When Ikea announced this week that its 48 U.S. and Canadian stores will stop selling traditional incandescent light bulbs by the end of the year, the real story wasn't the bulbs. It was how a shift from the soft white glowing globes of decades past will affect the design of lamps, sconces and chandeliers of decades future.
First, the timeline: Ikea will begin phasing out incandescent bulbs starting Aug. 1 with a target completion date of Jan. 1. The company already has stopped selling incandescents in France and Australia as other parts of the world move faster to energy-efficient alternatives.
In the U.S., the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 mandates that light bulbs will need to use 30% less energy than incandescents by 2014. Unless engineers can invent a more energy-efficient incandescent bulb at an attractive price — an unlikely scenario — it essentially will become obsolete. The new federal standards will roll out in stages, starting with 100-watt bulbs, which must comply by January, and ending with 40-watt bulbs, which must comply by January 2014.
How will the change affect light fixtures? As consumers shift to incandescent alternatives, designers will have to develop better solutions to the problems of fluorescents (institutional glow), halogens (excess heat) and LEDs (cost).
Though the marketplace has been flooded with compact fluorescent bulbs that can screw into standard light sockets, many consumers simply don't like the quality of light, often deemed more hospital than home. And though proponents note compact fluorescent lights use 75% to 80% less energy and have a potential lifespan that's 10 times longer than incandescents, CFLs do contain small amounts of toxic mercury and cannot be thrown away in household trash.
Which brings consumers to halogen and LED.
This fall, Ikea stores will begin selling a so-called retrofit halogen bulb that can be used in standard light sockets, much like the CFL. Halogens have twice the lifespan of their incandescent counterparts, but they offer energy savings of only 20%. The forthcoming standards require 30%.
"A lot of the designs that are halogen in Europe are not sold in the U.S. because they can't pass UL," Feldman said, citing Underwriters Laboratories, the safety testing organization whose certification is required by many retailers before they will carry a product.
Many lighting designers are betting on light-emitting diodes instead. LEDs use 80% less energy than incandescent bulbs and last up to 50 times longer.
"In task lamps, there's a big push to LED-ify everything," said David Feldman, co-founder of modern lighting e-retailer YLighting.
Attend any design show these days, and the number of LED fixtures one sees is striking. At the Milan furniture fair, the world's premiere exhibition of home design, held every April in Italy, the trendsetting Dutch collaborative Moooi showed a sleek lamp named Miyake that operated on a halogen bulb. "Everyone said, 'We don't want halogen, we want LED,'" Feldman said.
The biggest hurdle is price. Most lamps traditionally have been sold without a bulb, but the nature of the newer technology requires LEDs to be preinstalled.
"It's hard to explain to someone that an LED lamp will cost a couple of hundred dollars more because it already has the LEDs in it," Feldman said. Even though consumers may make back their investment with lower electricity and bulb replacement costs, the upfront expense is a tough sell.
But with the challenges will come more solutions. LED prices are dropping. Feldman cited innovations such as manufacturer Herman Miller's Leaf lamp, which lets customers vary the LED intensity, from bright and "cool" illumination for work to a warmer glow for mood lighting — and thus better emulating what customers are used to getting from incandescent bulbs. He also pointed to the growing number of fixtures that deploy diffusers and other strategies to camouflage fluorescent bulbs.
Mona Astra Liss, U.S. corporate public relations director for Ikea, declined to give specifics but did confirm that the company will be reviewing and revising its lineup of lighting fixtures. She wouldn't say what percentage of Ikea's floor, table and ceiling lights will be designed specifically for fluorescent, LED or halogen, but she did say: "Are we designing for low energy? Absolutely."