The Scoop on CFL Bulbs

Why Switch to Compact Fluorescents?


Photo courtesy of What’s Toxic

I am sure you have heard of CFLs, that you should be using them, that you should avoid them, etc… with the argument still raging on both sides. Environmental groups have been encouraging people to switch from their current old fashioned light bulb to the new Compact Fluorescent Bulbs. The country of Australia has mandated that incandescents be phased out completely and, here in the US, California is considering similar legislation.

At the same time, you have been hearing that they are hazardous and require special handing, especially if they break. They have to be recycled in a specific way, not just tossed in the trash, making them seem formidable and problematic. But do their benefits outweigh the risks? And are the risks a genuine concern? Let’s give them a good look today and decide for ourselves.

The regular light bulbs you use now work by heating a filament until it glows, giving off heat and light. This makes them more like heaters that give out a little light rather than light sources that give out heat. And, did you know? All that heat is wasted energy.

CFLs don’t use a hot filament, so they require a lot less electricity. As a rule of thumb, a 15 watt -19 watt CFL Bulb will produce the same amount of light as a 60 watt incandescent. That’s a 40% savings on energy, which translates into a 75% savings on your electric bill, and a possible 75% cut in global warming pollution, without getting a concise scientific evaluation. So, as the environmental groups have been shouting, it seems that using CFLs means saving money, as well as helping to save the planet.

According to the science, if every American household replaced just one 60-watt incandescent bulb with a 15-watt CFL, it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions as much as taking a million cars off the road. Doesn’t that sound unbelievable? And that just isn’t all that hard. With all the negative stuff you hear about CFLs, replacing just one light makes this much difference while it just can’t be all that hard on us. It sounds like a great trade off if you ask me.

People seem to think that not only are they inconvenient but they put out a light that makes your rooms look like hospital rooms or stark warehouses. This may have been true at a time when all fluorescents gave off that harsh, eerie glow. I mean, really, the one in my bathroom to this day makes me feel like I’m getting an autopsy, not to mention what it makes me look like in the mirror! But compact bulbs have come a long way and they are a major improvement on the older ones we’ve all come to know and hate. I put one up in my bedroom and was amazed at the results. The light was bright but also soft, actually I would say softer than the old bulb I had in there, and it isn’t stark. No flickering, hazing or casting dark shadows. Very nice, in fact and I am really happy with it. It is a standard style CFL used in a standard fixture but I am also informed that they make extra small ones for those desk lamps and table top fixtures as well as 3 ways and dimmables, too. So, I’m telling you, this is no longer an excuse.

But even though the aesthetics of the bulbs are not in question, there are other issues I am concerned about, as I am sure you are as well. For instance, mercury pollution. CFLs contain about 4-5mg of Mercury and so need to be disposed of properly. Hence all the talk about “Hazmat” gear and special recycling centers. People are rightfully afraid that if they drop and break one, they spoil the environment of their homes and even their outdoor areas with mercury. Overall, this isn’t true.. unless you go about breaking a bunch of them at once. And the environmental argument doesn’t hold water, either, because so much of our electricity comes from burning coal, which releases large amounts of mercury into the atmosphere. Since CFLs use so much less energy, they contribute less mercury pollution than incandescent lightbulbs.

So, let’s say, you aren’t concerned about any of these issues and you are ready, willing and able to try CFLs. Next question, I’m sure is: which one do I choose? The first thing you fear, which was my first thought, also was this: am I going to get some buzzing, flickering bulb that puts off harsh, cold light and makes me feel like I’m in the hospital? Let me assure, right from the outset, that no compact fluorescent bulb will resemble the old tubes in your kitchen. They give off cozy, warm light; they never flicker, crackle or buzz; they give off less heat and make the rooms in your home cooler (sound like money saved, doesn’t it?). So just do not go looking with any of these fears in your head.

Regardless of your past experiences with fluorescent lights or even CF bulbs, you will find that today’s energy saving bulbs can be used anywhere that traditional bulbs are used. Even in vanities and wall sconces. So, to keep from getting overwhelmed by the learning curve, set your sights low and start with only one bulb. Choose the room you want to experiment with and go for it. This will help you measure how much light you really want. Here are some rules of thumb to use when shopping for that first CFL:


Image Courtesy of St Cloud State University

1. Choose a bulb with a color temperature between 2650 and 2850 degrees Kelvin. This would most often be those bulbs labeled as “warm white”.

2. Watch the wattage. Old fashioned bulbs are rated on a sliding scale from dim to bright, with wattage ratings from 40 to 100 on average. With these bulbs, 40 watts is a dim bulb and 100 watts is a very bright bulb. Remember always that CFL bulbs provide much more light per watt; this means that a 40 watt CFL may not be as dim as you expect it to be. As a rule of thumb, look for a CF bulb whose wattage is about one-quarter of the incandescent you’re replacing. For example, a CF bulb in the 15-watt range replaces around a 60-watt incandescent. If you’re not careful about this, you will turn your bedroom into an operating room! That might be a drag.

3. Remember that the shape and size of the CFL bulb is quite different from the old standard bulbs. The ballast (in between the glass and the screw in part) is always bigger. So if you are using table lamps, desk lamps or other removable fixtures, you should check the size of the shade, the harp and the socket to be sure it can handle a CFL.

4. Buy energy star rated products.

5. Learn about disposal of the bulb. As I pointed out earlier, the CFL bulb has trace amounts of Mercury. You should also know that there is far less Mercury in a CFL than there is in an old thermometer or thermostat. Even so, you should recycle them instead of just tossing them in the trash. Since they will last years longer than your usual bulbs, you won’t be fussing with this problem as often as you might imagine.

If you must dispose of one and cannot get to a recycling center, there is a simple method you should employ. The risk from a broken CFL is extremely small, but they should be disposed of properly so landfills aren’t polluted. All you have to do is seal burned out, used bulbs in plastic bags before placing them in the trash can to slow down the release of mercury if the bulb breaks.

Recycling is, of course, the ideal solution. It keeps the bulbs out of the landfill and makes their use entirely sustainable. The problem, until now, has been that recycling CFLs was inconvenient for most people. But that is currently changing, thanks to Home Depot. The company will be offering, and may currently already be offering in your area, CFL recycling at all of its U.S. stores. That means there are 200 recycling centers all around our country which puts 75 percent of Americans within 10 miles of a CFL recycling location.

If you’re not part of that 75 percent, you still have options. Ikea stores provide CFL recycling bins, as well. Or visit Earth 911 or Lamp Recycle to look for a recycling location near you.
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6. Last, but not at all least. See if your utility offers rebates. Energy-efficient bulbs help utility companies lessen their load at peak times, so sometimes they run special programs or rebates to encourage you to make the switch. Go online or in person to your local utility and check to see what programs are offered for this and other green initiatives. Nothing makes going green any sweeter than saving money at the same time!

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