The Other Side of the Story: Links About CFLs

blue cfl light bulb against black background

Oooookay.  In my previous post I listed several facts about Compact Flourescent Lightbulbs (CFLs).  I did not include links to support my claims because I was going to include them as part of my follow-up post explaining how to evaluate information.  Unfortunately THAT post got ridiculously long and it was 3am local time so I went to bed.  Now that I’m somewhat rested and the boys’ lessons are done for the day, I bring you my follow-up to the follow-up.

Before I begin, remember that the point of the original post was to evaluate information critically and not to slam CFLs (which I use) or efforts to improve the environment.  🙂  If we have tools to evaluate information, then we’re all better consumers and ultimately better parents.  Especially if we teach the kiddos how to navigate the flood of information that is our world.

Point 1: flipping a CFL on and off shortens its life span; consequently they should be left on for at least 15 minutes.  By Googling the words CFL life span, I was able to find the Wikipedia entry on CFLs which had this to say

The life of a CFL is significantly shorter if it is only turned on for a few minutes at a time: In the case of a 5-minute on/off cycle the lifespan of a CFL can be up to 85% shorter, reducing its lifespan to the level of an incandescent lamp.The US Energy Star program says to leave them on at least 15 minutes at a time to mitigate this problem.

That article has footnoted references to the Minnesota Energy Challenge, a US News and World Report story, and the US Energy Star program, along with many others.

Point 2: CFLs can still take a few minutes to reach full brightness and even lose their capacity for brightness slightly over their lifespan.  This one I conducted my very own scientific research on…I installed them in my home.  Apparently the light fixture can affect the time as well.  All of the bulbs from the same package take a while to warm up to full brightness.  One fixture in particular has a one-second delay before the bulb even begins to shine.  I experienced none of that with the incandescent bulbs.  I recognize that we can expect improvement over time on this point, just because people are more likely to buy a product that doesn’t annoy.  The delay is currently annoying.

Point 3: CFLs contain mercury and need to be properly recycled. Throwing them into landfills will pollute the environment.  This fact is covered in the very comprehensive Wikipedia article, as well as a story from NPR.  I usually hesitate to quote news organizations because by nature they tend to be alarmist, but this one raises some fair concerns about the safety of people in the sanitation and landfill industries in particular.  This blog entry on Groovy Green has a very balanced analysis of the mercury situation.

Point 4: If a CFL is dropped and broken in the home, it’s hazardous. EPA guidelines say to open your windows for 15 minutes to air out the room. And don’t use a vacuum or broom to clean it up because you’ll spread the mercury into the air. As I said recently, the toxicity of mercury is a hotly contested topic in some arenas.  Since I’m erring on the side of caution I’m going to believe that mercury is dangerous to myself and my children.  There are plenty of sites discussing this issue.  For now I’ll just include the Energy Star link as well as the EPA guidelines for cleanup.

Point 5: the town of Traer, Iowa did an experiment in 1987. Half the residents switched to CFLs, while the other half stayed on incandescent. Energy consumption went up, presumably because people knew it wasn’t costing as much.  The Traer story is referenced here and here.   The abstract of the study is published here, but the actual document isn’t available.  I have confidence in the truthfulness of the person who brought the story to me and it’s referenced by quite a few sites online.  It’s too bad the actual study results aren’t available online.

Everyone I read agrees that energy consumption went up in the town about 8% during the experiment.  While there’s not a clear consensus on why this happened, the implications are less than positive for CFL cheerleaders who don’t take basic human nature into account.  If I want to avoid shortening the life of my bulb by leaving it on for at least 15 minutes then I have to be able to remember to go back and turn the thing off.  Yeah.  Right.  Some have suggested putting an automatic timer on the lights.  Great idea, but what if it’s in a bathroom and I’m, ahem, reading for longer than that?  I’ll let you connect the dots from there.

Point 6: the energy bill just signed into law here in the US raises standards over the next several years, effectively outlawing the manufacture of incandescent bulbs by 2014. Other countries around the world also have this goal.  You can read about the 2007 Energy Bill here, here, and here.

Point 7: on average, CFLs are sized longer than incandescent making them not a good fit for many light fixture.  Again, this one I’m learning from personal experience, with lightbulbs sticking out of fixtures here and there.  CFLs can’t just be put into fixtures that have dimmers the way incandescents can; instead it’s recommended that you buy special dimmable bulbs.  Which is annoying.  A regular bulb here in the US costs about 50 cents, while a CFL is about 6 times more, starting at $3.  Getting into the special sizes and dimmability only ads to the cost.

Okay, phew.  That was a lot of work.  🙂  It’s all for you, dear readers.

Earnest Parenting: help for parents who always want truth.

The editor-in-chief of Earnest Parenting, Amy is the mother of two sets of twin boys. Yes, they drive her crazy, but they also make her laugh occasionally. Amy enjoys writing, quilting, reading, and working on her burgeoning cyber empire.

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  • Michelle January 21, 2008, 4:30 pm

    I am going to start stockpiling incandescent bulbs so that way I will have enough to last until I die.

    There. I said it. I hate CFLs. I hate fluorescent lighting. It drives me crazy. It gives me headaches. I can only imagine what it does for my son.

    And like heck I’m going to have my house be a possible waste site for mercury. Sorry, feds, you’ll have to pry the incandescent light bulbs out of my dead, cold hands.

    Sorry…. had to rant about that.

    Reply
  • AlexM August 17, 2008, 12:14 pm

    Your blog is interesting!

    Keep up the good work!

    Reply
  • Terren September 13, 2008, 3:18 pm

    Absolutely with you 100%!!!
    This lightbulb thing is turning into a real travesty. The idea that they are outlawing manufacture of incandescents I find especially disturbing.
    Who is signing the paychecks for the Mercury Lobby I wonder?
    I like the idea of stock piling, but I wouldn’t be shocked if they outlawed the use of them as well as the manufacture.
    I will have my secret basement of glowiness.

    Reply
  • Amy September 14, 2008, 7:55 pm

    LOL Terren. Hopefully they won’t outlaw use…that’d get a lot more people angry and we’d have to throw some bums out of office, wouldn’t we? Come to think of it that may be a good thing. Hopefully there will be a better solution before we’re all stuck with CFLs.

    Reply
  • Carl September 24, 2008, 3:12 pm

    I found this interesting regarding the activiation energy associated with CFL’s. Turns out if you turn them off/on frequently, you use way more energy than an incandecent of equal lumens:

    Device: Compact Fluorescent Lamp (CFL) “floodlight” GE FLE15/2/R30SW. Rated on the package as “15 W”.
    Current: First second: 1000 mA inrush, almost no light for first 2 seconds.
    215mA at 3 seconds. Light is dim.
    178mA at 30 seconds
    184mA at 2 minutes
    192 mA at 3 minutes.
    202mA at 5 minutes (change scale to 2000mA on meter)
    205mA at 7 minutes = 24.6W
    198mA at 12 minutes = 23.8W
    194mA at 18 minutes. = 23.3W
    Power: Power draw was very dependent on elapsed time, but seems to stabilize towards 23 W.

    source: http://geekorojo.blogspot.com/2007/02/more-power-consumption-of-household_07.html

    Enjoy!

    Reply
  • Earth 4 Energy October 9, 2008, 5:04 pm

    This one sounds like a good case for the MYTHBUSTERS!!!

    Reply
  • Internzoo November 3, 2008, 3:10 am

    Quite an interesting post…i must say.Keep up the good work.

    Reply
  • Amy November 6, 2008, 10:01 pm

    Internzoo, thanks for stopping by and commenting. 🙂

    Reply
  • Steven November 14, 2008, 1:52 am

    Personally, I feel that the quality of the CFL’S is very poor. The light is weak and yellow. I have started to stockpile on incandescents!

    Reply
  • Amy November 15, 2008, 2:58 am

    Steven, thanks for visiting the blog. I understand there are CFL’s that aren’t as awful, but I agree that incandescents are what I like. Interestingly there is LED technology coming out. I wonder if that will ever compete on the same scale? I see them in Christmas lights now.

    Reply
  • AndrewBoldman June 4, 2009, 10:21 am

    Hi, good post. I have been wondering about this issue,so thanks for posting.

    Reply
  • bulbrater July 13, 2009, 11:51 pm

    Hey everyone, I would just like to say that I am in favor of Incandescent bulbs, and that CFL bulbs are just over rated and seem like (might not be) a marketing strategy. Overall I would certainly expect that incandescent bulbs be kept for sale with no end in sight. I will not buy a product that will give me light with LESS than the quality of incandescent and costs MORE, EVEN if it saves me a few bucks each month. Thanks, but no thanks. Please dont fall into the trap of ‘green’ tech, its just watered down stuff that tries to mimic the real deal, but it is not the real deal. Just stick with incandescent bulbs and enjoy your light!

    Reply