A Discussion About Green Technology Pollution

I’ve discussed various methods of saving money while consuming less electricity (thereby reducing the amount of pollution that a typical home generates locally) several times in the past. The two most popular posts on the issue are CFLs for Free and More on CFL Usage. It’s true, using Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFLs) reduces local use of electricity, reducing local pollution and saving money. However, no one has proven they really are greener than using incandescent bulbs after examining all of the evidence. The problem is production. Producing a lightbulb of any sort also creates pollution.

Looking at a CFL, you have the glass, which possesses the same ability to pollute (and at about the same amount) as an incandescent bulb. There is also the mercury contained within a CFL, but burning an incandescent bulb actually outputs more mercury into the environment when you rely on coal fired electrical plants. On the other hand, if the electrical source is nuclear, wind, solar, or natural gas powered, then CFLs are a definite loser when it comes to mercury. You must also consider the wiring within the bulb and the base used to screw it into a light socket. Both of these items pollute, but generally at the same or a reduced amount as an incandescent bulb.

However, none of the articles I’ve ever read consider another important issue. CFLs contain electronics. Producing those electronics creates an enormous amount of pollution. Organizations such as the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) will tell you that electronics are hardly clean and they do produce some extremely toxic side effects. Plus, the devices continue to pollute after we’re done with them. Because of the strict environmental laws in the United States, much of the most toxic production is now performed in China or Mexico.

Unfortunately, the production pollution is just the tip of the iceberg. Many of these devices also require the use of rare earths, which produce pollution so toxic that all of the mines in America were shut down until it was discovered that we needed one for strategic purposes. (The last mine, the Mountain Pass rare earth mine, was closed in 2002 after a series of radioactive tailing spills.) So, we’re opening (actually, reopening) one of these pollution super sites in the making in order to keep China from having a monopoly.

It doesn’t take long to figure out that green technology isn’t very green. In fact, what we’re really doing in many cases is moving the pollution to someone else’s yard instead of our own. Even so, after reading about the topic intensely, it appears that CFLs are still a good idea and that they do, in fact, reduce the overall pollution of the planet. The lesson though is that it’s important to embrace green technologies with the idea that they aren’t really green and then discuss just where the pollution goes after you start using them. For example, ethanol production will remain a major pollution producer (not a pollution solution) in my book because it really does cause significant damage to the planet. What ethanol does is move the pollution to someone else’s doorstep—making it the worst sort of pollution.

There are also significant questions about both solar and wind power. In both cases, you have pollution created by electronics production and the use of rare earths. Additional pollution is caused when these two forms of power actually reduce the efficiency of power plants that are needed when solar or wind sources are unavailable.

This brings me to new technologies. Scientists are experimenting with all sorts of new ways to produce energy that is cleaner. Recently I read about an artificial leaf that produces power using photosynthesis—the same technique used by plants. However, like many other techniques for producing power, this one relies on electronics and will therefore contribute to pollution somewhere. The issue is whether the pollution is less than other techniques of producing power now. This technology has promise because it appears that it uses less silicon than solar panels. In addition, it’s less expensive than solar energy and there is the potential to reduce costs more. The part that intrigues me most about this particular new technology is that its output is easily stored in a form that doesn’t require constant replacement of batteries. The output is hydrogen and oxygen, both of which can be stored using tanks and then released as needed. The combination of lower cost and low-technology energy storage could make this new method a much better deal than wind or solar power.

People keep looking at the technologies we have now as an end point. Yes, they are an end point, but one that is at the beginning of the route needed to produce truly clean energy, not the end of the road. Many scientists suggest now that the existing clean energy sources actually produce more pollution than the fossil fuel sources they’re designed to replace—we need to do better. The artificial leaf is an example of the kind of technology we could see in the future. Yes, it still pollutes, but possibly at a much lower level than anything to date and it doesn’t require anything special to use it.

What is your take on green technology and pollution? Have you considered issues such as the pollution generated during production and post usage, and the overall effect of using a technology on the system as a whole? Let me know your thoughts on the matter at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Review of LED Christmas Lights

I’m always looking for ways to make self-sufficiency pay. One of those methods is to do more with less. In my CFLs for Free post, I described how you could purchase just one Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) and eventually obtain a house full of them (using the money saved to buy new bulbs) that would end up saving you a lot of money. Thinking carefully about new technologies and how they can make you more self-sufficient is a good way to keep more money in your pocket.

Not all new technologies end up saving you money. The Light Emitting Diode (LED) is one of them. Yes, the new flashlights are fantastic and I absolutely love the one I own. It puts out an immense amount of light seemingly forever on a single change of batteries. However, LED Christmas tree lights are another story. It would initially appear that they’d be a winner. Their life expectancy is supposedly much longer than standard bulbs and an entire 200 light string consumes a miserly 9 watts when you buy one of the nicer sets. In addition, the light they produce is vibrant.

Unfortunately, the longevity of LED Christmas lights is a problem. Out of eight test sets I initially purchased for testing, one set is completely dark and two others have dark segments in just one year of use. Of course, the problem is likely with just one bulb in each darkened segment. However, this is where the another problem occurs, the bulbs are glued into place and you can’t change them. (A few newer sets do include replaceable bulbs, but each vendor appears to have a different socket scheme so the bulbs from one vendor aren’t interchangeable with those of another vendor.) However, whenever you can get them, get the sets with replaceable bulbs.

Having read the vendor documentation carefully, I had anticipated a problem or two. The first thing you need to know is that the vendor is misleading you about the longevity. The sets I reviewed specified bulb life between 25,000 and 100,000 hours. The term you need to know here is Mean Time Between Failures (MTBF). MTBF is a statistical measure that doesn’t really tell you anything unless you know how to apply it. An MTBF of 25,000 hours means that half of the bulbs will last that long and the other half will last longer. There is an actual mathematical probability curve that specifies bulb reliability, with higher failure rates at the beginning and end of the curve and a relatively stable period between (called a bathtub curve). You also need to consider what MTBF infers. The vendor is telling you the life expectancy of any given bulb. In order to find the bulb life expectancy of the light set, you divide the individual bulb life by the number of bulbs in the set. A 200 light set that has bulbs with an MTBF of 100,000 will, on average, deliver only 500 hours of light without failure. If you’re like most people who turn their lights on at 6 pm and turn them off at 11 pm, the set will last, on average, 83 days or about 3 years. As a consequence, it doesn’t surprise me that three out of eight light sets have problems.

The second thing you need to know is that LED lights are polarized and of different characteristics. If you’re used to working with miniature incandescent sets with replaceable bulbs, you know you can slip a bulb out of a non-conforming holder and put it into a conforming holder without problem as long as the bulb is of the right type for the number of lights in the set. In addition, it doesn’t truly matter how you insert the incandescent bulb as long as the two leads stick out appropriately. Not so with LED bulbs. It’s possible to put them into the holder backward because there is a positive and negative end. In addition, a check of those replaceable bulbs show that some have resisters attached to the bulbs and others don’t. In other words, you must get the replacement bulbs for your set from the vendor who produced your light set. The addition of replaceable bulbs is a good step forward in LED technology, but things are still too complicated for most people to handle.

There is actually a way around these repair issues and that you can salvage your LED Christmas lights when they fail. On Thursday I plan to review LED Keeper, a product I found for fixing problem light sets. The solution isn’t perfect and it does require some electrical knowledge on the part of the user, but it actually works quite well. I managed to salvage my failed light sets using this tool.

The third thing you need to know is that LED Christmas lights won’t actually save you any money unless you can buy them on sale. The problem is the high initial cost of the light set and the small amount of time you use them. The cost of running a 50 light incandescent set 6 hours per day for the 30 days that most people use them is ((20.4 watts * 6 hours/day * 30 days) / 1000) * Your Electrical Rate ($0.111362/Kwh in my case) or about $0.41. The cost of running a comparable 50 light LED set is ((4.8 watts * 6 hours/day * 30 days) / 1000) * 0.111362/Kwh or about $0.10. The savings of $0.31 per year isn’t very large when you consider the difference in light set cost of about $21.00. The lights would have to work for 68 years to pay back your investment. In order to make LED Christmas lights work as an investment, you have to buy them on sale. However, you might simply like the fact that they produce such vivid colors that the cost differential isn’t a concern.

Overall, I can’t recommend LED Christmas lights as they currently exist. The vendors aren’t being honest about how long they last, most sets are impossible to repair, and even when the set is repairable, the replacement lights aren’t standardized. Adding insult to injury, you’re paying a much higher price for these sets. LED Christmas lights are getting closer to being a bargain each year though and it’s likely that most people will be able to start benefiting from them in a few more years.

 

More on CFL Usage

Readers came back with a few questions about CFLs after reading my CFLs for Free post. The one thing I want to get across clearly is that the article is emphasizing that you can buy new CFLs using the savings from previous purchases. You need to make the investment in the first CFL to get started and then use the savings from that investment to buy future CFLs. No one is going to mysteriously pay you to buy CFLs, but if you buy smart, you can indeed get future CFLs for free after making the initial purchase. Eventually, you’ll pay off the initial purchase using the savings as well.

A number of people asked about the startup surge (also known as inrush current). The startup surge is something that occurs when you first apply power to the light. This surge is extra electricity that’s required to get the bulb started. The amount of power the bulb requires decreases as it gets to operating temperature, which isn’t very long in most cases. I’ve read a number of conflicting opinions about the startup surge of CFLs. My take on everything I’ve read is that the startup surge will vary by bulb vendor and type of light. A tube light has a smaller startup surge for a significantly smaller time than the twisted bulbs. Vendors who meet Energy Star requirements tend to produce bulbs that have a smaller startup surge than the less expensive bulbs.

A few readers also asked about long term efficiency of CFLs. From personal experience Rebecca and I have found that CFLs do provide an efficiency advantage if you use them for one long interval, rather than several short intervals. In other words, if you burn the light for four hours solid instead of two, two hour intervals, you’ll gain an efficiency advantage. In addition, turning the light on and off reduces its life expectancy.

Efficient energy use is why Rebecca and I tune our work schedule to follow the sun. We get up at 5:30 am (sometimes a bit earlier) during the summer months to make maximum use of the daylight hours, but we get up at 7:00 am during the winter months to ensure we won’t have to turn the lights on in the morning. The actual difference between summer and winter work times is 2½ hours due to the effect of daylight saving time. We do work later into the evening during the winter months to make up for the later start time, so everything evens out. Using this approach has had both health and monetary benefits, but we also understand that it’s not a solution that most people can use.

There are a lot of myths, misconceptions, and outright controversies about CFLs online. In addition, I’m finding that people have individual experiences based on how they use lighting in their home. However, after researching this topic intensively, I’m finding that the following tips about CFLs seem to be true for just about everyone:

 

  • Buying CFLs with the Energy Star label tends to pay dividends in reduced operating costs and longer life, but you must weigh these benefits against the increased initial cost. In general, buying Energy Star products save you money.
  • If you must use a CFL in a socket controlled by a dimmer, buy a CFL designed for that purpose. Using a standard CFL in a dimmer-controlled socket greatly reduces bulb life and could damage the dimmer.
  • CFLs require more air to work properly. They’re more heat sensitive, so putting one in a can or recessed fixture will result in a reduced life expectancy. The exception is that there are CFLs specially designed to work in recessed fixtures, but you’ll also pay a premium price for them.
  • CFLs also don’t like
    damp or wet conditions. If you need to use a CFL in a damp or wet
    condition, make sure you get one rated for that purpose.

  • Standard CFLs don’t work well in fixtures that vibrate, such as the lighting kits for fans. If you want to use a CFL with a fan or other fixture that will vibrate, you need to get a CFL designed for the purpose. (I finally gave up using a CFL in my garage door opener light socket because even the CFLs designed for use in vibration don’t last long in that particular application.)
  • Excessive on and off cycles in a given day will most definitely reduce the life expectancy of your CFL. I researched this one a lot and didn’t get a definitive answer for you. The most common guidelines say that you should strive to keep on/off cycles below 20 for any given CFL during one day. It’s commonly said that CFLs have a life expectancy of 7,000 on/off cycles if you observe the 20 on/off cycle per day limit. The source of problems in this case is the electronic ballast that CFLs use, which aren’t designed for heavy on/off cycles.
  • Faulty wiring affects CFLs considerably more than incandescent bulbs. If your wiring is such that it causes flickers or flashing with an incandescent bulb, the CFL won’t last very long. Even if you can’t see the flickering, small dips in power can cause early CFL failure. If you find that your bulbs aren’t lasting very long, have the power checked. Faulty wiring also affects the cost savings from a CFL in a big way because the bulb never quite gets to its operating range.
  • Line noise will also affect CFLs. For example, if you have a heavy duty motor (such as a refrigerator) on the same line as a CFL, the drop in line current when the motor starts can affect the life expectancy of the CFL. Line noise will also affect the cost savings you see from a CFL because the bulb isn’t operating properly.

Some readers have pointed out that CFLs are overrated. I’m not quite sure how to respond to this question other than to say that there isn’t any free lunch. Just about every solution we now have for fixing the planet’s carbon problem is flawed. Even if we were to all go back to burning candles, there would be problems. However, I did spend some time online looking for something a bit less hysterical and a little more scientific than something that says CFLs and other modern technologies are bad. You should embrace CFLs and other good for the planet technologies with open eyes. The best post I found on these issues is one entitled, “Directory:Compact Fluorescent Lighting (CFL) Downsides.” If someone else has a non-hysterical source of additional information, I’d be happy to address it in another post.

I’d welcome verifiable tips from other people. I verified each of these tips against three sources (including government sites when available). That doesn’t mean that every tip will work for you personally, but most people find that these tips work for them. Let me know about any additional thoughts you have about CFLs at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com

 

CFLs for Free

If you haven’t heard about the Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) by now, then you haven’t been paying much attention. They’re talked about on billboards, the television, radio, magazines, and in stores. In fact, it seems as if you can’t escape the CFL. Yet, many people are still buying the old incandescent bulbs created many years ago by Edison. Yes, incandescent bulbs were a marvel at the time, but today they’re costing you money.

A CFL is basically a fluorescent tube light put into a compact form. They consume considerably less energy than incandescent bulbs and last longer too. When I talk to people about CFLs, the biggest complaint I hear is that they cost so much money to buy. (The second biggest is that CFLs output harsh light or that the bulbs have a short life expectancy, neither of which is true any longer.) Of course, the expense is a legitimate complaint—one that I plan to address in this post.

Rebecca and I have switched our entire house to CFLs. When we first moved into our home, our average monthly bill was over $120.00 a month. Today, due to a number of energy saving techniques, we often get by for $50.00 a month despite a lot of price increases over the years. CFLs are a big part of that savings.

There are some tricks you can use to make the changeover a lot more palatable. Start by investing in high quality CFLs. Avoid the cheap Chinese knockoffsget a good bulb from GE or Sylvania, even though the initial cost is higher. Track the amount the bulb saves you each month. You can do that quite simply by checking your bill for a reduction or you can do things more scientifically. Keep a log of how long you use the bulb each day for a monththis represents the hours you use the bulb, then use this equation:

 

Savings = ((Bulb Watts / 1000) * Hours) * KWH Rate


Let’s say that you replace a 100 watt bulb with a CFL equivalent and you use the bulb for 4 hours each evening for a 30 day month. Your KWH rate (available from your electric bill) is $0.12. The new bulb takes only 26 watts. The original cost of using that bulb is:

 

((100 / 1000) * 120) * 0.12 or $1.44 per month


The cost of the new bulb is:

 

((26 / 1000) * 120) * 0.12 or $0.37 per month


Your savings are $1.07 per month from just that one bulb. OK, you can pocket that $1.07 and buy half a cup of coffee with it, or you can put it aside. In one year you’ll save enough money to buy a 12 pack of 100 watt CFL replacements for free (at least, you will if you shop smart).  Now you can replace 12 incandescent bulbs and it won’t cost anything.

Here’s the payoff. Each of those replacements will also save on your electric bill. If you use each of those bulbs for the same amount of time each day, your savings increase to $13.91 each month, which means that you can buy the next package of CFLs in a month and end up with around $1.47 in change.

As you get new bulbs that haven’t cost you a penny because you would have spent that money on incandescent bulbs anyway, you can quickly replace all of those incandescent bulbs with CFLs that last longer, produce the same quality of light, and reduce your electric bill.

Now you can move onto other things. Start with a programmable thermostat. You’ll find that it saves you money each month as well. If you use your CFL savings to buy the thermostat, it won’t cost you anything. You can extend this to weather stripping and all kinds of other energy saving additionseach of which provides a payoff—an incentive for using it.

It took us about 5 years to replace everything we could in our house that would readily provide a payoff and achieve that energy savings that I talked about earlier. Now, we’re pocketing that extra money. The cost savings will help keep our costs low (and in this economy, who can afford to turn away extra cash).

Eventually, we’ll look at other technologies to reduce our carbon footprint. There are many technologies now that we’ve looked at carefully that don’t actually put any money in your pocket. For example, we looked at windmill technology. By the time you pay for your own personal windmill, not to mention batteries, inverter, and other requirements, you’ll have to wait way too long for payback. Hopefully, this technology will improve with time. The same problem occurs with solar power and some other promising technologiesthey have no payoff right now (they don’t put money in your pocket).

The next technology that does look promising is solar heated hot water. Right now you still have to replace the system before you get a payoff (the longest lasting setup I could find is about five yearsnot long enough for payoff), but I think this is going to change in the near future. As the reliability of these systems improve and more people use them, but the cost will come down and there will be a payoff for those of us who have to be concerned about payoff.

There are also some changes we’ll make simply because we have to, even if there isn’t a payoff. For example, we’re going to have to replace our windows at some point. The old wooden windows are literally rotting in place. When we do make a replacement, we’ll look into buying a higher quality window that will at least partially pay back its installation cost in reduced energy costs. What I’ll try to do is balance the expected energy savings against the additional cost to find that magic point where I get a payback of a sort (the windows won’t ever pay for themselves, but the energy savings will ultimately make the windows less expensive than if I had bought cheaper windows).

Do you often find that the people selling energy saving devices miss the point? I find that the brochures stop short of telling people what the payoff is and how to obtain the devices without spending anything. There is usually some message about doing the planet some good and saving it for our children. These are certainly laudable goals, but the question that concerns me most is, “What’s in it for me?” In our case, it has turned out to be about $70.00 per monthwell worth the effort involved.  Let me know your thoughts on using energy saving devices at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.