Compact fluorescents: a debacle?

Philips may claim the “L Prize,” a $10 million award from the Department of Energy for any light that can reproduce the color and intensity of a 60-watt bulb using only 1/6 the power. Further, the winning entry must last at least 25 times as long as a standard incandescent.

The L Prize was established, in part, to prevent a recurrence of the problems with CFLs:

> The department considers the introduction of compact fluorescents, today’s alternative to standard bulbs, to have been a debacle.

> At first, the department set no standards for compact fluorescent bulbs and inferior products flooded the market. Consumers rebelled against the bulbs’ shortcomings: the light output from compact fluorescent bulbs was cold and unpleasant, their life was much shorter than claimed, many were large and undimmable, they would not work in cold environments and they contained polluting mercury.

In another article, the Times notes that CFL sales are falling:

> In a September 18 letter to C.F.L. industry stakeholders, Richard Karney, Energy Star products manager, said that national sales of the bulbs have declined 25 percent from their peak in 2007, with sales in some regions such as Vermont and parts of Massachusetts declining 35 to 50 percent…

> Despite more than a decade of costly C.F.L. promotions — including giveaways, discounted prices and rebates — the bulbs have failed to capture the hearts (and sockets) of American consumers. Mr. Karney said that in regions where C.F.L. campaigns have been heaviest, 75 percent of screw-based sockets still contain incandescents. Nationally, about 90 percent of residential sockets are still occupied by incandescents, D.O.E. has reported.

I’m not sure the situation with CFLs is as bad as all that. 25% market share strikes me as pretty decent for a new product from a young industry still working out cost and quality issues. Consumers tend to be pretty conservative, particularly if they lack a strong motivation to switch. I wonder to what extent the slowdown in sales reflects the fact that a) CFLs don’t need to be replaced very often, and b) most early adopters have already switched over.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that much could have gone better with the introduction of the CFLs, and perhaps the L Prize will smooth the transition to the next phase of lighting technology. Philips is the first company to submit a contest entry, which now must undergo a year of testing to determine if it claims the prize.

Philip’s entry is a bulb-shaped LED, and the rub, as always, is cost. The company claims that in the long-term, they can get the cost down to $20 – $25 per bulb. This may not seem like much of a bargain, although the decreased power consumption and long lifetime of the bulbs should more than make up the difference.

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  1. lee - October 6, 2009

    i bought a lot of CFLs several years ago, but probably haven’t purchased a single one in the last year or two, for precisely the reason you state. i don’t think i’ve had a single CFL die on me yet! what would be interesting to know is how the 25% share figure has tracked over time. what was that figure in 2007?

  2. Wayne Luke - October 7, 2009

    I purchase CFLs when I move and they usually last me until I move again. I moved in 2001 and again in 2007. When my wife and I moved to our new more energy efficient home where we are now, we purchase 36 CFL bulbs to change all the built-in lights. There are only 3 incandescent light bulbs in the house. Two are used as heating sources and provide “sunlight” to reptiles. The third is on a motion switch in the garage. The savings of the motion activated switch outweighs the savings of a CFL bulb there. Since 2001 though, I have only had one CFL fail on me. That is a newer bulb in my current house and it was a bargain bulb when purchased. You get what you pay for.

  3. Sara Pilling - October 7, 2009

    Like others, I have replaced ALL my ‘regular bulbs with CFLs [10] – all but one that needs to be able to be dimmable and 4 tiny inside spots on a track – so I have no need to purchase another. And, I only turn lights on in the room I’m in.
    What I’m waiting for now are LED’s to be accurate in color and affordable.
    A frugal 72yo.

  4. Terry - October 7, 2009

    I have purchased CFLs for a number of years. My wife did not like them as the light was harsh and seemed artificial, and because they were not dimmable. Since then, CFL light color seems to have gotten much better, and I have found dimmable CFLs. I continue to use them, and I don’t believe I have ever had to replace one.
    That being said, I worry about the diposal of the CFLs and the potential for environmental hazards. I am anxiously awaiting LEDs as the long-term solution to lighting!

  5. Clark - October 7, 2009

    Agreed! I replaced every bulb in the house that I possibly could about three years ago with CFL’s. Since then I’ve had to replace only two of them. I’m not surprised the sales numbers have fallen off so markedly . . . that may be more a marker of success than failure.
    Anyway, I’m thrilled about the coming LED revolution. As an experiment, I replaced one ceiling can in my kitchen ceiling with an LED fixture this year (a Cree LR6) and have loved it so far! The price needs to come down a good bit before I do every can in the house, but for now I’ll do them one at a time as the incandescents burn out.

  6. Jack - October 7, 2009

    Virtually all my friends and neighbors here in Southern Arizona have or are converting to the new bulbs. I have heard no complaints.
    As for durability, I have 2 bulbs still working after I bought them almost 15 years ago when a power company offered a steep discount.
    Also, the newer CFL’s give a light that is virtually identical to an incandescent bulb.
    I also use the new outdoor spotlights. They produce, at 26 watts, a stream of light equal to the old ones at 175 watts.
    Converting is a no-brainer, in my opinion. And, like lee, I’d like more data on recent sales.
    Could simply be the downturn in the economy?

  7. Jack - October 7, 2009

    Phillips has already succeeded to lower the price on its new (elegant) LED bulb.
    I saw one at Wal-Mart yesterday at $18.00.

  8. Ruf - October 7, 2009

    I bought a dimmable CFL last week but it doesn’t stay on for more than 5-10 minutes. It goes off by itself. Never had the problem with the incandescent bulb in that socket. Has anyone else had that experience? The dimmable bulbs (and there are a few here) are the only ones I haven’t switched. I guess I’ll wait to make the switch if this is how they’re suppose to work.

  9. PBrazelton - October 7, 2009

    Yup, this is how CFLs work – if you buy decent ones, they last forever in lightbulb terms. I replaced every bulb in our house when we bought it three years ago, and have replaced three thus far (two were in the garage, a bad place for CFLs).
    Fact is, most people who were going to buy CFLs have already done so, and they’re reaping the benefits of a much longer lasting bulb.

  10. Cory - October 7, 2009

    At $20-$25 for the Philip’s bulb, I would have to buy one apiece for everyone in the house. Then I guess we could each carry one around to use as needed.

  11. Sam - October 7, 2009

    I have bought many CFLs from different brands and found that the brand name ones will last and perform as claimed but most generics will burn out within days or take forever to turn on, especially in cold weather.

  12. Broflcwa - October 7, 2009

    I have a mixture of regular tube flourescents, CFLs, Halogens, and incandescents (a few). I have a supply of CFLs and replace burned out lamps with them. My strategy is to move to CFLs as failure of any other bulb requires. That doesn’t happen very often: Maybe once a year in a 2,000 sq.ft. house? I’m averse to trashing useful bulbs that I’ve already purchased. Carbon-wise, I’m not sure this is the right strategy.

  13. Adam Stein - October 7, 2009

    Probably not. I hate throwing away functional items as well, but really you’re just throwing away electricity instead. I sympathize, though…

  14. RPersons - October 7, 2009

    In the early 90s I was replacing at least one incandescent a week in our house. We gradually replaced most of them with CFLs over several years, plotting our kWh use and watching it drop. Most of the original CFLs are still in place; I haven’t had to replace one yet this year. I’m about to try a dimmable CFL with an electronic dimmer meant for that use. The “twisty” format might start to look OK in open fixtures someday, but it’s a big acceptance problem. I read an authoritative study concluding that unless CFLs are recycled, they release slightly more mercury than they save, assuming your electricity comes from coal.

  15. Bonnie - October 7, 2009

    A story used to go around that incandescent bulbs were created long ago that didn’t burn out. The manufacturers thought that over and agreed not to make them, for obvious reasons, illustrated out by the falling sales of CFLs.
    The CFL industry may have to wait seven years or more to see its sales go back up when those who use CFLs finally have to replace them.
    When people start switching to LEDs, you can expect this effect in spades. The industry will no longer be based on throw-away economics and will need a different marketing model. Which is good, because our environment has about as much trash as it can handle. The global trash bin is full.

  16. Julie - October 7, 2009

    I was one of the early adopters of CFLs, but I no longer buy them. My experience is that they don’t last noticeably longer than incandescents, especially dimmables. When they go out, I have to take them to the twice-yearly hazardous waste disposal drop-off at my town (I just dropped off 5 of them last Saturday).

  17. Joel Gagnon - October 7, 2009

    What has happened to sales of incandescents in the same period? If cfls are displacing them, sales should be declining. If they are not, then I think you can make a case for a slowdown in conversions.

  18. Edward - October 7, 2009

    As someone who has used CFLs for several years now, I have yet to replace one. There are probably 50 bulbs in my house and barn and 70% are CFLs and are in the sockets used the most. When a regular bulb goes out it is replaced with a CFL. So if I don’t need to buy a CFL for another 5-10 years am I to blame for the reduction in sales?

  19. Don - October 7, 2009

    My own CFL experiment has been a mixed blessing. I’ve had to replace 5 of them in less than 2 years, 4 of them in a bathroom setting, and 1 in a closet. I am assuming the constant on-off got to them; sadly, the old incandescents probably handled that a lot better.
    I do have several CFL’s that continue to last, in lamps that I tend to turn on most of the evening hours. Fewer on off cycles, no humidity may help. I very much like the bulbs for lamp usage; I’ve even got some special bright white ones that I put in during the dark of winter to convince my brain to wake up!
    In the bathroom that lost the 4 CFL’s, I’ve now got 3 of the Sam’s Club 1.5 Watt LED lights and 1 “Halogena” Phillips incandescent (70W). The Phillips is about 50% more efficient in lumens/Watt than typical bulbs, and it supplies most of the light. After trying them, I learned that those particular LED’s are too dim and directional at this point to stand on their own, but this solution for me gives a nice mix of yellow (incandescent) and white (LED) and is instant-on as well; something that became annoying with the old CFL’s. And no mercury!
    The question will be whether the LED’s, which I presume have a circuit board stuck inside them like the CFL’s did, have decent circuit components or if they went cheap on those; the LED itself would last many years. Time will tell. I will not be buying CFL’s again for the bathroom application anytime soon.

  20. robertwinz - October 7, 2009

    I must have bad CFL karma or something… every time I’ve bought a pack of CFLs at least one has only lasted a few weeks. Last time I thought maybe it was because I was buying the cheapest ones I could find, so I bought a 5 pack of more expensive GE bulbs. So far I’ve used 3 of them and have 1 that’s no good: it flickers out after a few minutes (comes back on for another few minutes if I tap or shake it). Bring on the LEDs.

  21. Adam Stein - October 7, 2009

    There was some speculation on a previous comment thread that voltage spikes in the electricity system might be an issue for CFLs. If so, then some homes are just cursed — you can’t really control the steadiness of your electricity supply.
    I have no idea if this theory is actually true, but it would explain some of the bad luck that people have.

  22. Dirk - October 7, 2009

    As our CFL’s burn out we are switching to LED’s. CFL’s are old technology. I would never even consider buying an incandescent bulb again.

  23. Rob Lewis - October 7, 2009

    The industry has shot themselves in the foot. Example: the package for a Sylvania CFL I recently bought says, in bold red letters, “Use anywhere you would use a normal light bulb.” Then the fine print on the back says “Don’t use with dimmers.” Nice.
    Most of my CFL’s have worked OK. I have seen some infant mortality, especially the outdoor spotlights I got at Costco: terrible.
    Once I called the fire department because there was a smell of burning electronics that I couldn’t locate. Turned out to be an old CFL in a floor lamp that finally died.

  24. Peter - October 7, 2009

    Sara – You can now get dimmable reflector flood CFLs. Not sure whether they come in table-lamp friendly sizes, though.

  25. gatcheson - October 7, 2009

    I agree cheap CFLs hurt the general acceptance and it is good the DOE recognizes this. I am a little fuzzy how a prize addresses the issue. One good LED example does not stop other manufacturers from putting out junk that will give consumers a bad impression.
    I also wish there was a little more information on the Phillips lamp, but I see the original article also says very little.

  26. Kathy - October 7, 2009

    I’m an environmentalist who has not replaced one light bulb in my house/office with a CFL for many reasons, but most importantly I can’t think when I am working under CFL lighting. I become agitated and spacey. Over the years I have read research about the lighting’s affect on bone development in growing children as well as influencing their concentration abilities. I also found personally that after working under the lights influence for a year in a half in an office building, I suddenly needed glasses in my mid twenties.
    Fortunately, there are inventors working on newer/safer technology like David Cunningham, an inventor in Los Angeles who has supposedly developed a reflective coating and fixture design that he believes could make incandescents 100 percent more efficient while we wait for the LED cost to come down.

  27. Mary Park-Smith - October 7, 2009

    I have them and use them in some(most) rooms. They do not last as the are supposed to do..mine last 6 months or less. Then how to dispose of them?? Also the light is dim, or harsh, and unpleasant. So I’ve not seem any paricular savings on my electric usage either. When the next one goes out, I am considering replacing with a standard bulb.

  28. Tony - October 7, 2009

    I long ago replaced my conventional bulbs with CFLs. A few didn’t last long, but most have lasted many years and continue to do well. I did find out that one reason CFLs can fail is that people twist them a little too much when installing them, the glass gets micro cracks, and the bulb stops working. I’ve since then screwed them in lightly and haven’t had one that fails, not even the cheapies.
    Disposal is no problem as they rarely burn out. If one does burn out, I put it in a box with my recyclables and take it with me when I drop off other hazardous waste, about once every two years.

  29. Dirk - October 7, 2009

    EVERY Home Depot has a CFL Recycling Center. Just bring them in and drop them off.

  30. Mary Park-Smith - October 7, 2009

    exactly my experience.

  31. Mike - October 7, 2009

    There are lots of generally positive comments about CFLs here, which seems to contradict the sales data. I keep trying CFLs, but have not found one that has an acceptable color for a living area. Moreover, lumninosity is generally not as advertised (I prefer equivalent of 100W incandescent) and there are many lamps and overhead fixtures that won’t accept the size or shape of available CFLs. Let’s not forget that, despite best efforts, some CFLs will inevitably break…I’ve gotten dosed more than once by CFLs and regular fluorescents. My CFLs are all banished to the basement, attic, and garage. I wish CFLs were better, but they aren’t. It’s great if they work for some people, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that they are likely to generate much more acceptance than they already have. We shouldn’t be surprised if sales continue to go down, as the early acceptors’ bulbs continue to last and the rest of us continue to wait for a better solution.

  32. Michael - October 7, 2009

    Good quality CFLs will last 15 to 20 times as long as an incandescent. If your bulbs aren’t lasting this long try a better quality bulb like TCP

  33. Rob Lewis - October 7, 2009

    Kathy: blaming your need for glasses on fluorescent lighting is a textbook example of the “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” fallacy (“Event B happened after event A, therefore event A caused event B”).
    Children’s bone development? Really? I’d love to see the research on that.

  34. Michael - October 7, 2009

    Stay away from the multi-packs! They are generally cheaply-made CFLs. Many companies want to sell a lot of bulbs and therefore have specified that the manufacturers use lesser-quality components. TCP

  35. Michael - October 7, 2009

    Power spikes can be remedied by installing a power conditioner on your electrical service panel. This will also protect all of the electronics in your home, not just the CFLs.
    If you want more information on this contact me at – be sure to put “power conditioner” in the subject line!

  36. Carla - October 7, 2009

    We were early adopters and had wonderful experiences with early CFLs. They lasted beyond when we moved out of our last house. We just finished building a new house and almost all the lights are CFLs (with the exception of several LEDs, including the 3 CREE cans over my desk that I absolutely love). Unfortunately the newer CFLs are failing at a discouraging rate. The quality control must be falling off. I hope it isn’t planned obsolescence to counteract the decrease in sales due to their long lifetimes.

  37. Todd Nixon - October 7, 2009

    Hey folks, there’s a new light bulb out using a new technology called Electron Stimulated Luminescence (ESL), but it is in limited production right now. It has all the best qualities of both CFL and incandescent: They are instant on, no warm up time, fully dimmable, no mercury, good lumens per watt (energy efficient), last 6000 hrs, CRI is claimed at 95+, color can be made wide ranging, and the shape for now is limited to reflector style bulbs, but they will be made to fit existing incandescent light fixtures. They will be a bit pricey but not as much as LEDs.
    As for CFLs I have had mostly positive results with them lasting much longer than incandescent bulbs. The tecnology has improved over time but as always the more consumer demand there is for a product the more lower quality products creep into the marketplace and people always tend to buy the cheapest product and expect good quality. It doesn’t help when major chain stores buy only the cheap products too, making a majority of consumers believe that that all CFLs are poor quality. As with buying any consumer electronic the more knowledgable you are the better off you’ll be in making a wise decision on the quality of the brand name and where to buy them for a reasonable price. A Texas based online retailer (hint: 1000) has a huge selection of light bulbs and has done all the quality assurance for their customers, great customer service, gurantees and has reasonable prices too.

  38. Anonymous - October 7, 2009

    I have seen a Thomas Edison lightbulb that has been burning for about 80 years. I wondered why these bulbs were not available, and was told that 1) the manufacturers would not stay in business if consumers did not purchase bulbs more regularly, and 2) consumers tended to buy the less expensive bulbs. I will gladly pay extra for the new Phillips bulbs once my CFL’s go out…

  39. Anonymous - October 7, 2009

    I will concur with the skepticism about the effect of CFL’s on getting glasses and on bone density. I would think that bone development might be correlated more strongly with the fact that children do not go outside and play as much as they used to, but that is just me thinking out loud…

  40. disdaniel - October 7, 2009

    I bought ~150 (15W & 25W) CFLs over 3 years ago and replaced most of the lights in my house and my parents house (where about half went) and my siblings houses. We’ve lost two or three CFLs since, but that still seems like okay longevity performance to me. Just last week my dad complained to me that the CFL light over the chair that he reads in died. That light probably sees the most use.
    On the negative side, I have had bad experience with some low wattage CFL bulbs (7W) in a candelabra style light fixture that I use most. 6 bulbs fit in the fixture and I’ve had to replace 4 of them in the past 3 years. Not sure if it is the fixture, or the niche/odd 40W-replacement size bulb that for a long time limited my bulb choices to one made-in-china brand. Even with this bad luck, I save 200W/hr or roughly 1kw/day as a result of this switch. In three years that = ~$100 in utility savings; which more than offsets the bulb cost even counting the bad ones.

  41. disdaniel - October 7, 2009

    Actually I have a question about the LED bulbs. While LEDs can be superbright if you look AT them, I’ve been unimpressed with the light they deliver to a reading surface, if that surface is more than a couple feet away.
    Are they fixing/fixed this problem? and what do I need to look for on an LED bulb/package to know?

  42. lee - October 7, 2009

    A Texas based online retailer (hint: 1000) has a huge selection of light bulbs
    i think i’m going to need a better hint….

  43. Todd Nixon - October 7, 2009

    Disdaniel: LED technology is to blame, not the mfrs. LED are notorius for low lumens/foot quality. Meaning the farther away the bulb is from what you want it to illuminate the worse they are. The only way around this is to buy PAR (parabolic reflective) LEDs, they use mirror like surfaces in the back of the bulb to reflect all the light in a certain direction. Only used in ceiling fixtures, but even then not great. Use all other LED bulbs for ambient lighting only.

  44. lee - October 7, 2009

    of course! thanks, Adam!

  45. gatcheson - October 7, 2009

    The photo at the top of the page is an unusual configuration for an LED bulb, because individual LEDs are always directional (the light is focused in just one way). So this is confusing to recommend PAR style directional bulbs since the majority of LED bulbs are already laid out like this.
    Look for the lumens, which is the light output and the basis for the 60 watt equivalent. But that can be a challenge because the manufacturers usually say “60 watt equivalent warm white” rather than hard numbers like lumens and color temperature.

  46. Todd - October 7, 2009

    You are correct that most LEDs are focused reflections (PARs) already. The only way to overcome the poor lumens issue. I wrote my response in haste and I mistakenly made it appear as a recommendation, rather than an explanation. I was assuming that this person may have bought an incandescent shaped LED bulb that has no focusing or reflective surfaces and was very dissapointed in using it in a table/reading lamp.

  47. BobboMax - October 7, 2009

    I collect CFLs at my fellowship & take them to HD, as you suggest- one question they can’t answer is what actually happens to them- “I dunno- we’ve got a big drum in back and when it’s full we ship it off…”
    Do you happen to know if HD actually recycles the components, especially the mercury, or just disposes of them “responsibly”?

  48. lee - October 9, 2009

    according to this source CFL share is indeed growing, although at a very slow rate it would seem: