Shedding Light on the Life of Lightbulbs

Has anyone else noticed how every pricey light bulb now has a life span estimate? From a marketing perspective, I do love the concept: invest more up front, but save on energy and materials costs over the long run. Seems like a win-win situation. But is it really?

lightbulbWhen one of our kitchen ceiling halogen floodlights expired last spring, I decided to play consumer reporter. I replaced it with a $13 GE energy-efficient 1+ Year Life 60W Indoor Outdoor Floodlight. The box (see to the right) promised a “1.4 Year Life,” based on 3 hours of use/day. To remember exactly when I installed the bulb, I hid the packaging and receipt on the soffit near the fixture.

A Life Cut Tragically Short

Fast forward to mid-September. I turned on the kitchen lights, and bang! the bulb died with a definitive, percussive pop. I pulled down the box and ran some quick calculations:

  • GE Promised: “1.4 years of life” = 511 days * 3 hours/day = 1,533 hours
  • Our Usage: Let’s be generous and say we run our kitchen lights for an average of twice the number of hours a day (6). Ignoring any complicated issues, such as increased heat and bulb stress for running longer hours or surges in the system, that suggests is should still last half the promised life or 0.7 years. That equals 255 days, or roughly. 8.5 months. Remember as well that this was inside use, well away from any inclement weather.
  • Falling short: I screwed in the bulb on April 7, and it left the worldly plane on September 23. That’s 170 days, or only 2/3 of our more conservative estimate. Certainly a lot less if our average daily use was more like 4-5 hours.

So why does this bother me?

“Larry, Larry, Larry,” you soothe. “Why get incensed over a light bulb? Chillax. Don’t you and the world have bigger issues?” Well, okay, yes we do, but the results of this little energy experiment continue to disturb me for several reasons:

  1. An Absence of Value: I’m trying to lower my energy footprint, and GE Lighting is all about energy savings; they even host a calculator on their Web site to see how much energy you will save with their products. Given the truncated life of my purchase, I’m sure I saved no energy – and no money – at all. I suggest they drop the price by a third to align the cost with the actual life span. Or maybe add more realistic environments to their testing facilities.
  2. A Failing of the Brand:  If I decided to take my issue directly to GE, I’d be SOL. The box has no standard customer satisfaction or contact information, nor any form of guarantee that the bulb will actually last the promised extended life. GE Lighting puts itself out there as a trusted lighting brand, so why make a claim it won’t stand behind? I bought into GE’s spin, but I’ll think twice the next time around.
  3. Not an Isolated Instance: You’re thinking at this point that maybe I bought a lemon, one of the 2-3 defects out of 1,000,000 promised from GE manufacturing’s reliance on Six Sigma methodologies. But you’d be wrong! I will now reveal <drum roll> that I bought TWO of the same bulbs on April 7, 2013, and that I installed the second bulb in our kitchen ceiling only a few days after the first! And wouldn’t you know it, but nearly one week after the first flamed out, the second bulb also bit it, perhaps in sympathy for its lost incandescent brother.

So yeah, I’m a little hot under the collar. I’m left doubting the quality GE manufacturing, its energy efficiency claims, and whether a bulb can even save me money. Perhaps the only true way to win is to follow the exhortations of parents (including myself) to their children everywhere : “Turn out the lights when you leave the room! You’re wasting energy!”