The Big Switch-off

By: Kate Thomas

In the Nineties, when light bulb jokes were still funny, Australians used to tell one about the English. "How many Englishmen does it take to change a light bulb?" Answer: "What do you mean change it? It's a perfectly good bloody bulb! We have had it for a thousand years and it has worked just fine."
Edison's original incandescent light bulb design - patented in 1880 - has been used for 127 years in Britain. It releases up to 95 per cent of its energy in the form of heat, and despite the fact that only the remaining 5 per cent is put to good use, it's still the most popular way of lighting our homes. Energy-saving bulbs use up to four times less electricity to generate the same amount of heat, saving energy, money and the environment.

Eco-conscious Australia has already seen the light, recently unveiling its plans to become the first country in the world to ban yellow incandescent bulbs by 2012 - they will be gradually phased out and replaced by compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs). In Britain, have been a little slower to get off the mark. But earlier this week, the high street electrical store Currys announced plans to cease selling traditional bulbs. And Gordon Brown has taken on the Conservatives for the green vote, with a move to phase out the use of all old-fashioned bulbs by 2011. So why is Britain so reluctant to make the switch? Well, the energy-saving alternatives don't always seem to be quite bright enough, we say.

They flicker. They hum. Don't they emit more toxic gases than the incandescent type? And it's all very well championing eco-friendly bulbs if you're living in sunny Australia. But here in grey Britain, we say, let there be light! All Australian households will run on more fuel-efficient CFL bulbs by 2010, using around 20 per cent of the electricity to produce the same amount of light. But we want to know more than simple statistics. What we need are viable alternatives to old favourites. Lucy Mantovani, a nutritionist, bought her first home last year, a period property in north London. "While my workplace has switched to energy-saving bulbs, I still use yellow incandescent lighting at home," Lucy admits.

"I find I need quite a bright bulb in the kitchen for cooking. But my guilty pleasure is halogen. I've fitted bright spotlights in the ceiling in the hallway, and upstairs in my bedroom I have a gorgeous mother and baby lamp that only takes halogen bulbs. "Last weekend my boyfriend and I were in B&Q, and as I slung a box of 50-watt halogens into the trolley, I found myself throwing a quick glance over my shoulder, almost as if to check nobody was watching me. I count myself as an environmentally aware person. I recycle and I carbon offset whenever I fly. But I can't find a decent alternative to halogen, even though I get cross with myself for buying the bulbs. They have their wattage splashed across the front of the box, almost like warnings on a cigarette packet."

Lucy should look again. The range of energy saving bulbs available in the UK has greatly improved since the first designs came on the market. CFLs now warm up much faster than older designs, typically reaching 95 per cent of their full light output in under a minute. They still flicker slightly, but new tech-nology has reduced the humming. And instead of those halogens? Once confined to the school physics lab, LEDs (light-emitting diodes) are now available as a sound alternative to halogen lighting. Not only do they produce more light per watt than incandescent bulbs, but LED bulbs have no filament so they don't burn out. For those worried there may be significant amounts of CO2 and mercury released in the production of CFL bulbs - research is still under way, but speculation abounds - LEDs are a greener bet. Each bulb will light up your life for more than 50,000 hours (incandescent light bulbs typically run for 1,000-2,000 hours). Nigel's Eco Store (www.nigelsecostore.com) sells packs of two LED bulbs - suitable for ceiling spotlights - at [pound]18.99 a pop. Expensive, yes, but on a pay-per-use basis, that's 0.04 pence an hour. Or there's the Osram dot, a bright, handheld, sticky LED that can be attached to any surface and gives 100 hours of light with three AAA batteries (from [pound]5.22, the-lightbulbshop.co.uk).

A number of UK companies are vying to become "the Englishman who changed the light bulb". Mega-man (www.megamanuk.com) offers 14 different types of bulb, including coloured globes, outdoor designs and the Cat's Eye - a bulb that lulls kids to sleep by emitting a soft, sleep-inducing afterglow long after being switched off. Or try eco-designers Luminair. Their range includes attractive - yes, really - coloured CFL globes, with edgy recycled lamps to fit, and they also sell a range of ultra-modern light fittings specially designed for LED bulbs. Proof that, really, Britain is more switched on than we once thought.

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