More heat than light…

When I was a student, one of my contemporaries came back from a first-year engineering lecture with a question for me: “If you want to heat a room, and the only appliance you have is a fridge, what should you do to generate the most heat from it?”

Naturally, being a first-year philosophy student at the time, I riposted in the style of CEM Joad: “Well, I suppose it all depends what you mean by ‘heat’, and what you mean by ‘room’…” (ducking smartly as I did so to avoid the incoming engineering textbook).

Apparently the (engineering) answer is that you turn the fridge up to full power and leave its door open. Viewing the fridge as a ‘black box’, this will maximise the energy going in in the form of electricity, as the fridge struggles to cool its interior, and thus result in the maximum output in the form of heat.

The next philosophical answer was “What kind of idiot sets out to heat a room by using a fridge?”. I ducked again.

I thought of this again today when I read that the Shadow Environment Minister, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, is concerned that, as conventional incandescent light-bulbs are phased out and low-energy fluorescent ones become compulsory, it will cost people more to heat their homes. The physics of it may be sound – in a comment on a previous post (long ago and far away), bnitz observed that 95% of the electricity which actually reaches the light-bulb comes out of it in the form of heat rather than light – but it does rather smack of heating your house with a fridge.

However, my concern with low-energy lightbulbs is a different one. If our local waste disposal centres are anything to go by, there is little or no provision to prevent dead low-energy bulbs from going into landfill rather than being recycled. This is an issue because of the bulbs’ mercury content, which far exceeds the European Waste Directive’s levels for acceptable landfill disposal. Indeed, current UK recommendations are that if you happen to break a low-energy bulb in your house, you should clear it up only under well-ventilated conditions and preferably wearing a breathing mask. Nice.

Mercury Recycling Group, who make their money reclaiming the nasties out of these bulbs (disclaimer: I have no financial interest in their company) have a useful and interesting page setting out some of the background, in terms of legislation and the availability of licensed sites for mercury disposal:

“In July 2004, new regulations stemming from the Landfill Directive , meant that the number of landfill sites permitted to take Hazardous Waste fell from 240 to approximately 10-15 with only 1 or 2 of these able to accept mercury bearing waste.”

In practical terms, this means that the average householder will either have to accept the fact that their local waste disposal centre will put low-energy bulbs, unsorted, into landfill, or will have to find somewhere (presumably involving a longer drive) which does sort and recycle the bulbs.

For all the years of talk of ‘joined-up government’, this looks like one of those depressing instances where the headline policy looks good, but the practical implications have neither been thought through nor catered for in terms of legislation or funding.