111311 paul wheaton

Paul Wheaton's doubts about compact fluorescent bulbs have led him to conduct tests on the lifespan of CFLs and conventional incandescent bulbs.

There wasn't really a classic, light bulb moment when Paul Wheaton came to the conclusion that compact fluorescent light bulbs don't live up to their eco-friendly, money-saving hype.

For the longtime Missoula software engineer-turned-permaculture evangelist, the process was more like a slowly growing flicker of intuition mixed with anecdotal observation.

If so-called CFL bulbs could experience fear, they just might. Wheaton is a fearsome, goofy and fierce proponent or opponent, and he has found an audience on YouTube, where his permaculture videos have been watched about 2.5 million times.

By promoting permaculture - the notion that humans can create more sustainable and productive food and energy systems - Wheaton is by definition opposing, among other things, corporate agriculture. But that doesn't mean the man who good-naturedly describes his virtual presence on the Internet as his "evil empire" isn't willing to skewer one of the sacred cows of green living.

To whit, CFL bulbs that seem to die just as fast as older incandescent bulbs - despite claims of a comparative eight- to 15-fold increase in bulb life on the packaging.

Plus, they may pose a danger, given the likelihood that most Americans are likely to put them out in the trash when they're spent.

"You're supposed to all but put these things in a coffin and seal them up and give them a burial when they die because of the mercury and other chemicals in them," he says. "But how many people really do that? How many people are going to remember and go to the trouble to make a special trip to Home Depot to give them their dead bulbs, when the garbage can is right there on the curb."

Wheaton is not alone.

Back in 2007, National Public Radio aired a report about what it termed the "one hitch" with CFLs: mercury, a neurotoxin, which is used in the bulbs to shift gaseous phosphor into visible light when electricity is applied.

In that report, officials at the EPA and in the bulb manufacturing and waste management industries acknowledged that the disposal of CFLs posed potential health issues, and that consumers weren't being given adequately convenient means of disposing of the bulbs.

But that "one hitch" turned out not to be the only hitch.

In 2009, the New York Times published an article documenting frustration from consumers about the large number of CFLs that either don't work at all, or fail far quicker than advertised. It noted that in a 2008 test by the Program for the Evaluation and Analysis of Residential Lighting at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., five out of 29 CFL bulb models failed to meet their advertised specifications for lifespan, luminosity and on-off cycling.

That finding was also reflected in an episode of the popular television series "Mythbusters." In the show, the gang of testers rigged up an experiment in which a group of light bulbs of various types - including CFLs, light-emitting diodes and traditional incandescents - were turned on and off every two minutes.

After six weeks, only the LED bulb remained functional.

Doing the math, six weeks of half-time usage (by which time the CFL bulbs had already died, though the show's testers didn't say how long they did last) is only 504 hours. That's a far cry short of 8,000 hours - the advertised lifespan of most CFLs.

And Wheaton doesn't think the two-minutes-on, two-minutes-off pattern matches the average amount of time most bulbs are illuminated anyway.

"Most light bulb use in the home is going to average 30 seconds or less," he asserts. "You'll have a few lights in the house that you turn on for hours at a time, and in those cases you can make an argument for fluorescents. But how long do you have the closet light on, or when you go down the hallway? You go to bed at night and how long do you have the light on in your bedroom?

"Some people will turn the lights on in their house and leave them on, but most energy-conscious people - the people who are most likely to buy those CFLs - only have the lights on when they're in a room."


Wheaton's skepticism about CFLs is just the latest contrarian turn in the twisted history of his life in western Montana. The tall, thick-bearded man with a penchant for overalls first came to public prominence in the early 1990s when he founded MACS, Missoula's first-ever computer bulletin board system - a kind of pre-Web discussion forum.

That work led Wheaton to develop Bananacom, a software package that became the most widely used terminal emulator for BBS operators around the country. At one time, the company employed 14 programmers in Missoula.

Then, the World Wide Web became all the rage, and Microsoft announced it would be giving its Web browsing software away for free. Wheaton spent several years doing other types of programming, at one point serving as a primary architect for the ground system used by Digital Globe - the predecessor to Google Earth.

The handsome paycheck for that work allowed Wheaton to buy 80 acres of land on Mount Spokane in Washington. Having become an avid gardener during his Bananacom days, Wheaton set out to realize a concept he'd dreamed up of what he called a "full farm ecosystem."

"It was an approach to farming where systems feed systems feed systems," he explained. "I was doing all kinds of projects where I'm taking the output of one system and making them inputs to the next, just making it up as I went along."

One day, a neighbor stopped by, and after Wheaton explained what he was doing, the neighbor told him there was a different term for his approach: permaculture.

Thus launched the era of Paul Wheaton 2.0, permaculture proponent. After reading as many books as he could find on the topic, Wheaton set out to build an online network for the permaculture community. That site, Permies.com, is now a busy hub of conversation on topics covering all manner of permaculture issues.

Wheaton is the first to say that the definition of the word "permaculture" varies by definer. His version: "Developing a more symbiotic relationship with nature to make my life easy."

Wheaton has posted dozens of videos about Earth-friendly projects - covering everything from the mechanics of rocket mass heating systems, to ethical chicken slaughtering.


When he decided to execute the CFL test, Wheaton initially purchased some equipment which proved to be inadequate. So last month, he posted a pitch for the project on Kickstarter.com, the popular online "crowdfunding" site. In 30 days, Wheaton raised more than $1,000, allowing him to purchase the proper equipment for his test, which he intends to commence this weekend.

Going into it, he admits he is working with foregone conclusions.

"I expect that the incandescent bulbs will fry at about 400 hours, and the fluorescents will fry at about 200 hours of use," he said. "So yes, I have a bias of expectation. But that's what happens when any scientist goes into an experiment; and then he either proves himself right, or proves himself wrong. That's what experimentation is all about."

But whatever his results, Wheaton said he won't be swayed in his most basic convictions about what he sees as misdirected eco-hype about CFLs.

Referencing other concerns, such as electromagnetic and ultraviolet radiation from the bulbs, he says few people have even heard about the potential downsides of the bulbs.

And even fewer seem to put them in their proper context regarding America's overall energy use.

"We've received such a bombardment about how awesome fluorescent light bulbs are and how they'll help save the world and save you money," he said. "But you've got to put that in its proper context."

Pointing to the upcoming, government-mandated phase-out of all 100-watt incandescent bulbs starting Jan. 1, Wheaton says it's like we can't see the light for all the burning bulbs.

"You can still go out and buy a Hummer that gets nine miles per gallon," he said. "But when it comes to your light bulb choices, we have to make laws? For the average American household, 4 percent of home energy use is on light, half is on heat. You can save 10 times as much energy using a clothesline instead of an electric dryer, and your clothes last 10 times longer."

He pauses, takes a breath and smiles.

"It's all part of a bigger picture, and obviously I can get excited when I start talking about all of this," he said. "I'm just hoping people start to see the light."


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