Meatball Engineering

Last week’s maintenance chores included replacement of all the dead outdoor flood and spot lights on the property. Since I try to be reasonable and open-minded about such things, I dipped into my stash of newly-purchased “green” compact fluorescent outdoor bulbs and began climbing ladders, only to discover that the new bulbs were dead, too. Well, not exactly dead—just conscientiously designed with a flared ceramic collar that carefully prevents the base of the bulb from making contact in an outdoor light fixture.

Perhaps the premise is that if a light bulb that uses less energy is good, a light bulb that produces no light and therefore uses no energy at all is even better.

I ran into this little shortcoming of outdoor CFLs several years ago, when they were first introduced. I distinctly remember reading in the interim that this was an early design flaw that had been fixed long since. And yet bulbs purchased just last month still fail to make contact in my fixtures.

Now, mechanical engineers routinely emit reams of design drawings of new consumer products of this type, designed and accurately dimensioned down to the hundredth of an inch. Any part that has to interface with another mating part is always designed to work with mating parts manufactured in some tolerance range from a minimum to a maximum allowable dimension. A typical drawing of a single common nut and bolt often includes more text describing conditionals and hypotheticals than a House ethics manual.

All the tolerances in this situation have been known for years: the receptacles on our property that won’t accept these bulbs have been standard fixtures for 40 years or more. So how could this happen?

Are we to believe that there was some important engineering reason why the screw portion of these bulbs couldn’t have been made an eighth or even a quarter of an inch longer? (Don’t feed me BS about the ceramic collar constituting some part of a weather seal against the receptacle lip—a trivial sponge ring trumps the imaginary waterproofing qualities of ceramic against aluminum or pot metal any day of the week.)

Instead, I had to carefully tease the bottom conductor upwards on all my receptacles until they made tenuous contact with the shorter bulb base, and then install an adhesive rubber bumper underneath each one to keep it from sinking again. In one case, I had to deinstall and perform microsurgery on  a socket, adding a new contact made from a can of vegetables to replace the one that snapped off when I tried to raise it. And I will have to do this in the future to every socket in which an old-fashioned bulb dies. All this labor because some engineer in Germany or China was careless about making his product compatible with what actual people actually owned.

My “progressive” neighbor, Virginia, suggested I just replace all my old sockets with newer sockets that could accommodate the new “green” bulbs. Yes, that should eat up those ballyhooed energy saving of those bulbs for the next five years, and more. (Last night I dreamed that Virginia bought a new “green” car, and then discovered it was too wide for her garage door.  I woke up feeling great.) However, that assumes I could find a newer outdoor receptacle that does accommodate these bulbs properly. So far, I haven’t found one.

But never fear: flushed from their success at alienating every toilet-user in America with their recent mandate for non-flushing toilets in all new construction (upon pain of actual punishment for installing anything else), the federal government has stepped in to protect the job security of that incompetent German or Chinese engineer by making it illegal, as of about 15 months from now, for me to purchase old-style bulbs that actually work in my existing receptacles.

Nothing preserves and perpetuates poor quality like federal protectionism. Which is ironic, because incompetent engineers are hardly an endangered species.

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