CFLs: New Technology Needs New Solutions

by David Bergman
printed in Architectural Lighting, July 1999

The recent advances in dimmable compact fluorescent lamps have opened possibilities for new designs and new markets. The potential is now there to end the old aversion to fluorescent lighting for residential and decorative purposes. But with the advances have come some hardware and code dilemmas that stand in the way of its broad use. It's a shame that this new technology has to butt heads with code requirements for old technology.

I had long wanted to design energy efficient fixtures that were friendly enough to fit in both the home and office and could, we hoped, overcome some of the public's anti-fluorescent reactions -- the knee-jerk brought on from years of enduring buzzing and flickering and washed out fluorescent strip lights. The buzzing, flickering and poor color had since disappeared, but until fluorescents became small and dimmable, we didn't feel the technology was there to "spread the new gospel." When Lutron's Hi-Lume electronic fluorescent dimming system first came out a few years ago, I jumped on it to finally design some "friendly" fluorescent lamps.

So we designed two series of fixtures, Energia and Energia II, based on the Lutron system. The designs responded to the shape of the bulbs and incorporated the ballast's housing as part of the composition. Only problem was: the cost of the ballast and the dedicated dimmers made the price of our friendly fixtures a little less friendly than we had hoped. It was impossible to price them competitively with our non-fluorescent designs. Never mind trying to get consumers to factor in the life-cycle cost savings of lower electric bills and longer lasting bulbs.

When Phillips announced their integral ballast dimmable Earth Light cfl's (now followed by other manufacturers), we saw new possibilities in terms of both design and cost. The ballast-in-base lamps meant we no longer had to design for the separate (and large) ballast. And, equally important, we no longer had the steep cost of the electronics to deal with. We could use standard dimmers and the ballast was included in the $25 bulb.

So we went and designed a new series, Frankie Goes Fluorescent, around the Philips bulbs. The fixtures are made of recycled glass and a sustainable composite material, and promptly won an environmental design award. But the screwbase cfl presented a new, unanticipated problem: UL. Because the bulbs use a standard medium base, UL regards them as "replacement" bulbs. The logic -- and, to be fair, it's not totally unreasonable -- is that someone could replace the cfl with a standard incandescent bulb and, therefore, UL says the fixture design has to conform to incandescent dimensional clearances and heat tolerances. This meant that our fixtures, which were designed to take advantage of the low heat of fluorescent lamps, couldn't meet the "as-of-right" UL clearance dimensions. They will probably pass the alternative heat tests and end up being rated for both fluorescent and low-wattage incandescent, but that's an added expense and procedure for a relatively small company trying to launch a new product. And it also meant problems for our other projected designs utilizing shade materials that are less heat resistant than the recycled glass we use in our Frankie series. For us, UL's requirements meant that one of the primary advantages of cfl's was negated.

We tried convincing UL that they should allow a "use fluorescent bulb only" label. Our logic was that, since they allowed incandescent fixtures to have wattage restrictions (e.g. "use 75 watt maximum A-19"), why shouldn't we be able to have a similar label for cfl's or just a more restrictive wattage label: "use 26 watt maximum." They didn't buy it.

What's the answer? The basic problem lies in the common base. What we really need is a new base type dedicated to integral ballast cfl's or, better yet, a combined base and hard-wired integral-sized ballast with a separately replaceable lamp. Basically take the Phillips Earth Light style cfl, but make the bulb separable from the base/ballast assembly and then make that assembly hardwired instead of screw based. Or, starting from the Lutron ballast, make it as small as the Philips ballast and integrate a cfl socket into it. This solution would do everything we need to fully promote cfl's. It would lower the electronics cost, lower the fixture design and production costs (fewer parts, connections and enclosures), lower life-cycle costs (by replacing the bulb without also throwing out the ballast) and help preserve the environment (by not throwing that ballast out at each lamp replacement).

Looking at the new cfls and at Lutron's new Tu-wire system, I think this is feasible. Lutron has shown us that smooth dimming is possible with two-wire systems and less expensive dimmers. But the ballast, while smaller, is still separate and, while it is less expensive than the earlier Hi- Lumes, it still isn't cheap. Philips has, in some ways, gone one better by using an even smaller ballast, using it with standard dimmers, and selling the bulb and ballast combo for less than Lutron's ballast alone.

So what's in the way of this suggestion? I think there is still an industry mindset that cfl's, unless they are screwbase, are for commercial (recessed) installations. And if they're screwbase, they are seen only as "incandescent replacements," slated mostly for utility company rebate programs. But this approach is squandering the possibilities for cfl's and for energy conservation. Bring on a UL'able, reasonably priced, dimmable, integral-ballast style bulb and I think we've got a new market.


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