Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
This year, for the first time, RAs distributed something to their freshmen at the first hall meeting besides the ever-present roommate agreement forms and helpful advice regarding the contents of the hall medicine cabinet: a little red-and-white box with a compact fluorescent light bulb inside.
These so-called CFL bulbs have two major advantages over their older incandescent brethren: they last much longer before burning out, and use markedly less power. Sylvania, the company who sells the bulb that this student was given, claims that the bulbs last eight times as long as a comparable traditional bulb and use about a fifth of the power. According to the label on the box, those two factors combine to mean about $37 in energy cost savings over the bulb’s lifetime, thereby preventing significant amounts of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere.
Throughout last year, Earthlust and Facilities were involved in a dialogue about potential conservation measures that the College could implement. One idea, inspired by similar programs at other campuses and seemingly both effective and relatively simple to implement, was to give out CFL bulbs to students. Facilities told Earthlust at the end of last year that they “strongly supported” the program, then made the final decision to go ahead with the project over the summer.
Although students’ switching to CFL bulbs should save energy costs and prevent pollution — Swarthmore still gets 60% of its energy from fossil fuels — the main goal was to raise awareness of energy issues, according to Elizabeth Crampton ’09 and Ethan Deyle ’08, active members of Earthlust who have each spent some time as co-head of the club. “CFLs still look a little different from regular incandescent bulbs,” says Cramptom, “so the hope is that when you see one you’ll be reminded of the need for energy conservation, just like you would when you saw an Earthlust poster.”
Director of Maintenance Ralph Thayer agrees. “This wasn’t really a giveaway,” he said, but rather “more of an awareness-raising effort,” “directing the new class coming in to think about energy.” The bulbs would, he hoped, make students “realize that they’re in control as far as asking for too much heating or too much cooling, turning lights on and off,” and the like.
Another goal, according to Deyle, was to get people to try out CFL lights when they otherwise would not have. The higher purchasing cost is one drawback that frequently causes potential buyers to shy away. Also, past models of CFLs were plagued by technical problems, and although those hurdles have mostly been overcome in recent years, many people still think of CFLs as emitting “dim, harsh light” and “taking a while to warm up.” Hopefully being given a bulb which works just as well as an incandescent would allay students’ suspicions. “Once we leave Swarthmore,” Deyle said, “we’re going to become active consumers, furnishing apartments and stuff…we want to make sure that people realize before they go do that that CFLs are the way of the future.”
For one student, that aspect of the project seems to be a success. Marcy Archuleta ’11 had heard of CFLs before being given one last week, but had never used one. She didn’t bring an appropriate lamp, but put her bulb into her roommate’s five-pronged lamp and is completely satisfied by it. She even says that when she goes home, she’ll “probably switch all [her] lamps” to using the more efficient bulbs.
Thayer said, however, that the project was “something of a calculated risk.” If a student didn’t come with an appropriate lamp, the bulb “might go home with Mom and Dad.” Because of such worries, the bulbs were distributed with a flier extolling the merits of compact fluorescent bulbs. In that case, even if the bulb went home it would “still be doing a good thing” in promoting energy awareness and conservation.
Sure enough, the bulb did not fit into the desk lamp that Daniel Jeoung ’11 received. It’s now sitting in his desk drawer, and the flier has long since been thrown out — unread, Jeoung admits. He says that he “just forgot about it” once he realized it didn’t fit his lamp. If the bulb had fit, however, he says that he “would have just put it in automatically…because they gave it to me, I figured it was something they wanted me to use.”
Deyle, who is also an RA, says that in his hall, maybe 80 or 90 percent of the bulbs are actually in use. Not everyone had an appropriate lamp, but then maybe their roommate would have a multi-bulb floor lamp and the bulb would go in there. The results are somewhat different in this author’s hall: my own survey found three people using their bulbs, three who had come to school with compact fluorescent bulbs and so didn’t use the ones given, and three who are not using their bulbs, for whatever reason.
CFLs seem to be experiencing greater popularity in general on campus. Maybe stemming from this giveout, maybe not, the bookstore has for the first time in several years of stocking CFLs completely sold out. In past years, according to Crampton, very few CFLs were sold at all.
So why were the bulbs given only to freshmen? Giving each student a bulb would simply cost too much, Thayer claimed, so Facilities and Earthlust together decided that giving a bulb to each freshman would make more sense. Says Deyle, “Facilities is partly willing to spend the money because it’s an investment. If a student comes in as a freshman and uses a CFL for four years, the amount of electricity saved should mostly offset the cost of buying the bulb in the first place. If they buy a bulb for a senior and he only uses it for one year, the overall cost is much higher.”
The future of this program is somewhat up in the air. Crampton says that she doesn’t want this to be “something that just happens once and then dies out”; she’s hoping to reinstate the program for every freshman class in the foreseeable future. In fact, Earthlust plans to make a proposal to Facilities next week wherein the money saved on energy bills from CFLs goes into a “revolving fund” for other “green projects.” She has high hopes for this scheme’s success: “We’re so happy that we have such an environmentally conscious Facilities department.”
Facilities, however, wants to make sure that this year’s giveaway was well-received before definitively continuing it for future years. Ralph Thayer said over the phone that he hoped Earthlust would be able to give them some information as to how many students actually use the bulbs. He did say, on the other hand, that this was “one of those interesting little programs we may use in the future.”
Whether the project is continued or not, there is still much more that needs to be done for the sake of conservation. “There are two sides to energy efficiency,” says Deyle: “buying the right products, and then using the products you have in the right way. CFLs are a purchasing choice, and hopefully now we’ll be able to help the community work on making the right action choices.” CFLs are more efficient, but even they still shouldn’t be left on when you’re not in the room. And, of course, big energy-hogs like computers left on overnight and inefficient driers must be dealt with if we are to call ourself a truly environmentally conscious campus.