Two of the ceiling lights in our TV room burned out a few days ago. And while that may sound like a domestic detail hardly worth noting, what with beheadings in the news and the ebola virus spreading, this one small event has taken on a larger significance. So I hope you will indulge me while I break today from talking about kitchen design or chair styles. I want to explore why changing a lightbulb now requires a 22-year investment, a magnifying glass to read the fine print, and an email to the electrician to be sure the house won’t burn down. Honestly, it’s getting a little crazy.
Two years ago I began a gradual switch to LED (light emitting diode) bulbs in our high-use-room ceiling can lights. In some rooms, lights are on 16 hours a day. (For details, see Making Sense of LED Light Bulbs). I’ve had good luck with Lowe’s Utilitech brand Par 38 bulbs which are the same color as the old ones but give off more light and less heat. And because my switches and dimmers were installed ten years ago, I found it necessary to leave one incandescent bulb in every set of lights to keep all the components functioning properly. Even with that workaround, my power bill went down after LEDs were installed in the kitchen, hallways and in our home offices.
The lights that burned out this week were in “eyeball” fixtures that swivel slightly in the ceiling cans to allow adjustments on the wall above the fireplace where a framed piece of Cambodian folk art hangs. The eyeballs were originally in the house but we tweaked them to operate as a pair on one dimmer. For the last ten years they’ve been served by warm white, BR 30 size 65-watt incandescent flood lamps that cost about $3.50 each and have a life expectancy of two years if left on for three hours a day. But dimmers increase life expectancy for any bulb so I can’t remember the last time these were replaced.
Most of the replacement LED light bulbs I’ve been using are expensive. Each bulb costs $29 — ten times the cost of the incandescent it’s replacing. So when a $10 off coupon from Lowe’s arrived on the same day the second old bulb burned out, I ran right over.
The Lowe’s near my house has a mesmerizing 40 to 50-foot long wall of bulbs where, to my delight and surprise, I stumbled on something new: a Sylvania LED 65-watt replacement bulb. Dimmable. Identical to the burned out incandescents. Would fit the fixtures perfectly and — jackpot — $15.98, not $29! I bought two for the eyeballs and one for an upstairs closet.
The Sylvania was amazing in the closet, which has a regular on/off switch. Finally I can see into every drawer and shelf with another incandescent bulb freed up for use in the workarounds.
Then I headed down to the TV room and set up my ladder underneath the first eyeball. The replacement went smoothly. The bulb in the second eyeball was sticking a bit and I worried that years of heat had caused it to adhere to the socket. In the past, that had caused the glass to break off, so I’m always wary. But something else happened. As I started to screw in the second Sylvania, the first eyeball lit up. Whaaaaat? I was certain the light switch was off.
For the sake of my safety, not to mention my sanity, I removed the bulb, climbed down the ladder and checked the switch. If the bottom indicators are lit, the switch is off. We’ve had some hinky electrical things happen in this house several times. The switch was, indeed, off.
Back on the ladder, I re-inserted the Sylvana, which again, turned on the other bulb. The lights looked great. They were bright and they dimmed perfectly. But my half-the-cost Sylvania replacement bulbs had tricked the TV room switches into an always-on mode, just like Times Square or the Las Vegas strip.
What a miracle of home improvement! Lights that stay on with the switches off — for 22 years. And it only cost $30, plus less electricity than the old bulbs used.
I knew from experience the dimmers might not work. There was fine print buried on the side of the box that says “lamp may not be compatible with all dimmers.” But not a word about switches. Is it my special karma to discover this weirdness? Is there no New York Times reporter in the Home section (or whatever they call it these days) equipped to do an investigative piece on what the hell is going on with the light bulbs? Are we all destined to pay more for money-saving bulbs that don’t work unless we invest thousands to change all the switches in the house?
I quickly logged into my email, hoping that smoke wouldn’t waft from the ceiling before I reached the electrician. “My only question: is this safe?” I wrote.
His reply: “Yes it’s safe but the lamps might not last very long.”
With that threat removed, I decided to leave the bulbs on for a day or two and try it out. As we were going to bed that night, Mr. AM mentioned that he’d had a problem in the TV room. “I couldn’t get the lights to turn off,” he said. “I tried and tried. I don’t know what I did wrong.” Poor guy. I forgot to mention it.
The next day, I replaced the second Sylvania with an incandescent. My dimmers work perfectly. The lights turn off. The color of the bulbs is similar. There is difference in brightness but it’s only noticeable only when the dimmer is set on low. A handy graphic on the side of the box shows the difference in the brightness, which is measured in lumens.
Yet I’m stuck on this lightbulb moment. So many options for our houses have changed in the past few years: ovens, cooktops, dishwasher detergents, TVs, and landline telephones to name only a few. Many of us are going steady with tech support in order to keep all these goodies working properly. Differences are always presented as cases for energy efficiency, improved technology, or environmental safety. Yet, like the LED lightbulbs, the costs has increased, often without benefit to the buyer.
This is absurd. And it’s part of an increasingly upside down world where things work in reverse — or not at all — even when we’ve paid 22 years in advance.
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