Is This A Light That Never Goes Out?

What are the odds that a newfangled LED light bulb will make it past the century mark like a couple lucky incandescent bulbs have? Well, it’s too soon to know.

Today in Tedium: If you’ve walked in a hardware store lately, you’ve probably found the push toward LED light bulbs a bit, shall we say, aggressive. Part of the reason for this is because of the relatively recent invention of the filament LED light bulb, which has most of the benefits of the traditional filament light bulb, with none of the heat. This bulb is very popular—so much so that the University of California just sued a ton of major retailers for apparently selling it without paying the university for licensing rights to the product, which researchers in the university system invented. That’s all well and good, but I guess what the LED light bulb makes me wonder is this: Will it survive for more than 100 years, like that “Centennial Light Bulb”? Today’s Tedium considers whether LED light has a chance to last forever. — Ernie @ Tedium

Today’s Tedium is sponsored by Lemonade. More from them in a second.

13.5

The number of hours that the filament of the initial incandescent light bulb invented by Thomas Edison could last. This was in part due to the material he used—a carbonized cotton filament. Edison experimented with a variety of other materials, including bamboo, which lasted a much more commercially viable 1,200 hours. (Eventually, tougher metal filaments, made of tungsten, became the norm.)

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(PublicDomainPictures/Pixabay)

Could an LED light bulb survive 118 years of use? Maybe, but we can’t exactly test it

As I’m typing this, I’m making the realization that I’m in a room literally surrounded by light-emitting diodes of various forms. My wireless router has nearly a dozen. My laptop uses an LED backlight, and has at least two others baked in on either side, along with under my laptop’s keys. Heck, even my TV has an LED that displays when it’s off. When I turn it on, LEDs help it work.

The LED has already been around for decades, in various forms, but its function for light bulbs is relatively new, allowed largely due to innovations in recent years that allowed for the creation of white LED light. (The inventors of the blue LED, the hardest colored LED to produce, received the Nobel Price for Physics for their invention, which is a low-key innovation that changed the world in a big way.)

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The Centennial Light Bulb in action.

But while it’s been emphasized for ages that LED light bulbs have a much longer life span than their incandescent cousins, we don’t have the benefit of knowing that light-emitting diodes installed today will be working in 2119. The technology is better than incandescent bulbs, for sure, but the “Centennial Light Bulb,” the long-active light bulb in place at a fire station in Livermore, California, has one advantage LEDs do not: time in the field.

It earned its 118 years the hard way. It has outlasted multiple previous fire houses, and survived multiple scares. Both you and I will be dead by the time we get a chance to find out if an LED bulb reaches the 118-year mark.

There are lots of reasons why there’s a light bulb out there that’s outlived even the world’s oldest person. One has to do with the quality of the carbon filament and overall construction—the bulb was handmade—but a key one has to deal with its power use in the modern day. In 1901, this was a bulb that could apparently put out 60 watts. These days, it gets about 4. Attached to an uninterruptible power supply, the bulb never turns off, which is a key factor to its long-term survival. If the filament were to face the pressures of an on-off switch, it would likely face a fateful surge of power that would break it apart entirely.

Now, LED lights don’t work like this. They don’t burn out, like most incandescents do; they fade away, their lumens losing their luster over time. But one thing that might work against them is the fact that they are often more electronically complex than traditional light bulbs, and that means there are more potential areas where things can break down. (They are solid state, however, which helps matters.)

Odds are that LED lights might dim out just like the Centennial Light Bulb.

But one thing is probably clear: even if an LED light bulb doesn’t hit the century mark, its lifespan will last longer than your average light bulb.

Unless you’re using it wrong.

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LED lights and legacy dimmer switches: Not a match made in heaven. (betsssssy/Pixabay)

Five reasons an LED light bulb might not last as long as advertised

  1. It’s connected to a dimmer switch. Dimmer switches for traditional light bulbs and LED lights do not mix, due to differences in the way the bulbs work. Plugging them into a switch not designed for them can affect the longevity of a light bulb, Nick Douglas of Lifehacker noted last year.
  2. Your wiring needs to be updated. Douglas, who recently received vinyl assistance from our own David Buck, found himself writing about LED longevity because of his own experiences with LED bulbs going out of commission. “To switch your ceiling and wall fixtures to LEDs, you might need to replace the wiring, or pay someone else to do it for about $1,000 per room,” he noted. This, of course, makes them much less cost-effective than many were led to believe.
  3. The bulb is in a suboptimal atmospheric environment. LEDs aren’t designed to work as well during periods of intense temperature shifts, which can damage LED lights well before their time. A notable example of this surfaced in May, when The Detroit News reported that many of the city’s LED street lights had stopped working after only a few years due to exposure to extreme heat, which was destined to happen, because it’s a street light and is therefore outside. (Which begs the question: Shouldn’t the manufacturer have thought of that first?)
  4. You’re using it too much. Many LED light bulbs are rated to last for 10,000 hours, which, as How To Geek notes, equates to only about three hours of active light use per day over a decade. More active use—say, eight hours a day—would burn out the bulb much faster.
  5. The machinery isn’t up to snuff. If you’re buying a light bulb that the manufacturer says can last for decades, but only offers a one-year warranty, that’s a sign you might want to take a close look at another brand. “Some manufacturers, like GE and Cree, offer affordable LED bulbs with 10-year warranties,” CNET notes in its LED buying guide. “Consumers with a healthy dose of skepticism regarding LED longevity claims should look for bulbs like these, made by manufacturers willing to put their money where their mouth is.”
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(Bru-nO/Pixabay)

The most unusual businessman in New York City tried to discredit the Livermore Centennial Bulb

The 20th-century New York City hardware store owner Jack Gasnick seems like the kind of guy who must be made up for all the tall tales that have been associated with him, with no easy way to figure out just how tall the tall tales might be.

It helps that many of them are absolutely true.

A search for him on newspaper sites pulls up an array of very unusual headlines, among them:

“Jingle Jack,” discussing Gasnick’s history with coming up with rhyming jingles. This article, by multi-time Gasnick reporter Sidney Fields of the New York Daily News, notes that he had won a variety of awards and prizes for his jingles, which he started doing as a teen but continued well into adulthood. His best-known slogan, according to the piece: “Cross at the green, not in between. Pause at the red, in safety you will tread.”

“‘Think Mink’ belongs to Jack Gasnick,” a tale described in a Norton Mockridge column about how Gasnick created a business that sold rabbit-foot keychains, but kept running into issues with people ripping off his catchphrase. Eventually, the catchphrase became so well known that he appeared in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “Most Successful Sloganeer.” He complained in the New York Daily News at the time that the book initially got his age wrong.

Gasnick

“Backyard Archeologist,” discussing Gasnick’s hobby of digging through backyards and seeing what kind of weird stuff he could find. The 1972 Daily News story also discusses his work as a jingle artist.

“Jack Gasnick’s Land Fever,” A 1994 New York Times article that described Gasnick’s odd tendency to buy unwanted plots of surplus land throughout the city, which topped out at 28 plots … though he eventually sold most of them off. “I wanted the unwanted,” Gasnick said of his unusual hobby, which he had to give up when property taxes got too high. (The most interesting anecdote from the piece: Gasnick bought the plot behind Louis Armstrong’s home, then sold it to friends of the jazz icon who showed up late for the auction for just a dollar more than he paid for it.)

These are all wonderfully weird stories, the kind that make Jack Gasnick a truly interesting human being, the kind for which publications like Tedium were made.

But the stories about Gasnick that may be the most interesting are twofold: One, he once went fishing inside the basement of his hardware store after a hurricane and caught a carp, an oft-repeated tall tale so weird that NPR wrote about it in 2011; and the other, the fact that once he attempted to challenge the Livermore light bulb’s validity.

In comments to UPI in 1983, Gasnick, an engineer who had experience working in a hardware store for decades, claimed that the bulb didn’t look like a bulb that had any clear signs that it had aged in any real way.

“Right away, I saw it was co clear,” he said. “It does not show any sign of carbonization.”

He added that if a bulb had burned continuously, it would be dark due to the amount of carbon buildup. He also questioned whether a bulb would survive in a brass turnknob socket for decades, as the fire department’s had.

“It would get so hot it would burn the wires,” he claimed.

He went so far as to write a formal challenge to the Guinness Book of Records, calling into question the record.

Gasnick, of course, had a vested interest in seeing this light bulb’s status fizzle out: Gasnick Supply Company, the same hardware store where he caught the carp in the 1950s, had a long-functioning bulb of its own, which had been installed by his father in 1912. If the fire department’s bulb was disproven, Gasnick’s bulb would be the record-holder … or so he thought.

Guinness didn’t take the bait, announcing they were investigating the incident but never following up with Gasnick. That said, even if they had, it wouldn’t have made his bulb a record-breaker: Another bulb, unknown to Gasnick, already had second place on lockdown.

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The Palace Light Bulb (via Facebook)

“The Palace Light Bulb,” a Texas light that dates to 1908. The bulb has lasted well into the 21st century, first sitting in a place called the Byers Opera House, later called the Palace Theater, and eventually finding its way into the ownership of the Stockyards Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

It survived the demolition of its original home, which took place way back in 1977. With one exception, it hasn’t been turned off since it became a part of the museum.

The same, sadly, can’t be said for Gasnick’s bulb. The building in which it was held, on Second Avenue between 52nd and 53rd streets, was destroyed in 2003. And while I have yet to find an obituary for Gasnick or any record of his after 2001 or so, that 2001 record is notable in its own right: The New York Times reported that Gasnick had survived the World Trade Center attack, which occurred only two blocks from his longtime Manhattan neighborhood, Battery Park City.

Age 83 at the time, he was initially unaware of the extent of the tragedy taking place nearby due to the power going out in his apartment building, and in the midst of the incident, he had stumbled in the dark. Building managers who had been keeping an eye on him got him to a local hospital, where he recovered. His treasured dog Cedric, who kept him company during the incident, was later recovered by the ASPCA.

It has absolutely nothing in common with a light bulb that stays on or a fish that came out of a basement, but this tale was stunning in its own way.

Longevity is a great goal for lighting, even if it doesn’t get anywhere near the century mark.

There was once a time when light bulbs seemingly lasted as long as disposable cameras. Some of that may have been intentional. A 2014 IEEE Spectrum article lays out the tale of a cartel of lightbulb manufacturers that apparently engineered shorter lifespans for light bulbs, out of self interest to keep their bottom lines in place. All the big names from the era—including a couple that are still pretty big now, such as General Electric and Philips—were apparently involved in this process.

“In carefully crafting a lightbulb with a relatively short life span, the cartel thus hatched the industrial strategy now known as planned obsolescence,” author Markus Krajewski wrote of the reported conspiracy.

Though there are understandably some that wonder if the same thing might happen to the LED bulb, the fact is that even a moderate increase in the lifespan of the light bulb is a significantly better state of affairs than weakened bulbs that only seem to last three months before their impact is lost.

So no, it’s not clear whether we’ll hit the century mark with an LED bulb. But we might just hit the decade mark with the bulk of them, and that might just be good enough for LEDs to change the world.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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