Sunday, September 30, 2012

Karen Beseth is all about energy conservation. She shuts off the lights when leaving the room and sets the thermostat at 67 degrees through her small town's blustery winters. But there's one concession the DeWitt, N.Y., insurance consultant won't make -- she loves her incandescent lightbulbs. No surprise then that in advance of the federal phaseout of traditional bulbs starting Jan. 1, she's stocking up. Her garage and basement shelves are filled with 100-watt four-packs. "There's just some things we put our foot down on," she says.

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Polls show that many Americans aren't even aware of the pending ban, but 13 percent say they are hoarding to prepare for a time when the 134-year-old technology joins heroin and sea-turtle meat in the banned-products pantheon. Home Depot, which supplies nearly a third of the bulbs that plug into the nation's 4 billion light sockets, says that as 2011 drew to a close, incandescent sales jumped.

Experts like Bill Hamilton, Home Depot's merchandising VP for electrical, say alternatives to incandescents have vastly improved -- light quality is up, and prices are falling fast. But not everyone's convinced. I just tried replacing the incandescent bulb on my nightstand lamp, and the results weren't pretty. The $3.50 halogen bulb was decent, but halogens don't save many watts. LEDs use 80 percent less energy, but the $40 bulb was dim and the angular device looked clunky in my lamp. The real shocker was the $6.50 compact fluorescent. Its thin, cold glow gave my bedroom the look and feel of a state-run psych ward (don't ask me how I know this). Even my dog looked sickly.

Of course, for many folks, the objection to the bulb ban goes beyond aesthetics. CEO Mike Connors says most of his business clients, like hotels, happily embraced the new technology -- they love the savings. The hoarders are often consumers with a political agenda: They don't like the government dictating choices. "There's a combative feeling," he says.

In the House of Representatives, some Republicans are still hoping to see the ban repealed. And in Texas, the state legislature passed a bill declaring it legal to manufacture and sell incandescent bulbs within state lines -- never mind the fact that there's not a single bulb factory in Texas. "Everyone loves it," says a spokesperson for George Lavender, the representative who wrote the bill.

This is hardly the first product ban to meet resistance. The Department of Energy recently cracked down on showerhead makers that were circumventing water-flow restrictions with multiple-head systems. On eBay, opportunists sell used '60s-era toilets that offer a "big flush" -- for $700. John Maly, a Colorado intellectual property strategist who uses a high-flush toilet imported from Calgary, Alberta, says he gets several hundred hits a day to his website,, which provides instructions on how to install your own commode and jimmy your showerhead to remove the regulator.

Of course, the lightbulb ban could create new opportunities. In Europe, where the phaseout launched in 2009, retailers that stocked up are making out like bandits. LightBulbs Direct in the U.K. says demand is huge for its stash of 100- and 60-watt bulbs, which sell for about $1.50 -- a fat markup over the pre-ban price of 60 cents or so.

And in Germany, a genius entrepreneur concocted the ultimate work-around. He's marketing his bulbs as miniature space heaters. Billed as "the best invention since the lightbulb," his "heatballs" sell for around $2.30. Who says government regulation stifles creativity?

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