Unintended consequences

By: aSigiam , 3:50 PM GMT on January 24, 2014

This article highlights some of those unintended consequences of pushing technology and efficiency upon us. In this case the virtual legislative extinction of the incandescent light bulb. I found it very thought provoking.

www.edn.com/electronics-blogs/power-points/442724 1/LEDing-it-hang-out--The-downside-of-higher-effic iency

LEDing it hang out: The downside of higher efficiency

It's not news that the venerable incandescent light bulb, which has served us so well for over 100 years, is on its way out. Through a combination of legislative mandates, local building-code imperatives, and operating-cost pressure, there's been a sequence of phase-outs, starting with 100W bulbs and working down to 75W, 60W and so on. (Strictly speaking, these rules don't exclude incandescent bulbs, they just require that bulbs achieve certain efficiency levels which incandescents can't meet; if you could come up with a sufficiently efficient incandescent bulb, you'd make a fortune!)

This isn't the place to argue the technical virtues and vices of LEDs and CFLs as replacements, or the broader economic and environmental effects; those are discussions for another time and place. But as the switchover proceeds, it's interesting to review how the 90% inefficiency of the incandescent bulb - and the resultant heat it gives off - was actually used to advantage in many applications. There have been many reports, such as a recent one from Canada (see "Incandescent bulb ban leaves bird care centre with dim hope"), where the basic 100W bulb was used as a heating element that was cheap, easy to obtain, and easy to replace when it burned out (as most heating elements do).

Even better, as a resistive load, the incandescent bulb is easy to control and regulate. No matter that it has a highly nonlinear input/output transfer function - as long as you have a closed loop with a temperature sensor in the system, you had the makings of a pretty decent controllable heater.

The law of unintended consequences (one of my favorite "laws") even extends to low-cost, mass-market items such as the Hasbro Easy-Bake toy oven, which the company has been making for decades with minimal few changes. Key to the design was the use of a standard bulb as the heating element; again, it was cheap, easy to source, easy to replace. However, the oven had to be completely redesigned with a custom heating element in place of the bulb (see "Easy-Bake loses its bulb, gets a makeover"). While in the broader scheme of things, this is just a toy and re-designing it is not a major disruption, I'm sure there are many applications where such a redesign or retrofit is a far bigger deal.

Reality is that there are many times where the downside of a product or technology has been flipped around and used to advantage. One of the many lessons I took away many years ago from the excellent 1978 TV series Connections by James Burke is that in most cases, progress comes when an application adapts advances or developments from other, unrelated areas - even the ones with shortcomings. (If you haven't seen this series, I urge you get to get it as a DVD, or look for the YouTube segments; it's well-done, educational, and also thought-provoking.)

To those who welcome the loss of the incandescent bulb and its severe inefficiency, I wonder: what else is being lost with it, via attributes and roles that you don't recognize? Have you ever been involved in a design where you took advantage of what everyone else saw as a weakness of a component or approach, and actually used it to your advantage?

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

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4. WunderAlertBot (Admin)
12:11 AM GMT on May 17, 2014
aSigiam has created a new entry.
3. aSigiam
10:09 PM GMT on January 28, 2014
Ooo, that's a good one GG, Gosh, what will they use next? Somewhat related, my cell phone still has an old style handset symbol for the phone function button. Wonder how long that will last?
I can see the disclaimer that you may buy an incandescent only if you promise not to use it for light. Maybe a light licence, light police?

Hello person formerly known as shore :-) Have you used that technique? It would be interesting to see the effect at night of several illuminated tents in one’s landscape. It seems like it would be realy pretty or kind of spooky.
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2. Thoughtsteader
11:29 PM GMT on January 24, 2014
Here's another use for that incandescent bulb - as a safe, effective heater for plants that need to be left out in freezing conditions because, for example, they're too heavy to move into the house. With a reflective collar and a clip, or as part of a hanging work light, a couple of hundred watt bulbs can do a tremendous job. Tent the plants with freeze cloth, add a nice, light fleece throw to help keep the freeze cloth in place, snug things up around the bottom and voila! Happy plants. Safe and effective, and in a place like Houston, you can use the same bulbs for years if you exercise even the slightest care.

(Oh! I changed my screen name. I was shoreacres - now I'm using that over at Wordpress and this name here at WU)
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1. GardenGrrl
8:04 PM GMT on January 24, 2014
How long will it take before the light bulb over some ones head cartoon becomes a meaningless drawing?

As we advance we lose things; out with the old, in with the new.
You are right, however, that as something becomes obsolete for one use, if one could find another use for it they would make a fortune.

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Gardening has been one of my hobbies as well as photography and just being outdoors.

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