Fluorescent lights: one homeowner’s experience

A couple recent New York Times articles regarding the quality of compact fluorescent bulbs set off a firestorm of comments. The thrust of the most recent article was that, while CFLs can meet people’s needs, meeting their expectations is tougher. CFLs in stores are of variable quality, and the incumbent technology sets a high bar: incandescent bulbs produce more flattering light, can be dimmed without any ado, don’t suffer quality problems, and fit nicely into lighting fixtures which, after all, were made for them.

To test the article’s assertions against my real-world experience, I offer this review, as honest as I can make it, of my fluorescent lighting one year after we completed a whole-house changeover. I have one incandescent bulb left; everything else is fluorescent or halogen. I purchased one fluorescent bulb via a specialty store, but I found all others at standard retail outlets like club stores or hardware stores.

**Successes**

* We have several CFLs that shine their light through a fixture, such as a glass shade, a frosted glass globe, or a Japanese-style paper lantern. We have had no problem finding CFLs to fit into these fixtures, and the light quality is very good, not easily distinguished from incandescent.
* We have three rooms lit by torchiere-style lamps that point light toward the ceiling. Two of these lamps use circular fluorescents (“circline”), and one uses two 23-watt CFLs. All of these have some success (see also the challenges). In one room, I love the way the circline’s light looks against the walls and ceiling. This room is painted a distinctly bright green, and was painted after we went fluorescent. The two-bulb torchiere is a success because it has settings for one or both bulbs, thus solving the dimming requirement without any fancy ballasts or bulbs. Finally, the third and largest room uses a custom lamp-and-circline-bulb combo from an online retailer. This one has a proper and very effective dimmer, and is the only torchiere that provides as much light as the 300-watt halogen we used to have in its place.
* Our bathrooms have strip-style fixtures above the mirror that used to hold clear incandescent globes. Now they hold globular frosted white bulbs with the CFLs tucked inside. I love these bulbs. The original bulbs gave off so much heat and so much light (the fixtures hold 8 bulbs) that we kept at least two sockets empty (yes, very attractive). Now, all the sockets are full and the heat load is down. And perhaps because the CFLs are shining through a frosted bulb-cover, the lighting quality is just fine.
* Our switched porch lights are standard CFLs inside a fixture. These are great. We only leave the light on when we are expecting someone, but it is often on for hours at a time. An excellent CFL application.
* Our garage is lit by linear fluorescent tubes. These things are workhorses; they provide lots of light, and their length decreases “dark corners.” Also, the tubes are inexpensive and last a long time.

**Challenges**

* Warm-up time. Virtually all of our CFLs seem to require warm-up before reaching full brightness. This can take anywhere from thirty seconds to several minutes, and seems to get worse as the bulb ages. In applications where we have several lights on one switch (such as the two-bulb torchiere or our bathroom fixtures), this effect is negligible because there is enough light when the switch is flipped. However, in cases where there is just one lamp on a switch, the lighting can be very dim — like, lunar — at the outset.
* Brightness. Our bedrooms have no overhead lighting; instead, they have switched outlets. We plug a lamp into the switched outlet to get room lighting. It has been very challenging to find a fluorescent solution that is sufficient to light a whole room with a single lamp. We used to have halogen torchieres or 150-watt bulbs for this job. The custom and two-bulb torchieres are our solution, but these were expensive and hard to find.
* Color. In applications where the bulb is providing unshaded light, the lighting quality and color is much whiter than an incandescent. The only place this really bothers me is the large bedroom with the dimmable custom-bulb torchiere. The room is painted white and the only way to describe the color is “fluorescent.” Next time, I’ll buy the “daylight” color bulb instead.
* Variation. Most noticeable in our bathroom fixtures which sport eight CFLs all in a row, the CFLs have distinctly varying colors, especially as they are warming up. They vary from sharp white to dull white to purple.
* Outdoor floodlights. We have these for two purposes: one is to light the backyard area when we are at the BBQ. The other is to light the way to the trash cans. The first one works great as a CFL. But the trashcan light is so dim when it first lights up that it may as well not be on at all. And since a trip to the trash takes about 30 seconds, we never get the benefit of the brightness. In fact, we tend to forget we turned it on until several minutes later when we notice that it seems awfully bright outside.

For these reasons, I do recommend CFLs for sustained outdoor applications, but I do not recommend them for motion-sensor applications, nor for quick trips to the bin.

All in all, the only things I would do differently are the trash-can light and the colored bulb in the bright torchiere. I am tolerant, though, and I suspect others would be less so. If I could send one message to the manufacturers, it would be to fix the warm-up issue.

Author Bio

erin

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  1. Michael - February 18, 2009

    Any way to get a full-spectrum light-bulb affect that gives a more natural light and helps combat SAD (seasonal affectiveness disorder) in the winter and lack-luster energy in dark winter hours?

  2. George - February 18, 2009

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I have been tweaking the CFLs in my house for years. A couple things to add:
    – In general, I over-power when I switch. For example, I replace 60 watt incandesents with 23 watt CFLs (not 15s). I find CFLs don’t really provide 4x the light for a given wattage they claim. I end up reducing my energy savings (3x vs 4x) but I don’t suffer from lack of light.
    – I found 50/60 watt CFLs fantastically valuable in the garage and basement. A 50 or 60 watt CFL produces the equivalent of light from a 170-200 watt incandesent. Talk about eliminating dark corners. The great thing is these go into standard 60 watt light fixtures.

  3. lightguy - February 18, 2009

    Michael,
    Full spectrum bulbs are available in CFL type; in fact there is no such thing as a full spectrum incandescent despite what some companies would have you believe. For an excellent online source for the full spectrum bulbs you are seeking Michael, go to the “online retailer” link in the article or call me at 616.451.3999
    I am in the specialty lighting business and 98% of the lighting products I sell are full spectrum. I don’t sell incandescent as a rule.
    Many people who have been using SAD light boxes prior to installing full spectrum bulbs in their homes and offices find they no longer need to use the light boxes. However, some find that either because of the severity of their SAD and/or the low solar index in the winter where they live, they still need to use a light box.
    Erin, there are a couple of points I would like to make regarding the information in your article. The first being that halogen is an incandescent light. Incandescents use 90% of the electricity they consume to generate heat; only 10% of the electricity consumed creates visible light! Not very efficient. And certainly not an economical way to heat your home.
    The second point is that many of the challenges you list are a result of buying cheaper, lower quality CFLs from big-box retailers. You will spend more upfront for a quality CFL but you can eliminate most of the challenges you list here by selecting higher quality products that are only available from select lighting retailers and some on-line sources. For example, one of the manufacturers that I purchase from, TCP, makes an “Instabrite” bulb which does not have to warm up to attain full lumen output.
    Other advantages of buying higher quality CFL bulbs include higher energy efficiency (measured in lumens produced for each watt of electricity consumed), much longer life (up to twenty times as long as a comparable incandescent bulb), and sustained quality of light output over the life of the bulb.
    A quality manufacturer will warranty their product for a specified period of time and will stand behind their warranty. Beware of claims like “lasts up to X years”. This is not a warranty and the “up to” part of this gives them an “out” if your bulb should fail prematurely.
    Michael

  4. Jacque - February 18, 2009

    I’ve been trying to find good replacements for incandescents in a host of dimmed lighting fixtures in my home. Two “Lightwiz” dimmable incandescents purchased from energyfederation.org lasted nearly two years on a circuit together before one of them gave up (warranty is three years, but noone at energy federation has returned my inquiry). A replacement bulb from FEIT electric, purchased at a local hardware store gave up after two weeks. Since the packaging did say to not mix bulbs from different manufacturers, I bought two more and installed both at the same time. Within two weeks, both fizzled. Then I put the still-surviving “Lightwiz” back in, with an incandescent in the other socket … and the “Lightwiz” burned out in a week.
    So this is definitely problematic.
    Elsewhere, 8-bulb halogen par 30’s on a dimmer — I would love to replace those.
    I’m looking forward to any advice, either directly, or if anyone knows of a forum where good advice can be found…

  5. Madhu Murthy - February 18, 2009

    I have changed all incandescent bulbs inside my home to CFLs with the exception of the ones in the chandelier since these are powered through a dimmerstat.
    Our porch light is powered through a timer which again cannot use a CFL (per the timer specs).
    Any reasonable suggestions with regard to disposal of dead CFLs? I am afraid this problem will mushroom into a major source of Mercury contamination of water and needs a quick solution.

  6. PBrazelton - February 18, 2009

    Madhu: check out the EPA for hazardous waste recycling @ http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/hazard/wastetypes/universal/lamps/live.htm
    Some retailers (such as IKEA) have a voluntary recycling program. If you do not have a retailer nearby that will take CFLs but sells them, ask about starting a program. In my mind, if you sell a CFL, you should be able to handle the waste.
    Jacque: there is no such thing as a good dimmable CFL, AFAIK. I read the roundups as they come out, and it seems like we’ll be seeing affordable LEDs before they invent an affordable, working dimmable CFL. Maybe lightguy has some ideas?
    I swapped out our entire house when we bought it two years ago. Since then I have replaced two bulbs because of burnout (they were enclosed, against the general rules for CFLs) and one because of function. CFLs are certainly not perfect, but maybe 90% there in my estimation. I’m putting a lot of hope on LEDs to solve problems with the current mainstream technologies…

  7. Chet - February 18, 2009

    Madhu, although there are cautions about using CFL

  8. Katie - February 18, 2009

    Madhu, both Ikea and Home Depot collect CFLs for recycling. Also try earth911.com, where you can search for recycling options in your area. The EPA also has some good information on its website, including what to do if you can’t find a CFL recycler http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/hazard/wastetypes/universal/lamps/manage.htm#3

  9. Brian - February 18, 2009

    I switched all our bulbs, except for the dining room where there is a dimmer and I think they’re fine and we save a lot of money.
    The one issue I’ve had is that I’ve broken a couple. The second time it was nasty and I probably inhaled mercury. I got out of there fast but I had to unplug the fixture which was still on and burning its light while it poured out its inards from the break. After getting on a respirator and gloves, I proceeded to try and clean it as best as possible, but I’m aware the mercury is probably still in my attic in trace amounts.
    So a tip, don’t use them as lights for home improvement project lighting. Handle them carefully and slowly. You don’t want one breaking over a carpet because vacuuming will send it airborne.
    By the way, you can double-bag broken CFL’s or single bag unbroken and bring them to your local Home Depot. They have a bin at the front of the store for disposal…

  10. landsnark - February 18, 2009

    Re: warmup, in my experience the lights take a lot longer to brighten when they start out colder (no big surprise). Our house is pretty chilly in the winter and it takes much longer for bulbs to warm up; even in the bathrooms, where we have the same setup you describe, there is not much light for the first 1-2 minutes when they’re starting at 55-60 degrees. It might be worth investing in some of the instant-on bulbs for applications like the garbage can or basement, where it’s going to be starting cold, and closets, where you only need it for a few minutes anyway.
    I’ve had CFLs in all non-dimming fixtures since we moved into this house 3.5 years ago, and in all fixtures of my previous house. I started using them at least 10 years ago in my student apartment and boy, have they come a long way! I’ve never had a CFL actually burn out, though I didn’t pack them as carefully as I should have to move across the country–there were no glass breakages but a couple didn’t work any more after the move.
    Besides the lighting strips in the bathrooms, we have the enclosed decorator-style globes in the ceiling fans; they look so much better and give a great light. We also have a floor lamp in the living room with a 3′ long oval paper shade on it, with three 15-watt CFLs; it’s a great light and enough for the whole LR for chatting or playing games, though you’d need to sit close to it to read.

  11. Annie Beckett - February 18, 2009

    Since the last time I posted a comment on CFLs and my sensitivity to them (the miniscule leakage of gaseous mercury sets off an ugly toxicity reaction which I’ve been sickened with in previous heavy metal exposure and which we discovered after we switched out all our household lighting and before we learned CFLs contain mercury), I’ve been diagnosed with a genetic condition that causes the retention of heavy metals and hence extreme reactivity to even tiny exposures. How we solved the problem of wanting to be as green as possible but needing to avoid making me sick from our lighting? Went solar. Now we’re running our incandescents off the sun. On behalf of the many of us who react badly to CFLs and other fluorescent lighting for different reasons, we beseech those of you who do fine with them to consider that we need a source of incandescents at least until alternative non toxic lighting is viable. The laws phasing incandescents leave us at a severe disadvantage; I, for instance, can’t stay in most commercial lodging anymore. Okay, I have to live with that, but in my own home, being that I’ve shrunk my footprint every way I can, am powering my incandescent lighting off the sun, and have a health reason for needing an alternative to CFLs, I hope there will be provision for me and others with similar problems in the future.
    PS There’s a large community of people in Australia, which has mandated CFL usage, with Pink Disease, a mercury reactivity condition I developed as a result of my problem detoxing heavy metals, who have organized to support each other and see if they can garner some understanding from the general, unaffected public in their country and their country’s lawmakers.

  12. Dan - February 18, 2009

    Excellent article! We went to cfl’s about 7 or 8 years ago with the exception of just a few bulbs and those slowly got replaced over time when the quality of cfl bulbs got better.
    As you have them longer, you find ways to overcome the challenges, of which others list in the comments. when the will is there to commit to changing over, you’ll find a way to compensate for some of the differences.

  13. Cheryl - February 18, 2009

    I have had similar haphazard results. I have full spectrum cfls in my craft room. I can’t put them in the kitchen light fixture as they don’t make cfls to fit it. The can lights are all cfl. I bought some dimable cfls for the dining room and as the halogens blow I am replacing them. The various candle bulbs will be changed out eventually – they are small wattage and not used much. Some are over 20 years old and still going.

  14. Kevin Wright - February 18, 2009

    To the author, Nice roundup but I think you have a couple mistakes in the article. First of all, if you find the bedroom to be too white, then buying a “daylight” bulb will not solve your problem, only make it worse. Daylight bulbs have a very high color temperature and produce a whiter light, just like “daylight.” Your solution would be to switch to a lower color temperature bulb. I highly recommend Globe brand, which my city (Chicago) gives out for free. We use those in our living room behind standard lampshades and they have a pleasing warm glow very similar to incandescent. The other issue is the halogen one already mentioned, you are not saving any energy by using halogen bulbs.
    I am also absolutely flabbergasted that you have a light fixture with eight bulbs in your bathroom, I assume it is one of the “movie makeup” styles of lights, but I find that to be the lighting equivalent of driving a Hummer.
    I have had trouble similar to your “bin area” one on my back porch, the light will get bright but not for a couple minutes. It is worthless when it is first turned on, again like mentioned above you should invest in a better bulb. I have a problem with my front porch light not lighting at all if the temperature is below 20 degrees.
    I also wonder how dark it is in your neighborhood that you need a light to walk to the trash. I (again) am fortunate to live in Chicago where the street lights provide ample lighting to see for a walk to the trash, maybe you could pause a moment and let your eyes adjust to the moon and stars and use nature’s nightlight to guide your way.
    The issue boils down to this, we are trying to make do with lights that are not designed for the application. We need to all make do for a few more years, LEDs are here and getting cheaper every day so in 20 years you will laugh at how quaint it was to use incandescent and CFLs to light our way.

  15. Erin Craig - February 18, 2009

    Thanks for your comments, Michael.
    I definitely understand that there are quality CFLs out there which avoid some of the challenges I describe; however, we really need to get to the point where you don’t need to be a highly educated consumer to buy a light bulb. That’s my biggest frustration.
    And you are right, I should not have identified my halogens as other-than-incandescent. It’s a bit off-topic but I have had a very hard time finding quality information on the efficiency of low-voltage halogen spots versus standard bulbs. I’ve seen citations ranging from 10 to 40% efficiency benefit from using halogens, but I am not sure whether this applies to tube halogens or spot halogens, or both; and don’t know if low-voltage makes a difference or not.

  16. Barbara - February 18, 2009

    We have switched to CFLs for almost all of the lighting in and around our home. We are generally very happy with the light quality, and of course the energy savings are super.
    In our hot Oklahoma summer nights it’s quite wonderful to be comfortable using a reading light that doesn’t also heat you. As for the slow-start effect, I like it, especially for a nighttime trip to the bathroom or kitchen, or a groggy early morning — no blaze of light; rather, a gentle start of 30 sec or so to full power. In general I actually miss that, now that most CFLs start pretty fast. We do get it a bit more in the winter when the house is cool/cold.
    Thanks for the tip for CFLs to use in the bathroom strips. I’ve puzzled over this. We do have a bunch of empty sockets ’cause I hate to use a ridiculous amount of energy for a stupid amount of lumens.
    Our one true disappointment so far has been my attempt to replace our little kitchen halogen spots with CFLs. I could only find one product and one source, the lumens weren’t listed so they turned out to be much too dim, and the slow start means we have “pale moonlight” for the first 30 MINUTES of use. Arrgh! Affordable LEDs can’t come soon enough for these little halogen spots! (They are the 12V 50W MR16, for what it’s worth.)
    Other than that, we are very, very happy with compact fluorescents throughout our home.

  17. Erin Craig - February 18, 2009

    A note on mercury… So, yes, you should avail yourself of the disposal options provided by cities and retailers. But also understand that coal-fired electric power generation is a huge source of mercury emissions right into the air we breathe. By contrast, fluorescent tubes use small amounts of mercury vapor which, by the time the bulbs expire, has fused itself to the glass thus making it fairly stable even if it ends up in a landfill (an incinerator, of course, is different).
    To give you a sense of the magnitude, the Energy Information Administration estimates that mercury emissions from power plants will be about 37 short tons in 2010, whereas the total amount of mercury contained in CFLs sold in 2007 was about 0.13 tons.
    CFL manufacturers can and should reduce the amount of mercury they use, and we should take care in disposal. But we shouldn’t use the mercury as an excuse to avoid the technology.

  18. Andy - February 18, 2009

    I have replaced most lights in my house with CFLs, including dimmable bulbs. I have had mixed results, particularly in dimmable can fixtures, where the bulbs seem to burn out faster. Anybody have similar/different results?

  19. Jitney - February 18, 2009

    My home is will be 10-years-old this summer. I still have more than half of the original light bulbs. However, I WAS slowly replacing the burned out ones with CFLs.
    I ended up replacing more of them than the originals. The company that made that product is Feit. Do they care? Nope!!!
    I am disappointed in the lack of quality control and lack of quality. I live in Michigan so I should be a “light user”. I am lucky to have a great deal of ambient light even during the winter months and don’t light up the house to keep me company or whatever people turn on lights in every room for…as people age they need more light to focus. It is shameful that companies make and sell defective lighting and it can’t be addressed.

  20. Bill Worthington - February 18, 2009

    Chet on February 18, asked about automatic switches; why some worked with CFLs and others didn’t, and why we’re told “No Automatic switches” when some work just fine.
    You refered to Intermatic timers. They are a recognized maker of mechanical switches with motor drives; some small enough to plug into the wall; others for major industrial applications. To the CFL they are just like your hand on a switch so they work fine.
    In today’s world you can also buy electronic switches which you can mount in the switch-box. Typically have LED displays and are programable, etc. To get their power they must return the current to ground through the lamp. That works fine with an incandescent lamp, but no current flows through a CFL when it is not on, so the timer doesn’t run. Hope that helps!

  21. RR - February 18, 2009

    I have almost fully switched over since last year but I’ve noticed that the CFLs do not last as long as they have been said to last, including the LEDs I have outside for my two front porch lights. LEDs are lasting even less than the CFLs and they are more expensive. I recently heard that the more you turn CFLs on and off (like when family goes in and out of a room often) the lesser their lifespan. I’m wondering if that is true.

  22. Tim - February 18, 2009

    Hi, I find that if you wants a full-spectrum light-bulb affect that gives a more natural light and helps combat SAD’s you need to buy the tube style lights used in aquariums and reptile pens. They fit regular flouresence fixtures (tube styles). Bulb styles are possible but much more expensive.

  23. RuralBoy - February 18, 2009

    We switched out 90% of our house lights to CFLs. Our experience has been sub-par. We have had many bulb failures and we weren’t disciplined enough to start a file with receipts and original packaging (for complaining and attempting to get replacements – who has time for that anyway?). The initial cost plus the replacement cost on bulbs that lasted only weeks has been staggering. I can’t see how the average family that is losing their jobs right now would be interested in our experience.

  24. X - February 18, 2009

    n:vision CFL’s sold at The Home Depot are the best yet. Their soft white and bright whites have very little warm up time and will work a lot of places. The daylight ones have a very good light, but is a little harsh for moast areas.
    I have already had to get replacements. Just 1 out of 20, and they didn’t ask any questions.

  25. Michelle - February 18, 2009

    I don’t understand how your lights require any warm up time. I have been on CFLs for 4 years, several types and brands, and NEVER had to wait for the lights to warm up. They come on right away, and at full brightness. The only CFL’s I don’t like are the Daylight type. They give off the most “fluorescent” looking type of light, i think. It might be because they are in an overhead fan, with globes that are open on the bottom and direct the light downwards. Maybe they’d look better inside a fully enclosed opaque globe, but as they are now, I don’t like them.

  26. X - February 18, 2009

    All CFL have a warm up time. It’s all based on temperature. In the Winter when my house is at 66F, the soft whites maybe take 10 seconds to get to full brightness, but it is barely noticeable. In my computer room with the daylights, it may take 30 to get to full brightness.
    Outside, when its 0F, the lights sometimes never warm up.
    Despite the warm-up time, all of the bulbs produce enough usable light immediately. The reflector types that are 130W equivalents, however do not. Those can take minutes to warm up.

  27. Rob - February 18, 2009

    Great article! I have switched over to CFL’S a couple of years ago, except that stupid Light Bar in the bathroom- I tried CFL replacements in there, but the globe type replacements didn’t work well, this fixture drives me nuts- it takes a long time for any CFL to warm up and give light. Oy Vey! I went back to the globe type incadescant bulbs- it was either that or divorce! Any solutions?

  28. Tony Welsh - February 19, 2009

    My experiences are similar to those expressed here, except that I have also experienced total failure of about 6 CFL bulbs within a few weeks or months of use. And Lowes will not take them back even when hey fail within days. Considering their cost and that they are claimed to last longer than incandescents this is unacceptable. In some cases I think the problem is that the ballast overheats when the bulbs are enclosed in “can” ceiling fixtures. Dimmer CFLs are also more or less useless.
    Unlike most people however I prefer the color of light from CFLs to that from incandecents, it being more like natural daylight.

  29. Tony Welsh - February 19, 2009

    That is bizarre. I have maybe 6 or 8 different types of CFL and every single one of them takes time to get up to full brightness, and for some the time taken seems to get worse as they get older. Some also take a half second or so to switch on even at low brightness. Maybe you can share with us what brands and models you are using.

  30. Tony Welsh - February 19, 2009

    I am using 9W Sylvania globes with white rather than clear glass, model number CF9EL/G25, and I am very pleased with them. In fact I would say they are among my most successful CFLs. They switch on to at least half full brightness instantly and get to full brightness within a minute or so. And not one has failed.

  31. Mary Florence - February 19, 2009

    We’ve been using CFLs for years–a variety of brands. I, too, replace 60 watt incandescents with higher than equivalent CFLs, as the 60 watt bulbs were never bright enough to begin with. It’s difficult to know what color bulbs to get, so sometimes I mix them. Right now we’re discovering that the color quality of the bulb affects whether a new rug goes with the furniture it was supposed to match.
    We have a CFL on an Intermatic timer and it works fine.
    I am frustrated by the admonition that we should buy “quality” CFLs. How are we supposed to know which ones are high quality and which aren’t? It’s not like it says it on the package. Brand recommendations would be more helpful.

  32. Ken Henderson - February 21, 2009

    With regard to colour–I found a couple of FLDs I purchased seemed very blue in application, so I used some colour medium used to theatre (pale straw, I think) inside the fixture.
    I also noticed a display at a building supply retailer from a large manufacturer (Sylvania? Noma?) demonstrating 3 colour temperatures available. I don’t recall the packages being any more expensive than any but the bottom-of-the-line bargain brands.

  33. Heather - February 23, 2009

    Why isn’t anyone talking about the mercury in these CFL bulbs? And the fact that most people don’t dispose of them properly. I read an article with an interesting take:
    http://beeceuticals.wordpress.com/2009/02/17/compact-florescent-lights-a-dim-witted-idea/
    No more mercury!

  34. Tony Welsh - February 23, 2009

    It is perhaps worth noting that the legislation does not actually mandate CFLs but rather mandates a certain minimum efficiency. CFLs and LEDs comply, but the current generation of incandescents do not. However, it is possible that new technology would change that. GE had a program to develop photonic band gap incandescents which would comply, though they seem to have abandoned it at least for now. CFLs are probably only a short term solution.

  35. Kevin Wright - February 23, 2009

    The mercury problem is real, and in my area there are large efforts to educate consumers about disposal of CFLs. I certainly think mercury should be eliminated in the manufacture of the bulbs, but what you have to remember is the amount of mercury in the bulb is less than the amount of mercury that would be released in the atmosphere from the coal fired plants needed to power conventional bulbs. We are still at a net loss of mercury pollution when using CFLs.

  36. Annie Beckett - February 23, 2009

    It’s true that we’re at a net loss of mercury pollution when using CFLs, but for someone like me with Pyroluria, a genetic mistake in the manufacture of heme that causes a cascade of effects including serious impairment of the ability to detox metals, the up close and personal nature of the mercury in CFLs has a much more immediate health impact than the diffused mercury in the atmosphere from coal burning. I react to being in a room full of CFLs or sitting under one reading for a half an hour, not because I’m being literally poisoned but because I’m so reactive to metals at this point. As someone who wrote a newspaper column about global warming for two years, I’m very sensitive to the need to reduce/eliminate coal burning because of the mercury and other very serious pollutant by products; however I think we can and should do much better than CFLs as the solution.
    Because of my own sensitivity and because I wouldn’t support CFLs as a solution in any case, I still use incandescents and run them on our solar. I’m hoping LEDs will soon provide a bridge to the time when we are sufficiently green energy powered that we can go back to the pleasing light and relatively benign impact of incandescent manufacture and use.

  37. Sam - February 23, 2009

    i bought a couple of CFL’s off the shelf and i hate the color of them. (ghastly yellow) I suppose i will have to spend even more money for something close to full spectrum.
    And i’m also disappointed about how quiet everyone is about the mercury. I didn’t know about it until after i bought the bulbs. There really should be more talk about where and how to recycle dead and broken bulbs.

  38. Kevin Wright - February 23, 2009

    I don’t want to minimize the danger here, and I feel sorry for you Annie but I see pieces about the mercury content in CFLs very often on the local and national news, I read about it in the newspaper, I see articles about it online, and here we are talking about it now. Why are people NOT aware of the mercury issue? Unless you are intentionally trying to not pay attention you should be well aware of the problem by now. It is like the 6 million people who were not prepared for the digital TV conversion after a year of constant barrage of TV ads and free coupons, so we all got delayed.
    Annie, I sympathize with you, I have an odd allergy that nobody has ever heard of too, my problem is with sulfites (not all, just certain types) but at least I can stay away from cheap wine, Belgian Beer, canned beans, and bottled water. You are pretty much stuck the way you are as it must be incredibly hard to escape. Do you have a problem with basic electrical wiring? How about twist ties on bread? Those both contain lead, and most TVs contain a cocktail of heavy metals? I’m curious as to your solar solution, I applaud you for going solar, but it seems like a massive investment to make. My 1,700 sq. ft. midwest house calculates to a $30,000 investment and our average electric bill is $40. That would mean our investment would pay off in 62 1/2 years. By then we would have had to replace the solar system twice meaning our investment would be a net loss of about $75,000. Doesn’t make sense to me.

  39. Annie Beckett - February 23, 2009

    Exactly. It’s the dirty little secret of CFLs and what bewilders me is that wonderful environmental organizations like Environmental Defense (who pretty much brokered the legislation mandating the phase out of Incandescents), Co-op America (now Green America, I believe), even TerraPass who decry mercury vociferously on other parts of their websites have little to nothing to say about the mercury in CFLs. And it’s in gaseous form, much more bioavailable that solid form mercury, for instance. So if you break one and you’re breathing, you’re breathing mercury. This negligence on the part of the great environmental orgs is a big disappointment; you have to wonder in their rush to wrangle global warming they haven’t let the GE’s and Philips of the world roll over their better judgment. Not that global warming isn’t an emergency; it is. But panicky decisions often make bad outcomes and I’m convinced it was easy for Congress to mandate the phase out of incandescents partly because it gave them a claim to green without having to tackle the harder stuff like carbon regulation.

  40. PBrazelton - February 23, 2009

    Ah, before we devolve into ranting, I’d like to point out that the mercury content of CFLs is not being ignored. Keep in mind, ALL fluorescents have mercury in them. You guys are acting like they invented CFLs five years ago and are jamming them down our throats. In reality, the only breakthrough that CFLs offer is their compact shape due to ballast advances. Otherwise, every single large establishment in the US has mercury-containing fluorescents.
    Annie: As for mercury in a ‘gaseous’ vs ‘solid’ form, what on earth are you alluding to? If you’re comparing the mercury emitted by coal plants vs. the mercury from a CFL, BOTH emit mercury into the atmosphere. It’s not like blobs of mercury roll downhill from a power plant. However – and this is very important – the mercury emitted from a coal plant can travel hundreds or thousands of miles from its source point. Here in Minnesota, despite relentlessly cutting mercury emissions in the US, our mercury levels are increasing in part due to emissions from China and India.
    Now, there is no such thing as ‘good’ exposure to mercury, but if you’re comparing the chance that it could get into your house due to bulb breakage vs. the absolute certainty that it will get into our food chain due to power plants… what would you choose? CFLs are NOT the ultimate solution, but they’re a huge step in the right direction for most applications. Arm-waving and yelling about speculative dangers when we have a very real and immediate problem is counterproductive.

  41. Annie Beckett - February 23, 2009

    Thanks, Kevin. Yeah, for sure, solar was a massive investment, but when you react to even tiny mercury exposure the alternative is debility. Three years ago, before there was any publicity about mercury in CFLs, we did replace all the lighting in our house with CFL’s, $1000 worth. We’re serious about doing all we can to shrink our carbon footprint. But after a month I was terribly sick again, as I had been a few years before, after the installation of a high nickel bridge in my mouth which apparently not only itself made me sick but pulled the mercury in my fillings out faster which made me really sick. Mixed metals in the mouth with warmth, saliva as a conductor and bruxism apparently make a potent little physics and chem lab, but if your detox systems work properly it’s not that much of a problem. Let me describe what ‘sick’ means: tremors, exploding yeast infections all over, eye grounds quaking when you close your eyes, an orangey yellow complexion, inability to shift into sleep, paraesthesia (weird electrical sensations, buzzing, bodywide, sensations much like what happens when you whack your ‘funny bone’, but all through you: not funny…), inability to digest, colitis, weakness, exhaustion, tachychardia, constant inflammations (itis’s: costal chondritis, colitis, gingervitis, sinusitis, etc.), weight loss and I could go on. It creates real misery. Really sidelines you. In my previous exposure I was failing, had lost 24# (which put me close to 100# at 5’5″),and half my hair, and the skin under my toes was cracked and bleeding perpetually and wouldn’t heal, and my soles and palms were deep fiery red and I itched all over, in addition to the formerly mentioned symptoms, and no doctor knew why for two years. Getting the metals out of my mouth and some more detoxed out of my body (but that is a slow process for me), saved my life. Over time I recovered to a fair degree. The CFL exposure, while small, began to recreate the whole thing and I recognized the symptoms but couldn’t figure out where I would be getting a mercury exposure since at that time there really was no publicity about mercury in CFLs. When I finally learned about it we removed and replaced all the CFLs but the two outside. And I had a year and a half of IV treatments which finally settled the reaction down. I understand that going solar wouldn’t be worth it for you, but for me it’s the difference between being able to live my life and wanting to go ahead and die. I have a chronic level of reaction and of course don’t know each and every source of it (how could I? As you point out there are metals and heavy metals everywhere–I have 30x the optimal copper level in my body, for instance), but its livable. I’m grateful I don’t live near a coal burning plant or downwind from a crematorium!
    Maybe the equivalent for you would be having a hidden daily exposure to the sulfurs you’re seriously allergic to…not enough to kill you, but enough to make you pretty sick. I’m guessing that would be a very tiny amount, since I think people with those allergies tend to react drasticlally, That’s what CFLs do to me.

  42. Tony Welsh - February 23, 2009

    Annie, are you saying that the mercury somehow escapes through the glass?

  43. Annie Beckett - February 23, 2009

    Tony, apparently it does. In a 2006 press release which is on the web, Philips Lighting touted their (then), new “green CFL”, attributing its ‘greenness’ to the fact that 1) new, better grade glass that didn’t absorb the mercury as much 2) an incapsulated ignition system in which the mercury was isolated and contained until the first ignition which helped prevent the chronic exposure of workers handling the bulbs and 3) reduced mercury per bulb.
    You can see it on the web at http://www.lighting.philips.com/gl_news/press/sector/reduction_in_mercury.pph?.main=global&parer
    The specific language is “special glass that consumes a minimum of mercury.” I deduced from this and my experience that its likely some molecules absorbed by the glass escape into the surrounding atmosphere. I tried repeatedly to speak to someone at both Philips and at GE about this, even using my reporter status to see if I couldn’t get a call back, but never did. Since we had only one breakage in our large shipment of bulbs and that was a bulb that arrived broken, though I suppose trapped mercury could have escaped when we opened the package it wouldn’t explain my protracted, overwhelming reaction or my reactionto this day when I’m in other, now ubiquitous, CFL environments.
    Again, I really want to stress here that I’m not suggesting CFLs pose the kind of threat to most people they do to me. My condition affects a small proportion of population. I’m simply telling my story because I am very adversely affected by them and others are in other ways: some suffer migraines from fluorescents and others different forms of malaise. The office of the Van Nuys, California state assemblyman Lloyd Levine who championed the bill here that mandates the phase out of incandescents and their replacement with CFLs, with whose right hand assistant I spoke frequently (and respectfully, I want to add), while the bill was being shaped will testify to this. They received many, many calls and emails from people with various kinds of reactivity to CFLs. And when I first contacted them they, too, had no idea the bulbs contained mercury. Initially I spoke to the Assemblyman’s father who manages his office while he’s in Sacramento. He was stunned, since his son was the one who originated the legislation to have the ignition systems taken out of cars before they’re junked to keep the mercury in them out of landfills. Apparently they decided the fact that the collective amount of mercury in CFLs is less than what is emitted by coal burning was an acceptable trade off. The bill passed the state legislature. What I really look forward to is a solution that affects no one adversely.

  44. Xaker - February 23, 2009

    Shoot, I didn’t read all of this, but I’m sick of people complaining about the mercury in CFLs. Sure it is a problem, but we can’t wait for a perfect solution before we move. I don’t have time to find the link, but there is a good graph that shows specifically how much mercury comes from the amount of power that a incandescent needs compared to the mercury coming from a CFL. Significantly less is the answer.
    Soon we’ll recycle CFL properly anyway. The Home Depot has already started.

  45. Tony Welsh - February 24, 2009

    The link you gave to Philips no longer seems to be valid.
    Also, I have never heard of mercury being in car ignition systems and (in a short search) cannot find any reference to this on the web. Maybe you can provide link for this too.

  46. Annie Beckett - February 24, 2009

    Xaker. I don’t hear people “complaining,” I hear people concerned. I wish contempt and disrespect for people with other points of view weren’t such a staple in public forum these days. Can you not make your point, that the perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good without dissing the other guy?

  47. Jacque - February 24, 2009

    @Xaker: I wanted to point out, in reaction to your statement “Shoot I didn’t read all of this, but I’m sick of people complaining…” that @Annie has been pretty respectful and informative. She has repeatedly made it clear that she is speaking from her own opinion and experience and acknowledges that her situation *is* uncommon.

  48. PBrazelton - February 24, 2009

    Tony,
    Click here for the article. I don’t think that “mercury consumption” means what Annie think it means, but I’m not trained in this field. My guess is that it simply alludes to adhesion of the mercury vapor to the inner wall of the glass tube. Not that leakage cannot happen, but Hg tunneling through a glass wall seems unlikely…

  49. PBrazelton - February 24, 2009

    Jacque, Annie:
    Annie’s post used words to describe CFLs as a “dirty little secret”, orgs like Terrapass “have little to nothing to say about the mercury in CFLs” and exhibit “negligence”. The push for efficient lighting was rushed and “panicky” and gives the government green cover for not regulating carbon. A single paragraph with plenty of provocative words. People will respond.
    Aside from the fact that this gets discussed a lot even here on Terrapass, there’s an awful lot of FUD being thrown around regarding CFLs. Despite the fact that most of us live a large portion of our lives under fluorescent lighting, the push for efficient lighting in homes has created a bizarre backlash against the lowly CFL. Any society has to weigh the good and bad about any technology, and I think that the good in this situation far outweighs the bad when used appropriately. There IS a down side to CFLs – there’s a down side to all technologies – but let’s not get carried away with hyperbole.
    Annie: I understand that there are all kinds of environmental sensitivities, and it probably really sucks being sensitive to a technology with massively increasing adoption. I feel for you, as I know people with other sensitivities that pretty much run their lives. However, fluorescent lighting is a technology that’s been around for about a century. There are no ‘secrets’ around what’s in this kind of light, and there’s been a huge amount of press (much of it negative) around the mercury content of CFLs. It sounds like you’ve learned mitigation strategies in your own life, and I think a productive outlet for what you’ve learned is teaching others about your condition, knowing it’s probably shared by others. Suggesting that there’s some sort of conspiracy (even if it’s a conspiracy borne of laziness and greed) simply ruins the signal to noise ratio.

  50. Annie Beckett - February 24, 2009

    Thanks, Jaque, for your understanding. PBrazelton, I take your point. I don’t mean to suggest there’s a conspiracy. What I saw was a collaboration on an outcome that serves all parties, environmental groups, lighting corps and elected officials, but s wasn’t deliberated as thoroughly as it should have been, even if the decided outcome turned out to be the same. I saw no discussion about the mercury content of CFLs and the implications of that when fluorescent lighting proliferates at a whole new level in the CSPAN broadcast of congressional debate about it, except from one Republican congressman whose main objection was government legislating the marketplace. I do think it wasn’t accidental that there was no mention on packaging of the mercury content, the necessity of special disposal or the clean up protocol (posted on the EPA website and more stringently on many state energy and environment websites), for a couple of years after WalMart and Environmental Defense started pushing CFLs. I suspect the heavy metal contents of many products have had such a low profile because warnings on packaging would surely affect sales and acceptance, and it’s the efforts of watchdog groups that have brought it to public awareness. If there had been such a warning on packaging I wouldn’t have touched CFLs with the proverbial ten foot pole, knowing what I do about my reactivity. I don’t have the traditional fluorescent lighting in my home and fortunately for me I worked from a home office. As I noted, I’ve tried to talk to GE and Philips about all these issues. And I’ve also tried to talk to Environmental Defense, called many of their offices across the country, but the people I’ve gotten ahold of aren’t knowledgeable and refer my queries to others who haven’t called back. If my language was simplistic or too provocative, I apologize. Probably frustration sometimes creeps in. And I’ll say once more, I certainly get the ‘greater good’ argument and think its reasonable. I just hope for a better long term solution for the planet’s sake and the sake of those who are adversely affected.
    As for mercury boring through the glass, I asked a physicist friend how mercury could migrate through the bulb and he pointed out to me that glass, from a physics point of view, is a liquid, always in motion and it seemed plausible to him that it could allow such migration. His one reservation was that mercury is an extremely heavy molecule. He speculated it might permeate at the bottom of the bulb if it does permeate. Of course he had no definitive answer and obviously neither do I.

  51. Tony Welsh - February 24, 2009

    I too am a physicist by training and was taught that glass is a supercooled liquid. This is a technicality related to the fact that there is no phase transition, i.e. no latent heat expelled when glass solidifies. But I do not think that means that it is “always in motion.” In fact, it seems that nowdays the whole question of whether glass is a liquid or a solid is regarded as less clear-cut and largely semantic. There appears to be no evidence for old myths about glass flowing in any way. See http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/physics/General/Glass/glass.html
    While it may be possible for mercury to migrate through glass I think it less likely than autosuggestion being the cause of your symptoms.

  52. HH - February 25, 2009

    LED, light emitting diodes are the new CFL. You can get under counter light strips that are small enough to double up if you need more light. They use much less power than CFL and emit less heat. They cost more, but CFLs did too. The price of LED will drop very quickly as more manufacturers get in the business. They have fewer materials, no gases, no mercury and no fragile glass.

  53. Erin Craig - February 25, 2009

    Tony is using the same bulbs I am in my bathroom “bar” fixture. They work great for us.

  54. Tony Welsh - February 25, 2009

    I have tried only one LED and that was about a year ago. As I recall it cost about $25 plus shippuing and it was totally useless. It was rated as “60 watt equivalent” but in fact it was so dim that you could not tell whether or not it was on unless one looked directly into it, with the result that I left it on for day on end and so wasted rather than saved electricity.

  55. Rose - February 27, 2009

    I’ve converted most of my apartment to CFLs over the past 3 years (except for the lights I don’t ever turn on). I agree with the person before who said they like the warm-up period — it is so much easier on my eyes to adjust! If I come in from a dark room, it takes my eyes a minute to adjust to the light anyway, and by then the CFL is plenty bright.
    So I love mine, and the only problem I’ve ever had is in the kitchen — the enclosed overhead fixture takes 2 bulbs. One side seems to burn out REALLY fast — I went through 2 CFLS on that side in about 3 months.
    Since then I gave up, and my kitchen is not nearly bright enough for me with just the one bulb (which has been going strong for almost a year now). (That fixture also went through incandescents every few weeks, back when I used them….) I don’t know why this is — maybe as someone else suggested, it is too hot with the 2 bulbs in the enclosed space? Any suggestions?

  56. tommmeee - March 17, 2009

    Look for OTT Lights. They are designed to be full spectrum and are very good. They are primarily linear, though, but I have seen some ‘curleys.

  57. tommmeee - March 17, 2009

    I agree, I replaced a 30-70-100 watt 3 way with a (equivalent) 50-100-150 watt bulb for reading. There are three of these available at the stores and at H Depot. 9-18-27 (40% bright to start & 3 minutes to full brightness) (one in the middle) and 15-30-45 watts (90% bright to start and full brightness in 30 seconds). These are the CFL lighting choices of this bulb brightness. I use the ‘slow’ bulb for less important lighting and the ‘fast’ bulb for reading. It is the better choice for me. They are both cool white, but the fast 50-100-150 (equivalent) is the best for my purposes. It is both brighter, quicker, and much like the 30-70-100 watt 3 way it replaced.
    The next issue is that these small CFL bulbs must be left on for 4 hours at a time or the bulb life is greatly shortened. If they are switched often and left on for a short while, they burn out very fast. My garage door burns them out in 3 weeks.
    Third, I replaced 8 65watt reflectors at work with n:vision CFL’s sold at The Home Depot with great success. They take a minute to get bright but are left on 10 hours daily. My boss chose Daylight, and they are perfect for that use. All CFL bulb uses must be tested as everyone has different viewpoints and prefers different colors. At work we tested them all and chose daylight. Bright white is also good for some purposes. Not all Daylight bulbs (from different manufacturers) are the same.
    4th, I tried unknown brands, the poorly made ones burn out in minutes. Cost means little, it is how they work for you and if they last. Always be sure they have a warranty and keep the package & receipt. They ARE expensive to keep replacing.
    5th, LED’s are not there yet as they are only 40 watts (dim) and most burn out in 9 months. I keep trying to find one that works, though.

  58. SeekerEmerald - March 25, 2009

    Some timers are powered through the bulbs, instead of having a seperate wire to power the timer circuit. CFLs will not pass the small amount of current the same way as incandescents, so the timers will probably either not work properly, or may shorten the life of the bulbs.
    This applies to SOME timers, not all timers.
    If you remove all bulbs from the fixtures that are attached to your timer, and it no longer shows a display, or fails to keep time, then you have a timer that is powered through the bulbs. If your timer is powered through the bulbs, I would not use CFLs in it.