Thursday, January 10, 2008

Still Using Incandescents? A CFL Primer

“Everyone has his day and some days are longer than others.” -Winston Churchill

No, Winston Churchill was not talking about Edison's incandescent bulb that has been the king of the hill for the last 118 years, but he might as well have been. It kind of shocks me that people are still using these things. After all they were designed to create heat and thereby give off light so they are massively inefficient lighting devices. And yet, many people are still fighting the change to Compact Fluorescent (CFLs). Well, thanks to our friends in Washington, come 2012, it will be illegal to sell Edisons bad boys in the US, so the time has come to jump on the CFL bandwagon.

The problem I find that most people have with CFLs is misconception. I wrote a detailed piece on them a while back but for time's sake, I'm going to jot down the "back of the napkin" practical info so you can get rid of those incandescents and rocket into the 21st century.

Some pointers I've come up with along the way.

  • Since these last so long, write the purchase date on the base of the bulb (the white part) and save the cardboard insert in a file somewhere with the receipt attached. That way if they go bad early, you can send them in and get another. They made the warranty, hold them to it.
  • Not all CFLs are alike so start small. Get a bulb for a closet in the back of your place first. If you like it, you'll know what kind (color, wattage, etc.) to get next time, and if you don't like it (usually the color) it's the back closet so it's no big deal.
  • There are a ton of these things out there so there are some cheapies. For my money, stay away from the Ikea bulbs. That said, anything with an Energy Star rating is generally a decent bulb.
  • Stay away from the small chandelier bulbs if you need dimmable. I hate to say it but these aren't there yet, they strobe a lot. The solid ones are good, but the small dimmables aren't there yet.
  • As for other dimmables, they work great, but there are some that will have a problem with certain older dimmer switches. Try one before buying a dozen.
  • Speaking of ballasts, these are generally the first thing to go on these bulbs. They say that turning a bulb ona nd off will shorten it's lifespan so you ahve two choices. You can leave the light on a little longer than usual, or you can get 5 years out of a 7 year bulb. Either way you've got Edison's little gems beat.
CFL Misconceptions
  • They look different than incandescents - CFLs now come in about 5 different color spectrums and unless you have them side by side, you really won't notice the difference. I'd try warm light for the "nicest" look.
  • They don't have different sizes - Wrong! They make CFLs to fit just about every screw in type bulb out there and many even look the same.
  • They aren't dimmable - Wrong! The only difference is that not all are so you have to buy one that is specifically dimmable. You'll have more luck with this on the Internet than hardware stores but a specialty lighting store may have them. Dimmables work great, but once they hit about 10% on, they shut off, so there is an abrupt "bottom end". That said, you're saving a ton of money, so handle it.
  • They Buzz - Wrong (well mostly). I have CFLs all over the house and have run into one or two that hum slightly. The noise comes from the ballast in the light but the majority make no noise.
  • They contain mercury so they are harming the environment - CFLs do contain mercury (I think the exact measurement is a dot) so they need to be disposed of at a hazardous waste facility. That said, we're talking about a trip every seven years, so the paint can you didn't close in the basement needs to go out by then anyway. As to the amount of mercury, it's been shown that more mercury will enter the atmosphere by generating the extra power regular bulbs will use than will be put out there from CFLs.
  • They are more expensive - Wrong! Check out this CFL Calculator and you'll see that the average bulb will save you money within 8 months and make you money for the next 6 years.
One thing I'll leave you with. Most people think of the environmental benefits of saving electricity. While that's great consider this. If the average bulb lasts 7 years, that's 1/7th the trips to the store in your car, 1/7th the truckloads of bulbs delivered to that store, 1/7th the number of bulbs to be manufactured etc, etc. The benefits go on up the line.

As for the old bulbs, well, you can wait for them to burn out, or if you want to replace them now, why not donate them to a shelter, and while you're at it, throw in a few CFLs to get them started on the path.

Live Sustainably



Anonymous said...

A lot of my fixtures are designed for halogens. Are there CFLs for these?

I don't know if I agree about the mercury problem. I've done a lot of research regarding mercury and as a result I spent the equivalent of a mid-size Toyota to remove the mercury fillings in my mouth!

Dave said...

Hey Christyb,
I don't disagree that mercury is bad (especially in your mouth...yikes), but that said, less is better than more and the research pretty much proves that more enters the environment from the power stations than these bulbs.

They don't have CFLs for halogens and I doubt they will as the spaces are so small. That said, LED is the next adn final wave and they will be fantastic once they are up to speed. I have seen some pretty promising tests - and no mercury! They presently sell LED replacements for halogens, but they really aren't that great so i don;t think they are a good replacement yet. It's a problem because so many people have these nowadays.

Candles are nice.


Anonymous said...

I have a lot of halogens too (that came with the house). Man, do they get HOT! They all seem to burn out quickly too. One solution I found is to buy the lowest wattage. Mine came with 60W. I found 20W. Not sure how much that does... it's something.

Anonymous said...

My halogens are on dimmers so that helps with the heat a lot! Plus I hardly ever turn them on - I live in a condo and my window views are awful so I put on privacy frost (I didn't realize it was plastic until AFTER I had it installed) on all my "public" windows and then I put on paper shades - my house is very bright now. On my "private" windows I don't have any coverings.


I understand the argument regarding heat output.

My problems are: I don't want to be handling mercury; I don't think there is enough education - that they contain mercury, proper disposal, what to do if they break; and not nearly enough places to recycle. I live 30+ miles from the nearest place that will take them!

Dave said...

Christy B,
Can't argue with you there. Education is key and not enough people dispose of them properly. That said, I think government needs to step in and make it easier for people to do so. What I'd love to see (but have no idea how to get this done) is that there be an additional cost on CFLs unless you turn an old one in when you buy it. Of course this is a problem for first time buyers, so now that i think of it, maybe just a redemption amount, say $3 per bulb. You pay it up front and get the money back when you bring it back to a store that sells them who in turn gives them to a hazardous waste sight. Something like that.

Leigh, I have no idea how these lights are mounted but is there an option down the line of replacing the fixtures? That may be a solution worth looking into., but i doubt it'd be easy or cheap unfortunately.

might I add...? said...

Hi Dave,
Thanks for all the work you've been doing.

I have to admit that I have only a couple of CFLs in my house. I am very worried about the breakage factor, and even more so now that I have a baby in the house.

There really needs to be a LOT more education about proper cleanup of a CFL bulb before we start (or alongside) telling everyone to go out and exchange all their bulbs. For instance, I do care about the environment and about saving energy, but I really did not know all the proper procedures concerning cleanup of a broken bulb.