating with the old-style, torpedo-shaped Christmas lights his family has put up for years. But it was no easy feat: To replace the half-dozen or so bulbs that burned out last year, Walls had to visit eight stores before he found any.

“They’re not the same. They’re weird-looking. They’re sized different and have these unusual ripples. If you have those interspersed with your traditional lights, they’re going to look dumb,” he said.

The old two-inch, 9-watt incandescent bulbs may be the gas guzzlers of holiday lights, but they remain a holiday staple in homes across the country. Many people aren’t willing to trade the chubby, colorful halo effect for the softer glow of a light-emitting diode, or LED. And as retailers increasingly stock the more energy-efficient lights, lovers of the classic lights scramble to find them, fearing they will soon be gone from shelves for good.

While acknowledging LEDs are more durable and use up to one-hundredth the amount of electricity as incandescents, Gary Barksdale grows nostalgic sorting through broken bulbs and overloaded fuses every year.

“It’s part of the holiday tradition,” said Barksdale, 46, of Norman. Failing to find replacement fuses, he strung a few lights together and ran a tether to his 9-year-old son, Gus. Together they climbed atop the roof of his one-story home. For him, the old lights are part of a holiday tradition.

“We’re doing the same thing my pops, my brothers and I did when we were kids,” he said.

LED lights are made of plastic, but Barksdale said dropping and shattering a brightly colored glass bulb is just part of the holiday routine.

“When you’re finding shards of purple glass in the summer when you mow the grass, you can remember the fun you had at Christmas,” he said. “There’s a certain nostalgia to having those big glass bulbs that we put up as a kid.”

Despite their passionate fan club, incandescent lovers are a dying bunch. Strands of LEDs are more expensive than incandescents, but the LEDs are much cheaper to run. Retailers say the long-term savings may be driving people to stores to make the switch.

John Banta, a project leader for New York-based Consumer Reports, said LEDs provide more benefits than just energy savings.

“They run cooler, so there’s less of a chance of a fire hazard,” Banta said. “They’re much more durable and they did last longer.”

Aaron Hassen, a spokesman for Alpharetta, Ga.-based Christmas Lights Etc., one of the nation’s largest online retailers of Christmas lights, said a number of large commercial customers, including cities, towns and theme parks, invested in the new technology in recent years, but now he is seeing more consumers making the switch for their homes.

“Sales of LEDs are up more than 200 percent over last year,” Hassen said. “Nobody could have predicted in a down economy that they would be investing in a product that costs more right off the shelf.”

Even Santa Claus made the switch. The small town of Santa Claus, Ind., this year erected a new tree with LEDs, and the new lights also dot the town’s 1.2-mile display around the Lake Rudolph Camp Ground.

But Santa Claus resident Herman Souder — who hangs thousands of the older-style incandescents on his two-story home in the Christmas Lake neighborhood — is staying with the old standby. He tried a strand of LEDs but they didn’t provide the same punch, so he took them down. He said he will switch over eventually, when LEDs become brighter, in an effort to save on an electric bill that can include $200 or more for Christmas lights alone.

“The lights were real close together and they weren’t very bright,” said Souder, 69. “The blue, green and red were OK, but they were really dim, and the gold didn’t hardly show up at all.”

David Shields of Purcell, Okla., said the old bulbs just look like Christmas. Shields’ wife, Karen, said she visited four stores, including two Wal-Marts, Lowes and Home Depot, before finding replacement bulbs at a farm and ranch supply store in nearby Norman.

“My neighbor has the LED lights, and it just looks more like a modern discotheque over there,” he said. “I like the vintage look, the old-school look. That’s the way everybody’s lights used to be growing up.”

Many thousands of pages of energy edict have been passed ever since the 1970s that are forcing changes in behavior by consumers that violate their own sense of good and bad. A drive by mega-stores to be ‘socially responsible’ is adding to the confusion in a world where consumers are pleasantly surprised, not frustrated, by new goods and services that spring up ‘as if led by an invisible hand’. 

The ‘failing’ market in the above news story is all about the heavy hand of government. Will a new era of energy freedom emerge as a reaction to a thousand energy cuts–and Climategate and the failure of Copenhagen?

7 comments

1 Andrew { 12.22.09 at 2:04 pm }

Personally, I think LEDs have a real future. But I suspect that the technology is not up to the task of Christmas lights just yet.

Of course, we will only know if the technology improves in retrospect. In the meantime, it doesn’t make sense to force investment in them on people who don’t think they’ll go anywhere.

2 Paul Penrose { 12.22.09 at 3:00 pm }

Oh boo hoo. We don’t use horse and buggy anymore either or plow our fields with oxen. LED lighting is so much more cost efficient that consumers are demanding it. That’s why you have a hard time finding the old lights, not because of environmentalist pressure (although there is plenty of that in the world). Now can we discuss a REAL problem?

3 Robert Bradley Jr. { 12.22.09 at 4:29 pm }

Paul: I think the difference is coercion between market-driven improvement (like the internal combustion engine for horse carriages) and forced product switchovers.

Are you saying that regulation has nothing to do with LECs?

4 kgreen { 12.23.09 at 11:49 am }

Rob – An excellent post. I’ve also written about the lighting issue, which you can see here: http://blog.american.com/?p=4407. The article I based this on, in which a famous lighting designer criticizes CFLs and LED lighting is here: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203706604574377171050647330.html

5 Robert Bradley Jr. { 12.23.09 at 8:28 pm }

More unintended consequences?

See “Do C.F.L.’s Increase Greenhouse Gases? by JOHN LORINC

http://greeninc.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/05/do-cfls-increase-greenhouse-gases/?hp

6 TheSkyIsFalling { 12.26.09 at 12:49 am }

We can no longer buy 100 watt incandescant bulbs for homelighting in Australia by law. All I can get are those aweful short floro lights. After a month of use they start to go dim and I cannot get enough light from the damn things to comfortably read by and it is VERY frustrating. I am going to get some outdoor spotlights fitted discretely inside the house for reading rooms. That will sure be a win win for saving the planet won’t it. I would like to thank the Australian Government for passing laws that will actually cause me to increase my electricity useage so I can read at night as well as during the day.

7 TheSkyIsFalling { 12.26.09 at 1:18 am }

Oh I should add that I will need to use more electricity on the airconditioner too as the spotties throw a lot of heat so more cooling will be required.

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