Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Watt Gets Left to Whom

There is absolutely so much you can learn if you pay attention to what you are reading.

Take the meaning of skew. Or, at least the meaning of the pronunciation of skew, as in skew number--the ubiquitous SKU numbers we see everywhere on items we buy.

I never gave any thought that these three letters might have a larger meaning other than to be pronounced skew. Turns out, SKU stands for "stock-keeping units," a means to track inventory. (Some sources say the "s" stands for store, or shelf.)

I gleaned this from a WSJ story on light bulbs. Ralph Gardner Jr. has got to be one of the more prolific newspaper writers outside of obituarists. His nearly daily piece appears in the City News section under the title 'Urban Gardner,' a name he apparently hates. But that's another story.

Since his most recent piece opened my eyes to the meaning of skew you might say it was enlightening. And since the piece was about light bulbs, it was even further enlightening. 

Parts of the story I already knew about. Like the part about the diminishing supply of 100 watt incandescent bulbs because of their being phased out in favor of CFLs, more energy efficient compact fluorescent bulbs, and their cousins, the LEDs, light emitting diodes. Energy efficient at a hefty up-front cost. There is no free lunch.

I can never forget Con Edison's 1960s effort for New Yorkers to save energy by advertising the "Save a Watt" campaign. It turned out New Yorkers listened, used less electricity, and in turn decreased the amount of money owed Con Edison to the extent that in the following year Con Edison needed a rate increase, stating that their fixed costs were high, and that there was less money coming in because usage was down. Therefore, they needed more money in the coming year. It made sense to them.

My father was ahead of this curve. He had his own save-a-watt campaign. He had the unnerving habit of wondering why utility companies wanted his money on a monthly basis. In Con Edison's case at the time it was a forgiving every two months. Still too often for him. My father's late and non-payments lead to tug-of-wars carried out in the mail and by phone. Such tugs were always won by the phone company, as our phone was turned off almost regularly every two months.

It was harder to wear out the patience of Con Edison, but my father managed to accomplish it in June, some time in the early 1960s when they dutifully came as promised and did something to the fuse box in the cellar of our two-family home and turned our lights off for non-payment. We were saving watts every minute of the nearly four days we were without electricity.

My father didn't seem to mind. He just didn't come home when the lights were off. The bill was soon paid, perhaps even by him, and our lights came back on. This only ever happened once.

In Mr. Gardener's piece, complete with photos from the 'Just Bulbs' store on East 60th Street in Manhattan, we not only see a little of the wide variety of bulbs that can be purchased, we learn a good deal of where lighting is headed. The owner of the store, David Brooks, tells Mr. Gardner that he has 35,000 different SKU's in stock. As the title of piece tells us, it is a bright future. For someone.

Anyone who has been looking for 100 watt bulbs, or moans about their near extinction, will be heartened to know you can get 100 watt LED bulbs for $60.95. (NYC sales tax not included.) Who this is good news for is unknown. But the bulbs last for 40,000 hours, vs. the 750 that we've been used to getting.

As Mr. Gardener points out, the bulb might outlive you. Depending on your age at purchase, you might not ever have to change the bulb again. Forty thousand hours equates to 1,666 days of continuous use, about four and a half years.

The four plus years might not initially seem so outside your life expectancy, but when you consider that it is considered that a bulb will be in use only three hours a day, there are then 13,333 days of illumination expected, or a little over 36 years. This might surely, coupled with the asset value of the bulb at the outset, place bulbs in the domain of assets that need legal distribution on one's demise. It might even re-classify crimes.

Years and years ago I worked with someone whose marriage disintegrated and whose wife, while he was at work, removed everything from the apartment that she considered hers. My friend, on returning home that evening and seeing the nearly empty apartment knew immediately what had happened. This didn't prevent him from hesitating for one minute in reporting it as a burglary to NYC's Finest.

When the police arrived and took a look at the place my friend said one of the cops passed his hand over an exposed light switch. He remarked that he had never seen a job like this. They had even taken the switch plates.

If this crime were to take place today, there is a possibility, depending on the removal, or non-removal of the light bulbs and their type and wattage, that the break-in could get classified as grand larceny over petty larceny.

Father knew best? Over 50 years ago my father saved-a-watt and made light bulbs last longer. It was just hard when then sun went down to thank him.


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