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In light-bulb business, lumens try to power past watts

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 31, 2011; A04

America, prepare to embrace "lumens."

For more than a century, buying light bulbs has been a fairly straightforward transaction: Consumers have judged pear-shaped incandescent bulbs by how much wattage, or power, they consume.

But the government wants the next generation of bulbs to be measured by brightness. And that means lumens. In a nation with 4.4 billion light sockets, it's a tall order.

"It's a big deal, and it's going to take a while for customers to get used to the difference," said Jorge Fernandez, who buys light bulbs for Home Depot. "It's going to take people years to get accustomed to it."

Consider it akin to trying to switch to the metric system, but on a smaller scale.

The Federal Trade Commission is proposing that labels for all light bulbs put brightness - measured in lumens - at the top, with watts below under "energy used." (Although lumens have been included on light-bulb packaging since 1994, few have noticed the tiny print.) The labels would also identify the bulb's estimated annual energy cost, its life and how warm or cool its light is.

The idea is to help people pick light bulbs that have the amount of brightness they need and to move away from thinking about watts, because manufacturers are going to be making more efficient, lower-watt bulbs.

The labels - which were set to appear in June but will probably be delayed six months at the request of the lighting industry - will apply to conventional incandescent, compact fluorescents, halogen and light-emitting diode bulbs.

Lumens will not be as clean a number as watts, though, because even among bulbs with the same wattage, brightness will vary. A 60-watt bulb is about 800 lumens, but because the brightness of a bulb varies depending on the manufacturer, customers may see a lumen estimate of as low as 750 or as high as 1049 on the the new boxes.

Watts will no longer reflect the traditional lighting strength of the bulb. On Jan. 1 , 2012, manufacturers will have to produce the equivalent of a 100-watt bulb using 72 watts of power; a year later, they will have to replace 75-watt bulbs with ones that are 28 percent more efficient; by Jan. 1, 2014, they will have to do the same with 60-watt and 45-watt bulbs.

"The bottom line is consumers are going to have lots of choices going forward," said Roland Risser, the Energy Department's program manager for the building technologies program, referring to the bulbs people will be able to buy under the new system. "This should allow you to get as much light as you need for less energy."

But the policy of making conventional light bulbs more efficient - which Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Jane Harman (D-Calif.) inserted into the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act - has come under attack recently from the right. Conservative talk show host Glenn Beck called Upton "all socialist" for backing the provision; now that Upton chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, he's considering revisiting the law.

Kateri Callahan, who heads the Alliance to Save Energy, called the prospect of a congressional rollback "very troublesome, and it will cause a lot of confusion in the marketplace that's very unnecessary."

There's a simple explanation for why light-bulb labeling hasn't kept up with the times: It's because, until recently, neither the technology nor the terminology had changed for decades. This is an industry where the main trade group, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, refers to its light-bulb-making members as "lamp manufacturers" even though such members make the things that screw into lamps.

And as Peter Soares, director of consumer channel marketing for Philips Lighting observed, "What other industries can you find where the product developed a hundred years ago is still the number one seller?"

All of that is changing. Three-quarters of U.S. households have at least one compact fluorescent bulb, according to Soares, and CFLs make up 25 percent of the nation's overall light-bulb market. IKEA became the first major retailer in the United States to stop selling incandescent bulbs as of Jan. 4. And California got language in the 2007 law that allows it to phase in the new standards a year early, so its 100-watt bulbs are already 28 percent more efficient.

The United States is far behind many other countries when it comes to light-bulb efficiency and public awareness. Australia has banned incandescent, pear-shaped bulbs under its Change the Globe campaign; the European Union has transitioned to compact fluorescent bulbs with the aid of an official "war room" that shot down rumors and factual distortions about energy-efficient lighting.

Kyle Pitsor, the U.S. manufacturers association's vice president for government relations, said it is a "transition the industry has been investing heavily in to undertake since the 2007 law was signed."

In part, that's because retailers are acutely aware of what could happen if the United States experiences a repeat of the botched attempt to convert to the metric system in the 1970s and early '80s.

So in addition to the signs that will crop up in stores, a coalition that includes retailers, manufacturers and the federal government has launched Lighting Understanding for a More Efficient Nation, or LUMEN, to educate the public. But the group lacks funding: It has $200,000 from the Department of Energy and hopes to raise another $800,000 from private sources.

"It will be hard if we can't find the funds necessary to put it forward," the alliance's Callahan said. "Without a concerted and consistent effort, we flirt with having this not be a success."

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