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Lighting designer Rob Halliday: Could production problems spell an end to the tungsten light bulb?

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If I’d tried to imagine what the beginning of the end of the tungsten light bulb would look like, it might have been with a product recall. Unfortunately, this is not imagination, but reality: lighting manufacturer Osram has issued a recall notice for certain 120Volt Par46, Par56 and Par64 lamps made in China between November 2016 and November 2018.

That the notice includes the warning “you should immediately stop using the lamps” gives a hint of the potential seriousness. But the sign of the end comes a paragraph later: “Unfortunately we are unable to offer you a suitable replacement for these products, so instead you will be reimbursed for the price you paid to purchase the product” – before adding “within reason”.

Big PAR lamps are about the simplest tool in the lighting designer’s toolbox: a sealed beam lamp with a fixed angle held in a simple lighting fixture (the PAR Can); all you can control is the size of the beam (by choosing the right lamp type) and then where it’s pointing and the orientation of its beam (since PAR lamps create oval rather than round beams).

But simple also means cheap and rugged. For decades, rock ‘n’ roll lighting was based on massed ranks of PAR cans in different colours. Despite their simplicity, they have a beautiful quality that is beloved of many lighting designers and is a big feature of many shows you love – War Horse being just one well-known example. LED replacements can do more tricks, such as changing colour, but none can match the PAR can’s particular poetry.

‘None can match the light’s particular poetry’

To be clear, this is not EU-related – not directly, anyway. Part of what was won by the entertainment lighting community over the last year was an exemption for the kind of PAR lamps we most commonly use.

This feels more like a commercial decision: manufacturing moved to China, something went wrong with the process, no manufacturing facilities are left anywhere else to move production back to, and there’s not enough demand to make it worth fixing the problem.

We love these lamps, but we don’t buy enough on our own. While this recall won’t directly affect the 240V UK market, PAR lamps are becoming harder to get. We’re likely to see this pattern repeated in the next few years.

The HPL lamp, used in the Source Four, will probably hold on to the end because of the number of fixtures using it out in the market and because it has a manufacturer that seems strongly committed to it. But other lamps, for which there’s less demand, I suspect may not be much longer for this world.

If you thought the exemptions achieved in the EU regulation meant you could stop worrying about the future of your tungsten lighting equipment, this PAR recall is a pretty clear warning that you need to think again.

Rob Halliday is a lighting designer and programmer. Read more of his columns at: thestage.co.uk/author/Rob-Halliday

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