Saturday, December 27, 2014

CFLs Disguised as LEDs

I saw a few new things in my Christmas shopping. One of the more surprising things was the new style of CFL light bulbs — they are doing their best to take on the style of high-efficiency LED light bulbs. Both the bulb itself and the packaging are designed to look like LED light bulbs. And this is not a strange exception; these are the only CFLs left in the store, occupying only one foot of shelf space near the center of the light bulb display.

The heat-diverting features of an LED bulb are gratuitous when used with a twisty CFL tube. A CFL bulb generates more heat than a comparable LED bulb but doesn’t concentrate heat at any particular point and therefore doesn’t need heat diversion. The LED-like features do not improve the CFL — they merely disguise it to pull in customers who are not paying close attention. However, when they get the bulb home, install it, and flip on the light switch, they can easily see that they have purchased a plain old CFL. You assume customers will make this mistake only once, and some surely will be angry about being tricked, but that loss of reputation doesn’t much matter for a product that has a useful life approaching 10 years. CFLs won’t even be on the shelf when customers return to buy replacement bulbs in 2024.

If CFLs can sell only by tricking customers, it is a sign that the CFL technology is nearing the end of its life already. There is hardly any defensible financial rationale for CFLs at this point. They exist because they still have an initial cost advantage over LEDs, but the savings of a buck or two up front buys you a visibly inferior quality of light and a disadvantage of perhaps $30 in the cost of electricity at the back end. I can understand seeing CFL bulbs in motels, as a conspicuously inferior product that few guests would be tempted to steal. Most people don’t want to be conspicuously inferior at home. LED bulbs have seen vast improvements over the past five years. It will take only a few more marginal improvements in LEDs to drive CFLs out of the stores.