By now, pretty much everyone has heard about compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). Consuming roughly 30 percent of the power required for a similar incandescent bulb, CFLs are a no-brainer way to reduce home energy bills and slash greenhouse gas emissions.
Australia says it will be the first nation to adopt lighting energy standards that effectively ban traditional bulbs, and there are plenty of other initiatives to do the same elsewhere. The CFL is here to stay. In fact, it's heading your way faster than anyone expected.
So how are we all going to make the switch? While you can find a CFL to fit most light fixtures these days, it's a mistake to think they're directly equivalent to incandescent bulbs. Like most things, CFLs present us with a series of trade-offs. You'll have to do some thinking if you want to enjoy the energy-saving benefits of CFLs without being surprised by their little quirks.
We've put together a quick guide to living with CFLs in the real world. Consider a few of these ideas, and your personal transition to CFL life should be painless and stress-free.
1) Buy quality bulbs
You get what you pay for. CFLs are not all created equal, and the no-name bargain units are cheap for a reason. The difference is usually in the quality of the ballast — the bulky part between the CFL's light tube and the screw base. Junky ballasts can mean flicker, buzz and a short service life.
Choose a quality brand: Sylvania, Phillips and GE are among the most widely available.
2) Start slow
Enthusiasm is a good thing — who wants to wait when it comes to saving money, right? But rather than relamping your entire home or office at one time, start out easy. Buy a couple brands of bulbs and experiment with the different color varieties to see which you prefer.
Unlike incandescent bulbs, which produce a broad color spectrum, CFL light is somewhat narrow in range. Designers make compromises to produce CFLs that range from "warm white" to "daylight," and you may be more satisfied with one or the other depending on the room or where your new bulb is to be installed.
Mix and match. Move your bulbs around. See what works best for you.
3) Choose the right kind of CFL
CFLs have a few limitations: they don't do well in cold temperatures, vibration will shorten their life, and you must buy specially marked CFLs if you plan to use them outdoors, in fully enclosed fixtures, or on dimmer circuits.
Generally speaking, you shouldn't use CFLs in ceiling fans. They move around too much, and you'll be disappointed when your bulb wears out prematurely. Outdoor CFLs are weatherized, and are usually enclosed in a secondary enclosure to improve their cold weather performance. But don't expect miracles: CFLs like being warm, and their efficiency drops with the temperature.
Speaking of efficiency, modern CFLs have almost immediate startup time. That means that when you flip the switch, there's very little lag before the bulb turns on. But to achieve the sort of power efficiencies advertised on their packaging, CFLs must warm up to their operational temperature. This takes anywhere from 30 seconds to three minutes. During this period, they're not much more power-stingy than incandescent bulbs.
Which is why swapping out low-usage lights — such as those in closets — is probably your least priority. Start with the lights you use the most.
4) Opt for enough bulb
One of the biggest complaints made by new CFL users is that the light "looks dingy." How could this be, given that CFLs produce the same amount of lumens (light energy) as their incandescent equivalents?
There are two reasons. Suppose you're accustomed to 100-watt incandescent bulb in that table lamp by the couch. A traditional bulb of this type produces about 1,200 lumens. CFLs of 20 to 25 watts will do the same. But there's a catch: the lamp fixture is designed for a traditional bulb. CFLs and incandescents radiate differently. So while they're producing an equal number of lumens, the CFL may not be delivering the same amount of light to a given workspace.
Here, experimentation is important. In some cases, it might be a better idea to replace a 100-watt incandescent with a CFL that's roughly equivalent to a traditional 125-watt bulb (about 1,600 lumens). You'll take a 5-watt penalty, but that beats squinting at the newspaper.
The second factor which governs how well your CFL throws its lumes around is fixture design.
5) Consider CFL-specific fixtures
The current generation of CFLs are what designers call a "transitional technology." They contain their own ballasts, and are intended to screw into the same sort of light fixtures we've been using for over 120 years. As we've seen, this arrangement is something of a compromise.
Light fixtures designed for CFLs take into consideration their particular radiation properties. They also have their own ballasts, which means their bulbs can be much simpler. They plug into their fixtures with a two- or four-pronged base.
Pronged CFL bulbs won't work in incandescent fixtures, but their simplicity will eventually make them much cheaper and easier to recycle than screw-in CFLs.
You might not have the luxury of replacing your ceiling-mounted fixtures, but keep an eye out for CFL-specific table and desk lamps. When it makes sense, retire incandescent fixtures and enjoy the improved efficiency of true CFL lighting.
6) Properly dispose of worn-out or broken CFLs
CFLs require a tiny amount of mercury to function. Mercury is poisonous, and since it tends to accumulate in the human body, there's no acceptable level of exposure.
An intact CFL will never emit mercury. But CFLs can be broken through accident or improper disposal. That makes it important to dispose of spent or damaged CFLs in a responsible manner.
The best solution is recycling. Some CFL sellers, such as Ikea, have a no-questions take-back program. Environmental groups are pressing big-box retailers to establish in-store CFL recycling bins, and there are a few (rather pricey) recycle-by-mail vendors. Convenient CFL recycling is clearly an area requiring improvement as adoption increases.
Many states require CFLs to be treated as hazardous waste, and this is good practice for everyone. Do not dispose of CFLs with household garbage. If your community doesn’t have curbside pickup of hazardous material, you’ll need to bag and safely store old CFLs until you have enough to take them to a drop-off center.
So how do you find a center? Calling your local government is probably the first step. Or log onto Earth 911, which will help you locate your closest facility. They've also got an automated phone information system at (800) CLEAN-UP.
There's no need to panic if you break a CFL. Most bulbs are damaged when they're cold, and the mercury is likely to adhere to the bulb's debris. To be safe, ventilate the area. Using rubber or latex cloves — the kitchen variety should be fine — carefully gather up the ballast and broken glass with disposable paper towels. Wipe the floor carefully with more paper toweling, then double bag everything in Ziploc bags. Dispose as hazardous waste.
As a point of interest, CFLs can actually reduce the amount of mercury released each year into the environment. Half of the power in the United States is generated by coal-fired plants. Burning coal releases mercury into the atmosphere — about 10 milligrams over the life of an average incandescent bulb. Because of its superior efficiency, a CFL will only be responsible for about 2.5 milligrams. Even if you add the 4 milligrams contained in the typical CFL (which is fully recoverable by recycling), a CFL is actually responsible for putting less mercury into the wild than its incandescent equivalent.
7) Tell your friends
As you become CFL-savvy, share your experience with friends and family. They'll be hearing more and more about CFLs in the coming months, and your success is a power tool in spreading the adoption of efficient lighting.
We're all in this together.