Dim the light fantastic

Rheostats and fluorescent bulbs: Together at last!

Published February 15, 2006 11:51PM (EST)

If it weren't for the damn dimmer switch problem, my house would be entirely lighted by compact fluorescent bulbs. Never mind the environmental benefits: The fact is that C.F. bulbs use far less electricity and last far longer than their incandescent competitors. For convenience reasons alone, I love them. I can plug 'em in, and forget about them for years.

But, alas, a previous owner of my house was driven mad by a lust for rheostats; there are dimmer switches everywhere, and one of the things everyone is warned about compact fluorescents is that they do not play well with dimmer switches. C.F.s aren't even supposed to be turned off and on too frequently -- their 10,000 hours of life is best achieved if they are left switched on for long periods.

(The reason for this has to do with the "electronic ballast" that is a key part of C.F. bulbs. Essentially a solid-state circuit that maintains the correct power frequency for efficient operation, the ballast doesn't prosper when the incoming voltage is altered by a heavy hand on the dimmer switch. While there are some C.F. bulbs that can be dimmed, they're more expensive and sometimes require special switches.)

So, imagine my excitement when today's newsletter from TerraPass alerted me to a new kind of compact fluorescent, a "cold cathode fluorescent" bulb, manufactured by Litetronics. Not only do these new bulbs last for an incredible 25,000 hours, we are told, but they love to be dimmed, and they don't even mind being strobed! What's not to like? I'm going to a buy a bushel of them, and never look back.

I'm probably overly optimistic, but incremental technological breakthroughs such as these make me frisky with hope. Conservation and the development of alternative sources of renewable energy aren't the only sustainable answers to the depletion of our fossil fuel reserves. So, of course, is steadily ratcheting up the efficiency with which we consume energy. Fifty or a 100 years from now, if we survive peak oil and global warming and nuclear terrorism, our descendants will look back at the present era as the the Great Age of Waste. They will be like the Fremen in Frank Herbert's science fiction novel "Dune," who lived in an environment so devoid of water that they were forced to develop technologies for saving every drop of their own sweat. The very thought of a person doing something as extravagant as taking a shower struck the Fremen as unconscionably obscene.

My grandchildren will be equally repulsed by the repugnant concept that people once changed a light bulb every few months. They will treat the gruesome horror that Americans used to get only 10 miles to the gallon in their SUVs with the same incomprehension as my own children deal with my claim that I once changed the channel on the TV with my bare hands.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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