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Ask Natural Life:
Shedding Light on Compact Fluorescent Bulbs
by Wendy Priesnitz

Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs
Photo Shutterstock

Q: I keep hearing that various places are have banned or are going to ban incandescent light bulbs. But I am aware of some problems with those compact fluorescent bulbs that seem to be all the rage right now…and they’re also quite expensive. Could you please sort through the confusion and hype about them and any other possible alternatives? 

A:Incandescent bulbs are actually small heaters that produce a little light on the side, wasting a lot of energy and creating a lot of pollution. According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, residential, commercial, industrial and municipal lighting uses 22 percent of all the electricity generated. In the U.S. alone, lighting accounts for about 39 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions from electric generating plants. So we’re not surprised that many governments are talking about trying to switch consumers from incandescents to other carbon neutral technologies. 

The primary alternative at the moment does seem to be compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs.) However, while they do save a significant amount of energy – they use approximately one quarter of the energy used by incandescent bulbs – they are far from the perfect alternative that some of the rhetoric might suggest. So we’ll examine both the pros and cons of CFLs, then take a look at some other alternatives. 

Not Those Buzzing Tubes 

Those ubiquitous, headache-inducing, glaring and buzzing tubes found in offices and stores have gone compact and – dare we say it? – upscale. And they’ve lost most of their annoying qualities. If you’re lucky, you’ll find compact fluorescents that rival the warm light of traditional bulbs and that don’t buzz. But depending upon where you live, you may need quite a lot of patience and determination, in addition to luck, because the selection can be spotty and not always match your needs. There are large differences in terms of quality of light, cost and turn-on time among different manufacturers, even for bulbs that appear identical. 

Some of these differences are due to poor manufacturing. Since CFLs are relatively high in cost compared to incandescents, there is an opportunity for marginal manufacturers to sell cheaper, lower quality bulbs. That, of course, changes as incandescents are phased out.    

The quality of light can be poor in the cheaper bulbs: Incandescent filaments emit the full spectrum of light, but most fluorescent lamps don’t. Manufacturers must create a mixture of different phosphors in a CFL in order to approximate the warmth of daylight or incandescent light. However, that increases cost, so you might find that the less expensive bulbs emit a colder, more glaring light, which can be inappropriate for some residential uses.

Some people worry about the health effects – including fatigue – of living without the full light spectrum. Full-spectrum CFLs are now available, which mimic natural light and have all the energy-saving benefits of regular CFLs. Of course, they are more expensive than regular CFLs. 

Deciding which one to buy can be a bit tricky. Incandescent bulbs are known by how much power it takes to light them – a 40-watt bulb is on the dim side and uses less power; a 100-watt bulb is bright and uses a lot of juice. Energy-saving CFLs provide much more light per watt. To get a CFL with the right amount of light, choose one that offers the same lumen rating as the light you are replacing. A 450-lumen CFL is said to be equivalent to a 40-watt incandescent. The higher the lumen rating, the greater the light output. Look for a CFL with a wattage of about one-quarter of the incandescent you’re replacing. For example, a CFL in the 15-watt range replaces a 60-watt incandescent.

You might find, as we have, that the effective light output of CFLs is often exaggerated. For example, if a compact fluorescent lamp promises “as much light as a 60-watt bulb,” you might not feel that you can see as well as with the 60-watt bulb you’re replacing.

You will also have to get used to the fact that many CFLs don’t turn on instantly. And some may appear dim initially, taking 30 seconds or more to reach full brightness. Others can flicker when they are first turned on. These issues have to do with the warming up of the ballast that lights the bulb. Traditionally, fluorescent lamps used magnetic ballasts, but those are gradually being replaced with electronic ballasts in the newer models. This has removed most of the humming, flickering and slow starting traditionally associated with fluorescent lighting. That high frequency flicker has been identified as the cause of headaches and eye strain in some individuals.

To be sure that you are buying good quality bulbs, look for the Energy Star logo on the packaging. In addition to meeting other quality requirements, they must turn on instantly, produce no sound and fall within a warm color range or be otherwise labeled as providing cooler color tones.

One of the supposed benefits of CFLs is their long life in relation to other types of bulbs – around 10,000 hours. That long life is a benefit often used to overcome resistance to the high price. However, we’ve had some less expensive lamps last just a few days. When manufacturers of CFLs note that they last for 10,000 hours on their packaging, there is almost always a disclaimer that says this life rating is based on “normal use,” which apparently means that the light is on for three to four hours at a time. The electronic ballast employed to start the lamp shortens the life of the bulb every time you turn it on. So installing CFLs in bathrooms or storage closets, where they would typically be turned on for short periods of time, is not recommended. To get the most energy savings, replace bulbs where lights are on the most, such as a home office, living room, kitchen, dining room and porch.

CFLs often do not fail suddenly like incandescent lightbulbs do (although sometimes they can actually explode). Symptoms of impending failure may come months ahead, with more and more prolonged turn-on times, buzzing of the ballast, random periods of reduced brightness, and the appearance of growing black spots on the glass tubing’s inside. Generally, the light output of CFLs tends to deteriorate with age; even the best ones are reported to lose about 20 percent of their light output by the end of their lives.

Your CFLs might cause interference with electronic devices, such as radios, televisions, wireless telephones and remote controls, which use infrared light to transmit signals. Sometimes, these types of electronic devices accidentally interpret the infrared light coming from a CFL as a signal, causing the electronic device to temporarily malfunction. The fine print (and there’s often lots of it) on CFL packaging sometimes instructs users to reduce the chance of interference by avoiding placing compact fluorescent bulbs near these kinds of electronic devices. It says that if interference occurs, you should move the bulb away from the electronic device, or plug either the light fixture or the electronic device into a different outlet.

To use a compact fluorescent bulb on a dimmer or three-way switch, you must buy a bulb that’s specifically made for that purpose. Otherwise, you will nullify the bulb’s warranty. Track lighting, pot lights and other enclosed or recessed fixtures can also be a problem for CFLs so, again, be sure you buy the right kind for your purposes. There are a number of reports of bulbs partially melting, smoking or smelling when used incorrectly.

CFLs work most efficiently when the lamp is oriented downwards, with the base up. This is because the efficiency of the bulb depends on the temperature of the coldest part of the lamp, which is the end furthest away from the ballast. Since heat rises, a base-up lamp will be coolest at the bottom, producing the greatest amount of light. Keep the lamp orientation in mind when comparing light output, which is rated for base-up operation.

CFL light output is roughly proportional to phosphor surface area, and high output CFL bulbs are often larger than their incandescent equivalents. This means that the CFL might work fine in the socket, but that the light cover might not fit over it or that there might not be enough space for your fingers to install it. Manufacturers are achieving shorter lengths by bending the tubes into corkscrew shapes, but some people feel those bulbs are ugly and not suitable for use in exposed situations.

For those situations, manufacturers have created CFLs that approximate the look of an incandescent bulb by enclosing it behind a cosmetic glass cover. However, this decreases the brightness and efficiency of the lamp. The industry says that these problems have largely been solved using special mercury compounds and other techniques.

The Mercury Problem

All CFLs contain small amounts of mercury. The amount varies from brand to brand, but is estimated to be about one-fifth of that found in the average watch battery and less than 1/100th of what’s in an amalgam dental filling. It is estimated that it would take a few hundred CFLs to equal the same amount of mercury that’s in an average thermometer.

Mercury is classified as a hazardous substance. According to the National Institutes of Health, exposures to very small amounts of mercury can result in devastating neurological and kidney damage, and even death. For fetuses, infants and children, the primary health effects of mercury are on neurological development.

For that reason, CFLs should be treated as household hazardous waste and recycled. Some municipalities, manufacturers, and retailers like IKEA have established recycling programs. Wal- Mart, which is hoping to sell 100 million CFLs this year, says it is working with the EPA in the U.S. to find mercury recycling solutions.

However, as the popularity of the bulbs increases, more of them are being thrown into the garbage, either through carelessness, lack of recycling options or lack of knowledge about the danger. They end up broken in landfills and emitting vaporous methyl mercury, which can get into the food chain more easily than the mercury removed during the recycling process.

If a CFL breaks, try not to inhale, and keep children clear. Carefully sweep up the broken pieces (rather than vacuuming.) Put the broken pieces in a plastic bag and wipe down the area where the pieces fell with a damp towel. Then throw the towel in the bag and dispose of the bag as hazardous waste.

There is also a concern for those who handle municipal solid waste. The inevitable breakage will leave mercury residues on trash cans, collection trucks and so on.

Governments, manufacturers and many environmentalists insist that CFLs actually reduce the amount of mercury in the environment, because their use as a replacement for incandescent bulbs reduces huge amounts of energy generated by mercury-emitting coal-fired plants. (If you live in an area that doesn’t have coal-fired plants, then that benefit is questionable.) It has been calculated that in the U.S., replacing one billion incandescent lamps with CFLs could reduce mercury emissions by nearly 10 million grams.

However, we don’t think that any amount of mercury is safe and that it doesn’t make sense to be spending huge amounts of money to clean it out of our environment, only to put some of it back through light bulbs.

AlternativesTo the Alternative

Fortunately, there are mercury-free alternatives to CFLs. A tungsten-halogen lamp is an incandescent lamp with gases from the halogen family sealed inside. It has similar light output to a regular incandescent while using up to 40 percent less power. Although tungsten-halogen lamps are more expensive, they last two to four times longer than conventional incandescents. Unfortunately, they operate at very high temperatures and, in some instances, can pose a fire hazard. Halogen torchiere floor lamps are actually so dangerous they’re banned in some areas due to their tendency to tip and start fires.

Parabolic aluminized reflector (PAR) lamps, typically used as spotlights or floodlights inside or outside homes, are also available with halogen technology. A standard 150-watt incandescent spotlight can be replaced with a lower wattage halogen lamp, reducing electricity consumption by up to 40 percent.

The best alternative is the light-emitting diode (LED.) LEDs are already used in electronics, flashlights, headlamps for hiking, and Christmas decorations, but their use as household lighting is not yet widespread, possibly due to the high price. Because they are far superior to CFLs, I think all that will change quickly.

LEDs are better than CFLs because they don’t contain mercury, and better than halogens because they burn cool and aren’t fragile. They last up to 10 times longer than CFLs – up to 60,000 hours, which averages out to 12 hours of light per day for 12 years. They are also highly directional, which means that they only put the light where you aim it. They also turn on instantly and don't need to warm up.

Aside from their price, one of the reasons LEDs were initially slow to catch on was their low light output. But now designers have figured out how to group LEDs together to get brighter output and are using them to make highly efficient headlights, streetlights, traffic signals, and light bulbs for standard household fixtures. Another problem with the early LED bulbs was their hard, white light, which some people don’t like.

LEDs also have a pollution problem (are there any manufactured products that don't?). A study published in late 2010 in the journal Environmental Science and Technology found that they contain lead, arsenic, copper, and a dozen other potentially dangerous substances. Researcher Oladele Ogunseitan, chair of the University of California (UC)-Irvine’s Department of Population Health & Disease Prevention, and colleagues tested several types of LEDs, including those used as Christmas lights, traffic lights, car headlights, and brake lights. Low-intensity red LEDs were found to contain up to eight times the amount of lead, a known neurotoxin. white LEDs contain the least lead, but still harbor large amounts of nickel. The researchers recommended handling and disposing of a broken LED in the same way you would a broken CFL.

LEDs for household have become quite easy to find in stores. The price of LED lights is also sure to continue to come down and selection go up as demand increases and the technology continues to improve. Even now, I think they’re your best bet to replace those energy-gobbling incandescent bulbs. I'd avoid CFLs at all costs.

Wendy Priesnitz is the Editor of Natural Life Magazine and a journalist with over 40 years experience. She has also authored 13 books.

This article was originally published in Natural Life Magazine in 2007 (and updated in 2011 and 2014).


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