Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs
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Originally posted July 10, 2007.

The Wednesday, 10 July 2007 edition of Pat Jolly's New Orleans Community Mailing List carried a blurb from Andi Hoffmann, director of Green Light New Orleans, stating that over 18,000 CFL bulbs had been requested by readers of a recent Times-Picayune story. While I applaud Green Light's efforts to reduce the effects of global warming, I'm nowhere near convinced of their web site's claims that "If every household in the United States replaced one light bulb with a compact fluorescent light (CFL), it would prevent enough pollution to equal removing one million cars from the road. In addition to the environmental benefits, a CFL uses 75% less energy than an incandescent bulb, thereby saving money on a home’s energy bills. Each CFL will save the user more than $45 over the life of the bulb."

On February 9, 2007, NPR carried a report by Robert Siegel, concerning conversions to CFLs. You can find the story here . I wrote NPR a letter in response, which is posted below. I added a section towards the end after reading Green Light's web site. It would seem much of what I sent NPR also applies to the Times-Picayune story. I am particularly concerned about the claimed savings, which seem specious at best, and the repercussions of adding more mercury to the environment.

Date: February 9, 2007
Subject: CFLs not all they're cracked up to be

Robert Siegel's report on compact fluorescent light bulbs is missing some key information.

As an electrician of some 25 years, I regularly maintain downtown office buildings and rewire local homes. Over the years, I have done many conversions to CFLs and energy-efficient fluorescent tubes. But what happens in an office building or a church is not necessarily the same as in a home.

1. Regardless of their Kelvin ratings, CFLs do NOT create the same kind of soft, warm light given off by incandescent light bulbs.

2. An incandescent light bulb is 100% effective as a heat source. No kidding. Every time you use one you're heating your home. Does this offset the use of other heating sources? Probably not. But if you used 25 100-watt bulbs in a bedroom you probably wouldn't need to turn on your furnace. If you have any doubts, next time you're in the lighting department of Lowe's or Home Depot stand under the lighting fixture display section. It's 20 degrees warmer under those lights than in the rest of the store.

3. Most CFLs are NOT dimmable. You should have made a bigger point of this. People who put CFLs in their dining rooms, kitchens or anywhere else they have dimmers will encounter problems. Special electronic dimmers are available for CFLs, but they're not cheap and usually require a qualified electrician to install. The cost of that may well offset any saving from the CFLs.

4. If any ceiling fans use graduated speed controls which also affect the lighting, they would have to be retro-fitted with electronic dimmers before they could use the CFLs. The Wal-Mart rep never got into that.

5. Like all fluorescent bulbs, CFLs are ballast-driven. The ballasts emit square waves that routinely travel throughout a home's electrical system and can be picked up through the air. The signals can travel from your home to the power lines outside, where they may affect your neighbor. Not a problem for FM listeners, but AM radio users will be supremely annoyed by the buzz-saw sound created by the square wave signal. If you live in an apartment or condo, you're at the mercy of anyone who uses CFLs. (Note: Square waves are emitted by most dimmers, too, regardless of the light source. Electronic dimmers and dimmers with built-in filters will reduce square wave interference. Also, as noted on the Green Light web site, some -- NOT ALL -- modern CFLs use electronic ballasts that minimize square wave activity.)

6. CFLs, like the common four foot fluorescent tubes, contain small amounts of mercury. Mercury is a highly destructive environmental pollutant, and is especially problematic when coming in contact with, or being ingested by, the human body. Consequently, disposing of CFLs poses a severe environmental challenge. Most CFL packaging advises consumers to treat the bulbs as hazardous waste and dispose of it accordingly. You are instructed to NOT simply toss CFLs in the garbage. Does anyone think people living in New Orleans, a city that has no recycling program, are going to drive to a hazardous waste site (if one even exists) to dispose of these bulbs? I very much doubt it. And even if they do, how about the waste of gasoline, not to mention its attendant pollution, to dispose of allegedly "environmentally friendly" bulbs? I don't know anybody at all who presently disposes of their CFLs as hazardous waste. Seattle, with one of the most efficient recycling programs in the nation, has no means for collecting and properly disposing of CFLs.* The bulbs will wind up in the landfill, where the mercury will leach into the soil and the water table. (This very issue was raised by an NPR listener in response to Siegel's story, and read by Siegel on All Things Considered, February 15, 2007. Audio file at .) Conversely, a standard light bulb consisting of thin glass and metal will eventually break down without long term environmental consequences.

(* Note as of August 2010: The City of Seattle still does not have a CFL recycling program. However, Home Depot and Bartell Drugs have agreed to start accepting used CFLs for recycling. There are specirfic restrictions and conditions for acceptance.)

7. CFLs, like other fluorescents, are temperature sensitive. If you live in a climate where the temperature drops below 35-40 degrees F, the bulbs will take a longer time to fire up and will possibly not attain their full lumen potential. Try putting a CFL in an unheated garage in January and seeing what happens. The good news is a CFL will probably work fine if you leave it on all night (as a security light, for instance). But if you need immediate light (for traversing a stairway, for instance), a cold-starting CFL is not the weapon of choice.

I use CFLs on both of my porch's. The front porch light is sensor activated, and stays on all night. The back porch, however, gets most of the foot traffic, and the bulb is changed to a standard bulb in the winter. If I'm planning to be gone for a few days, I'll swap out an incandescent for a CFL as an indoor "night light." Otherwise, I don't use CFLs anywhere else in the house. I don't care for the light spectrum and I'm an AM radio listener. Also, be advised that most CFLs are not rated for outdoor use. On the bases of the bulbs, many state, "RISK OF ELECTRIC SHOCK - USE IN DRY LOCATIONS ONLY. NOT FOR USE WHERE EXPOSED TO THE WEATHER OR EQUIVALENT." We do get a bit of "weather or equivalent" in New Orleans. This became an issue in Seattle some years ago when the former mayor suggested "using one of these fluorescents to replace the bulb in that porch light you keep on every night for safety." It rains a bit in Seattle, too, and yep, I wrote him, too.

8. The claim that CFLs will substantially outlast incandescent bulbs is true, but with some caveats. CFLs in constant use (as in security lighting) are good for a year or so. Over the life of a CFL, the ballasts in some units slowly fail. Consequently, the light emitted by the bulb gradually diminishes. That is not the case with incandescent bulbs. You get what you get until an incandescent burns out. You can minimize the burn-out, and maximize the life of an incandescent bulb, by purchasing bulbs rated for 130 volts instead of 120 volts. They'll provide 8 percent less light at 120 volts nominal house voltage, but the commercially-rated filament will take more abuse.

9. Most of the CFLs I've seen on store shelves, from Wal-Mart to the local hardware store, are made in China. They're cheap, and I'm not convinced of either their quality or longevity. And we all know about China's abysmal environmental record, so what do you think is going on where those bulbs are made?

10. Home electrical systems are not stressed by incandescent light bulbs. They are stressed by homeowner ignorance. I can't tell you how many fixtures I've had to change over the years because people insist on putting 100-watt light bulbs in fixtures that clearly state on them, "Use 60-watt maximum bulb." Even 80-year-old knob-and-tube wiring would function just fine if people didn't overload it with oversized bulbs and space heaters. Because of this rampant electrical abuse by homeowners, the National Fire Protection Association's National Electrical Code is now requiring Arc-Fault circuit breaker protection for all bedroom circuits.

11. While converting every bulb in a home to a CFL may save a few bucks on your electrical bill, it's not necessarily a good trade-off. If you don't like the light quality, if you listen to AM radio, if you have to change every dimmer to accommodate the CFLs, if you wind up adding more mercury to the environmental waste stream, etc., your savings on the utility bill will be offset by the cost of the change-over and the environmental clean-up. And until you can buy CFLs for 30 cents apiece, like I paid yesterday for incandescents at Costco, instead of $2 to $3 or more, the social redeeming value of the conversion is dependent on your pocketbook and personal environmental guilt quotient.

(UPDATE NOTE: With no prior notice to its membership, in the fall of 2007, following a completely specious, pro-CFL fluff piece in Costco Connection magazine, the company unilaterally removed all incandescent light bulbs from its shelves and replaced them with CFLs. It took me four months of constant prodding to get a response from Karen Raines, Costco's Director of Corporate Sustainability. Her response was so laughably riddled with misinformation, disinformation and inaccuracy, much of it from material written by CFL promoters, that I felt compelled to draft a lengthy rebuttal. "Complete with circles and arrows," as Arlo Guthrie might say. Because, really, Raines' response belonged at the bottom of a pile of garbage. You can read the rebuttal letter here.

12. Deconstructing the Alleged $$$ Savings: (Added 7/11/07):

A. Claiming that "Each CFL will save the user more than $45 over the life of the bulb" sounds like a stretch at best. I've got a package of 23-watt (100-watt incandescent equivalent) CFLs here that claims each bulbs "Lasts 13 times longer!" but in smaller print says, "than a standard 750 hour bulb." Problem? You betcha! The standard bulbs I buy at Costco for 30 cents each are rated for 2000 hours! Somebody check my math here, but 13 x 750 = 9750 watt hours. Divided by 2000 is 4.875, meaning that the CFLs last less than five times as long as a standard incandescent, nowhere near the "13 times longer" claim. (That pretty much reflects my experience in the field.) For the cost of roughly $3 per CFL, I can buy 10 incandescents that will give me 20,000 hours, twice the hours of the CFL. To put it another way, it costs me $1.50 -- half price -- to get the same hours out of incandescents.

B. This package of CFLs also claims, "Save $92 per bulb in energy costs." That's twice what Green Light claims. Fine print? "As compared to using a 100-watt bulb at 12 cents per kilowatt hour." Okay, check my math again, but it seems to work out thusly: 9750 watt hours is 9.75 KWH. 9.75 (the claimed life of the 23-watt CFL) x 12 cents is $1.17. Therefore, you should be able to run the CFL for 9.75 KWH for a total of $4.17 per bulb. ($3 cost + $1.17 = $4.17). A 100-watt incandescent would suck up that 9.75 KWH in 97.5 hours. At 12 cents/KWH it thus costs $11.17 to run the bulb (actually five bulbs at 2000 hours each) at 30 cents apiece. Grand total: $12.67. Somebody show me how you get to "Each CFL will save the user more than $45 over the life of the bulb."

C. Finally, Entergy's residential KWH rate (as published on their web site at ) is 5 cents. That's 58% less than the 12 cents used above by the CFL manufacturer. In Seattle the rate is 4 cents, 67% less. You can massage the numbers all you want, but there's no way to justify the savings claims. At 5 cents per KWH, the CFL would be $3.49, the incandescent would be $6.50, a "savings" of $3.01 over the life of the bulb.

You can do what you like, but if you fall for the junk being tossed around by those who stand to gain most from propagating false claims about CFLs -- utilities and CFL manufacturers -- don't be surprised when all their claims of savings don't materialize. And don't be surprised when the mercury you chucked into the landfill winds up in your tuna sandwhich.

Jef Jaisun
Washington State Licensed Electrical Administrator
California Licensed Electrical Contractor