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Nation saying 'so long' to a 'soft white' friend

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600 B.C.: A Greek philosopher polishes amber with fur or wool and discovers static electricity.

1600: Dr. William Gilbert coins the word “electric” in a report about the theory of magnetism.

1752: American inventor/statesman Benjamin Franklin uses an iron spike attached to a kite during an electrical storm and discovers that lightning produced electricity; he later invents the lightning rod.

1769: English mathematician James Watt invents a steam condensing engine; its principles are used today to turn the generators that produce electricity. The “wattage” of light bulbs is named for him.

Early 1800s: Italian physicist Allesandro Volta invents the first battery; the word “volt” for batteries is named for him.

1808: English chemist Sir Humphrey Davey discovers the electric arc.

1819: Hans Christian Oersted of Denmark discovers electromagnetism.

1876: U.S. inventor Alexander Graham Bell invents the telephone, using electrical wires.

1879: U.S. inventor Thomas Edison and English physicist Joseph Wilson Swan apply for patents for electrical light bulbs. The two sue each other for rights, but solve the problem by forming a joint company in 1883.

1882: Thomas Edison establishes an electrical generating station in Manhattan, New York, serving 50 customers. Edward Westinghouse begins producing electrical meters.

1888: Serbian electrical engineer Nikola Tesla introduces Alternating Current (AC), which produces electricity for longer distances than Edison's Direct Current (DC). Everyone — except Edison — agrees that AC current is the way to go. Today's electric motors still use Tesla's principles.

1896: Italian Engineering Guglielmo Marconi uses electrical airwaves to produce the first practical signaling that becomes radio.

1962: The first practical visible-spectrum (red) LED (Light Emitting Diode) light is invented by General Electric engineer Nick Holonyak Jr.

Late 1960s: LEDs are developed for the consumer market.

1976: General Electric engineer Edward Hammer invents the CFL (Compact Fluorescent Light) “curly” bulb in response to the 1973 oil crisis. However, GE shelves the project because of high cost — and China copies it. In 1995, China begins producing LEDs for consumers and the bulbs steadily gain popularity.

2012: The United States suspends production of 100-watt incandescent bulbs.

2013: Production of 75-watt incandescent bulbs ceases.

Jan. 1, 2014: Unless something changes, the 40- and 60-watt incandescent bulbs will no longer be available, thus ending a “Soft White” light bulb tradition dating back more than 100 years.

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Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By Laura Szepesi
Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013, 9:58 a.m.

Slowly but surely the light is dimming on incandescent light bulbs for U.S. households.

Production of the old-fashioned “soft whites” will fade to blackness come 2014.

The 100-watt bulbs were the first to go, in January 2012. This year, 75-watt bulbs will be phased out. Next January, American factories will cease making the 40- and 60-watt orbs of light.

Of course, the transition will take awhile. Incandescents, which date back to the 1880s, will linger as long as stores have them on the shelves. Consumers will eventually have to select an alternative, however.

Already, millions of American homes are glowing with light provided by the “curly” CFL (Compact Fluorescent Light) bulbs, which burn much longer than incandescent bulbs. And LED (Light Emitting Diode) bulbs are even more efficient, although they cost a lot more.

The incandescent demise was spurred by several factors, including energy efficiency. By far, LED lights are the most energy-efficient; a 6-watt LED burns 30,000 hours or longer, compared to 6,000 to 15,000 hours for the “curly” CFLs and only 1,000 hours for “soft white” incandescent bulbs.

LED lights ‘warmer'

Speaking of “soft white,” the light color of CFLs and LEDs met the cold shoulder of consumers when first introduced to the market. Many people complained that the light generated by those bulbs was too sterile, resembling the traditional fluorescent tube lighting commonly used in the workplace.

However, that problem has been solved. The light quality of CFLs and LEDs has greatly improved in recent years, according to Shaun Valente, technology teacher at Laurel Highlands Middle School in Uniontown. Valente recently received a grant to teach his eighth grade students about LED lighting.

“LEDs use different light spectrums. Those using 3,000K produce warm light, while those using 5,000K produce cool — almost blue — light,” he explained.

Halogen-tungsten lights, another alternative, produce warm light similar to incandescents and they also burn long. But halogen lights produce high heat levels; LEDs are cool. However, halogen-tungsten bulbs cost less than LEDs — at least for now.

Environmental concerns

Environmental hazards are another reason that incandescent bulbs are being phased out. Both incandescents and CFLs contain mercury, according to various sources, although CFLs contain only minute amounts. Mercury is dangerous to the environment. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, until recent years approximately 600 million incandescent light bulbs were disposed of in landfills.

Alternative lighting saves money even though it costs more up front, according to Valente, who uses many LEDs in his Fayette County home, especially in places that are hard to reach, because LEDs' lifespan is so long. “You really notice it in your electric bill.”

However, LEDs cost a lot, at least for now. “But prices of LEDs are coming down,” said Valente. Various sources predict the cost will drop dramatically after incandescent bulbs are phased out and LEDs are mass-produced.

CFL “curlies” and halogen-tungsten lights are the most cost-efficient for now. The bulbs don't cost as much as LEDs and they last much longer than incandescent bulbs. CFLs use 75 percent less energy; halogen-tungsten, about 30 percent less.

Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.

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