Look into the Light: the CFL

compact fluorescent lightbulb (cfl) on green backgroundIf you ask Simran about compact florescent light bulbs, she may crack one open and cut you. Not really, that would scatter mercury, but she is loca for the light bulbs. Check Monday’s Huffington Post for the full version of this post.

People give you this whole rap about how easy saving the planet is. Change a light bulb and save the world. Yes and no. How about we consider it a start rather than an end destination?

Lighting accounts for about 20% of our electric bills. Traditional bulbs burn heat rather than light, so are extremely inefficient. Compact florescent light bulbs (CFLs) are 80% more efficient and can last up to 10 times longer than a traditional bulb. Last December, Congress voted to phase out the inefficient incandescent. By 2012, the 100-watt bulb will be history.

In the interim, environmentally-minded folks of all ilks are heralding the bulb. The virtual Stop Global Warming march reminds us swapping out three incandescent bulbs for CFLs will save us 300 lbs. of carbon dioxide and $60 a year. The Coalition On the Environment and Jewish Life suggests installing CFLs for Hanukkah as a way to redefine β€œenergy-stretching light” and reflect environmental stewardship. Students in Pennsylvania sell light bulbs instead of candy to raise money for their schools. (Simran prefers candy.)

If you haven’t changed your bulbs, get with the program. The light is a lot prettier than what you remember from your high school cafeteria.

Thanks to the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Lacey Johnston for research assistance.

  1. alice lieberman

    I’m looking forward to the full post by Simran Sethi and Sarah Smarsh on HuffPost tomorrow (which is where I usually catch them). And I love that link to the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. You know, Jews were the first environmentalists–we took a night’s worth of lamp oil and made it last for eight! Would that the Big Three could pull something like that off–make a car that runs eight times longer!

  2. Sean

    The only problem being that CFL bulbs are expensive to buy, expensive to properly dispose of, and contain mercury. LED bulbs are the future as they are more efficient, longer lasting, and don’t have the warm up time of florescent bulbs. Also no mercury. They are more expensive for now, but that is likely to change soon.

  3. Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

    @Sean: I tend to agree that LEDs are the future, but the current costs are just too high for most people. I’d disagree with your first two points about CFLs (costs have come down considerably, and disposal options are opening up quickly). And, yes, they contain mercury, but a miniscule amount… I took a look at the mercury issue (and its political implications) a while back on Red, Green and Blue, and Helen Suh MacIntosh addressed it in detail at Treehugger.

  4. Benny

    I have installed a bunch of these bulbs in an effort to save money. They DON’T last as advertised and they are too expensive. I have had almost as many burnt out bulbs with these as I have with traditional incandescent bulbs. And they cost about 10 times as much. We need to wait for the technology to mature before diving in headfirst with these. Go LED’S.

  5. GregP

    You can get a six pack of CFL’s for around $9. At $1.50 each they are a bit more expensive but if you figure in the average light bulb last about 1 year and these last about 10 years, you’re saving a lot of money in the long run.

  6. Dustin

    CFL’s are going to phase in and out quickly. LED technology is here and cheap enough to be worth the investment. most LED bulbs will pay for themselves within the first year of use, and will last 8-10 years. I’m already using LED lights and as one of my old lights burns out, I replace it with an LED. The light quality from LED’s will also change your mind on CFL’s, With LED, you can now have any color you want, as bright as you could need, and dim-able. I am very exited and passionate about LED’s, with at least 50-85% energy savings, and longevity, this technology will soon become the standard.

  7. Shadus

    Another thing you need to watch with CFL bulbs (and all florescent bulbs) is an issue that effects some people and animals with epilepsy… it can cause the person or animal to have seizures or have worse seizures. There is a faint flickering present that most people can’t see, it’s a rare issue for photosensitive people who epilepsy, the higher the flicker rate the less likely it is to cause problems, which generally makes CFLs better than normal florescent… but it is something to be aware of. CFL bulbs can also interfere with some electronics on rare occasions.

    They’re better for general use than incandescent, but you should always be sure you do some research on a product before you start actively using it. It’s unfortunate that LED bulbs haven’t yet become more available in the mainstream (and reasonably priced.) They’re superior to CFL and Incandescent in every way except cost.

  8. Jess

    “They DON’T last as advertised and they are too expensive.”

    I really didn’t find the price too daunting when I purchased my bulbs, and I’ve found that they do last quite a while. I’ve even gone through two moves without having to replace them. πŸ™‚
    I think they’re splendid, but I definately agree that LED is the future.

  9. Liore

    Recycling CFLs is getting much easier by the month… IKEA has been collecting spent CFLs for a while now, and Home Depot just announced that they will do the same.

    CFLs is not the one solution that will save the planet, but it is an easy, quick action that will help us get there.

  10. Ryan

    “Traditional bulbs burn heat rather than light, so are extremely inefficient.”

    Just to satisfy my science leanings, I have to comment on this, it was causing me to twitch. Incandescent bulbs do not “burn heat.” They heat a wire with electricity (electrical resistance) until it’s white hot, producing light as well as heat.

  11. Anthony

    Sean, you bring up mercury, and you are correct: LED’s will soon be the better choice for both the wallet and the environment. Right now they are still expensive up-front and also very hard to find in stores. Within 10 years they should be the norm, but in the meantime CFL’s are a heck of a lot better than incandescents.

    For example: burning the fossil fuels necessary to provide the additional energy used by incandescents releases more mercury into the atmosphere than is contained in even a low-quality, relatively high-mercury CFL, whereas the CFL’s mercury is contained within the bulb. Only a small fraction of bulbs get broken, meaning a net decrease in average mercury exposure.

  12. Simran

    Ryan, You are right on the money. That sentence was poorly written. We know what you mean, we meant the same, but we did not explain it well.
    Sean, LEDs, yes, in the future. And cheers to that. But we are dealing with the present, and, today, CFLs make sense. Please read our whole post for the skinny.
    You can drop your used CFLs at Home Depot and Ikea (and many other places) for disposal, you will save $30 over the life of a CFL versus its 60 watt incandescent equivalent, and considering how much of our home energy bill is the result of lighting, this is one of those instances where this small change makes a significant difference.
    Alice, how about those CFL menorahs, huh?
    Thanks for reading,

  13. Rob

    I wonder what would happen if commercial buildings converted to LED lighting? Considering they account for approximately 70% of our energy consumption, this could perhaps be a good next right step. What do you think?

  14. spuffler

    I had several issues that disappointed me. Most can’t be used in base up orientation (read the fine print) – very short life spans. Enclosed fixtures are not a good idea (Bathroom ceiling fixtures). Most will not illuminate when colder than 10F (Winter NIGHTS in New England are NOT unusually cold at +10F; nights are unusually cold at -30F – make them start at -30F, please).

  15. HillbillyBob

    How we are going about it is that we have changed every bulb for CFLs, except the one in the deep freeze, and the refrigerator. Those are 10 and 15 watts and a cfl will not fit and it is too cold for them LEDs when the appliances need new bulbs.
    As to the length of time they last, It does depend on how many off/on cycles they go thru each day AND if your power is not ‘clean’ the electronic ballast takes hits and dies happened to us when we lived in old part of town where the power was up and down a lot.
    We change the CFLs for LED as the CFLs die off and replacing appliances for the most efficient and best/longest service. We live in the boonies so getting service for anything out here..fogetaboutit. It is a total electric modular home. We have done small things blackout curtains. They come w/pins to attach to the back of regular curtains cost 20-25$ per window caulk around outlet boxes between the box and the wall board and gaskets between the box and switch/outlet cover .50c ea. Foam in a can for around pipe penetrations. Weather strip and add insulation(to do yet) so far we have cut the energy bill by about 35%, What I have done so far has paid for itself 2x over in about 9 months. We bit the bullet and bought a mid/high level front loader by Bocsh, it takes 1 or 2 tablespoons of laundry soap and saves about 40 gallons per load, and clothes are clean and since it does not beat your clothes they last about 2x as long. Never thought I could be thrilled with a washing machine! I even found high temp foil face insulation and put between the stove sides and cabinets, keeps some of the heat in the oven, did the same to the clothes dryer, though I usually hang them out to dry, does not take long either as they come out of the washer nearly dry.

  16. Arthur Corbin

    Everyone, CFLs work best for longer operating times, not good for closets where the CFL is on for 1 or 2 minutes. CFLs do work in recessed cans and enclosed fixtures and in cold weather if they are manufactured for wide temperature ranges, Philips lists a temperature range of 10 degrees F to 145 degrees F for a limited number of their CFLs, check onliine for wattages and part numbers. CFLs have electronic ballasts so no flicker or strobing and instant on. BUT 100% light output might take 30 seconds to reach. The most efficient CFL are the plug in type where the ballast (power supply) is part of the fixture. 4 pin CFLs allow for dimming to as little as 1% of light with no color change, check Lutron for technical information.
    LED manufacturing produces lots of waste and toxins, these are electronic devices. LED power supplies are sensitive to temperature and to electrical spikes and surges. LEDs likely will last to 40,000 hours, the power supply likely will not. LEDs are great for pools, step lights indoors and outdoors, cove and counter lighting, and display lighting. Reliable LEDs are costly when compared to CFLs. LED technology is rapidly evolving, what is available today will be replaced with something better in 6 months. LED light should be tested for light quality before purchase, many LED products have poor light quality. See Cree, Osram, Color Kinetics, Erco, and Lightolier for high quality, award winning LED products.
    Finally, if you are doing a major lighting upgrade, hire a lighting designer. You will save time, money, and frustration by getting professional advice. I am a lighting designer and teacher so I take the time to keep up with the improvements in fluorescent, induction, plasma, metal halide, and LED light sources.

  17. Fixit man

    CFL’s only last minutes in any fixture in my house, and I’ve had them blow quickly in other people’s houses where I’ve installed them.
    I put up ceiling fans that come with CFLs, and always simply return the CFLs to the store where I buy the ceiling fans and put in regular incandescent appliance bulbs. This may be caused by variable power inside the home due to older wiring. Rewiring all the older homes in the USA would be a huge expense NOT worth doing simply to save a few dollars in energy.
    Another issue is that CFLs currently cost 4 times as much as a regular bulb and put out horrible light. They also can’t be just thrown away or put in your recycle bin as can regular bulbs. Yet another issue is even the 2300 color temperature CFLs do NOT give out the nice yellowish light people are used to in a regular bulb, and give out harmful UV.
    I now buy 20,000 hour bulbs MADE IN THE USA that do NOT save energy (I am NOT concerned about this, as it is a VERY minor part of my power bill.) I am much happier with them, as I have never had to change a bulb since. I was using these ten years ago in another house and NEVER had to change a bulb, either. My power bill on that house was about $50 a month, of which probably $2 was used for lighting.
    CFLs do NOT make any sense.

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