All CFLs, all the time: the “wife test,” the temperature issue, and the end of incandescents

Written by adam


A grab bag of compact-fluorescent related items this week.

First up, the “wife test”: it seems women are at least partly to blame for the dismal adoption rate of CFLs in the U.S., despite the fact that women are more likely than men to express a strong willingness to make behavioral changes to fight climate change. Women just don’t like CFLs, or so reports the Washington Post (via carbon neutral journal).

Though this sounds like a glib observation, the Post backs it up with a fair number of data points. One energy efficiency expert says that, like so many other things, the issue boils down to communication:

“The guy typically brings a CFL home and just screws it into a lamp in the bedroom, without discussing it with his wife,” Ton said. “She walks in, turns on the light and boom — there is trouble. That is where the negative impressions begin, especially when the guy puts it into the bedroom or the bathroom, the two most sacred areas of the home.”

Husbands, take note.

Elsewhere, Michael O’hare reminds the world that the benefits of CFLs depend mightily on where you live. CFLs are much more useful if you live in a hot climate, and much less so if you live where it’s cold.

CFLs, as we all know, are far more efficient than incandescent bulbs. But the wasted energy from incandescents doesn’t simply disappear. It creates heat. And if you otherwise have to heat your house to keep it warm, then the heat energy from bulbs isn’t really wasted. Using light bulbs to heat your house may not be as efficient as using a gas furnace, but the savings from CFLs aren’t as large as they otherwise appear.

The reverse is true if you live in a hot climate. The excess energy from incandescents isn’t just wasted — it actively increases the burden on your air conditioning, making the bulbs even worse than they appear.

Long story short: don’t forget the basics. If you live where it’s cold, insulate your house and use windows for passive heating. If you live where it’s hot, place awnings over your windows and stop dawdling on getting those CFLs.

Finally, the Wall Street Journal reports that incandescents might be illegal in 10 years anyway. Manufacturers and environmentalists are hammering out proposed legislation now. Such legislation would still put us behind other countries, but better late than never.

Update: As other have noted in the comments, the mercury issue is overblown. The $2,000 clean-up story is an urban legend. You can safely clean up a broken bulb yourself. From an environmental standpoint, burning coal to power an incandescent bulb releases more mercury(pdf) than is contained in a CFL.

You May Also Like…


  1. Adam Stein

    Well, I knew the story would generate some controversy, so I can’t feign complete innocence now. But I have to disagree with those that say the story is obviously bogus (or “hyper-misogynistic”). It references one poll from a respected source, two different sources of marketing surveys, actual purchase data from chain stores, and two credible experts. This goes way beyond the usual two-data-points-make-a-trend reporting. It certainly doesn’t pass the standard of a peer-reviewed journal, but that’s hardly the appropriate bar.
    Does any of this make it true? Not necessarily. But it certainly rises to the level of “somewhat interesting.”
    It also sort of goes without saying that trend data doesn’t tell you much (or anything) about what any particular individual will do. It’s fairly well known that in general women are more committed to environmental issues than men are, but needless to say, there are plenty of people of both genders devoted to green causes.

  2. Rose

    Hmmmm, as a woman, I have now replaced almost every bulb in my apartment with CFLs…. I have read some of the complaints about the light quality, but I have not experienced any problems with the “blueness” described. I usually look for bulbs with the same number of “lumens” as a 60-watt incandescent, and the light seems to be pretty much the same. I did get a batch that was on sale at Lowes — I think it had a different lumens number, because they seem very bright (not at all blue, though), but I put them in the kitchen, where I want it bright anyway. As for being slow to “warm up,” I haven’t noticed that either. The ones in the kitchen take a millisecond to come on. The ones in the bathroom are slightly dimmer for about 5 seconds (which I kind of like, if turning on the light in the middle of the night — it gives my eyes a second to adjust!). Check the lumens on the bulbs before you buy them. A 60-watt incandescent bulb gives around 700-800 lumens of light. You may want to experiment to find how much light output you want in different rooms to find what works best for you.

  3. Jolly Green Girl

    I just did an article on CFL on my blog. I like your take on it. I might have to do another article about the climate and all that.. and yes, I would have been pretty miffed if my boyfriend decided to put CFL in the bedroom but the bathroom would have been fine.

  4. Things Overlooked

    Why would the U.S. Government go along with ridding incandescent bulbs? Who could really benefit? We all know that current and recent u.s. government structures care only and cared only about corporate profits. There never is and never was sincere concerns for the environment.
    The mercury disposal burden and disposal cost is now shifted to local governments. In many ways it is like getting rid of depleted uranium. They can legally disburse the hazardous material while profiting corporations. Why would the u.s. government allow anything environmentally beneficial to occur? Some entity is going to be making money, somewhere.
    [Ed. — Yeesh. Paranoid much?]

  5. Aaron A.

    T.O. says:
    There never is and never was sincere concerns for the environment [from the government].

    Even if that is true, our elected officials are quite sincerely concerned with getting re-elected. If the Democrats can position themselves as the Party of Progress(tm) by pushing a few environmental initiatives through, it could have positive effects for the party and its incumbent officers for many years to come.

    Besides, even if Congress as a whole doesn’t care about the environment, individual Congressfolks do. Many of them started out young and idealistic, wanting to change the world for the better. As long as they can sneak a earth-friendly law through without angering the Powers That Be, why wouldn’t they?

  6. Shelley

    I am a woman who has been using CFLs for as long as they have been under 20 bucks a bulb, which is at least 10 years. I have them in every room in the house, and I mix the colors, from the cold light of “Sunlight” and then the warmer tones. I was fooled by the sunlight appellation when they turned out to be nearly blue in color, so I mix them, since I bought a dozen of them. I am also a heavy reader and crafter, so I found it took a bit of planning when initially using the bulbs, since they don’t come up to full brightness right away. That is largely eliminated by recent versions, but still an issue.
    I do wish there were dimmable bulbs, and 3 way ones, too, but I will likely not need to replace any bulbs now until LEDs are in the affordable range, and that is definitely the way I want to go.
    I don’t understand the “Wife test” issue. It’s just never occured to me, and I wear make-up and check my clothes, so you would think I would notice, but to me it was more of getting used to change than the bulbs actually being a problem.
    I like having a very low carbon footprint. I don’t have a car, and get all my power from no-carbon sources. The buses here run on bio-diesel (I know, I know, but it’s a start). To me CFLs were a no debate issue, though I do wish they were easier to recycle.
    The only “Wife test” I can think of can be addressed by A: getting the warmer tones B: letting them warm up a bit before deciding that they aren’t bright enough, and C: discussing the change before imposing it. Otherwise it’s a win situation all around. More money to spend on other things around the house, better for the environment, and looking like the forward thinking partner you are

  7. Laurel

    It’s funny this whole discussion on CFL’s and the light quality, and is it soft and do women like it. Here’s my story–my husband who claims to be green, said CFL’s have yucky light. So, I went to HD and Lowes, bought a variety of CFLs including recessed bulbs and switched most of our lights out…especially in the basement where the huge “Turn off the lights” sign isn’t working. No one has noticed. Not one person in my family has said a word about the light bulb change. Plus, lamp shades mask the light and it has the same glow. The newer “soft” CFL works and look the same. The “cool” CFLs are very blue and stark. And, the unexpected consequence is when I do walk past a CFL left on by accident, I don’t go ballistic–peace-of-mind and I did see a drop in our electric bill.
    My advice, change most to CFLs, keep your reading lamps incandescent if it helps. I think at this point with all the crud we’ve pumped into our air, the least we can do for our planet is start adjusting our ways and stop asking everything to be the same—it just isn’t going to be. And, in 8 years when my first batch of CFLs burns out, I’ll recycle them.

  8. Moospie

    First I must agree with Laurel about the effect of lamp shades on the colour of the CFL. I have CFLs in most parts of my home and find the best results in making the light “warm” comes from more warm-toned, closed style shades. So far I haven’t found any “warm” CFLs to buy, I just use lower wattage “cold” ones, and have no problems with them. I also noticed that several people complained that the CFLs are either too dim or too bright – they come in a wide variety of wattages, so I don’t see the problem! Most of the ones in my house are 5 or 8 watts. Perhaps the person who said that heaps of CFLs were too bright in one room could switch to a lower wattage to solve the problem?

    Also, can anyone supply a list of place that recycle CFLs? Until then, should I just be storing my used ones, or can I dispose of them? (And is this true for batteries too?)

    I should also point out that I am a woman. I was the one who insisted on using CFLs in the house, and I am responsible for almost all of the environmentally friendly things in my house. My partner won’t even use the cloth shopping bags if I put them in his hand myself before he leaves to go grocery shopping.

  9. angst

    Sorry but still disagree that CFLs work for everyone. For me CFLs = headache and eye strain. 100%. No matter who tries to hide them. No matter who seems to manufacture them. I’ve tried so many different ones I cannot count anymore- still get headaches.

    I’m jealous of people for whom this is not a problem. But for a pretty significant portion of the population, this is still an issue. And it isn’t a female/male thing — it is a headache vs. no headache thing. Replace my bulbs, don’t tell me, and watch me get a migraine = very cranky wife.

  10. Mary

    With regards to the mercury issue, the amount of mercury is so minute that you are carrying 50 times the amount in your watch battery. Why is change so difficult for some people? As far as the danger issue, the left over mercury that is not used is contained in the base of the CFL. Here in Canada, some companies are actually recycling every bit of the CFL. The bulb part (which shatters into dust) is used in paving. The mercury is extracted and reused to make other bulbs. Another bad rap the CFL is getting is how they die. Most CFLs die by breaking just above the base (with a little bit of melting). There is some charring and smell of smoke. This is normal and has never caused a fire. Just don’t buy CFLs on the black market which are not safety approved and you’ll have no problem. You get what you pay for. Before buying, check the lumens, check the rate that the bulbs lose their light (some cheapies lose about 80 percent of their lumens by the time the bulb dies). Check the life span specs (some will last 8 years, some not even a year).

  11. Viola Nicholson

    Would someone please tell me why our beloved, highly touted CFLs come encased in a HUGE hunk of PLASTIC? How environmental is that? (By the way – they have cheap ones at Costco, plastic and all.)

  12. worrier

    I am a recent convert to CFL bulbs. The thing that had held me back was the cost of the bulbs but I found some at Big Lots/Odd Lots, a 4-pack for $7.99 and similar priced ones at Dollar General. I am also a woman and think the quality of light is fantastic. My apt. kitchen has no windows and the light from the CFL’s really makes it seem like daylight. I think it actually improves my mood to have better lighting there and for reading.
    I also confirm the story about handling mercury barehanded in school during the 1960’s. When we first moved to Tennessee, we could even buy souvenir mini-chunks of uranium at the Museum of Science and Energy giftshop in Oak Ridge! How times change.

  13. rickbb

    The biggest problem my wife and I are having is dealing with the larger size of the CFLs. The bulb housing for my desk lamp is tiny — it’s all I can do to squeeze a standard 60W incandescent in. A standard 60W equivalent CFL doesn’t fit. I’m still looking for one that will.

    We have two three-way lamps in our family room. Because a three-way CFL bulb is larger than a three-way incandescent, we need to replace the harps. That’s done on one, but now my wife wants to replace both the harp and the shade on the other, which is the one that is turned on the most. I’m almost afraid to try swapping out the bulbs in the ceiling fixture in my wife’s sewing room, where she spends most of her spare time.

    Seems to me that it would be useful if stores could allow customers to check out sample bulbs or develop handouts comparing standard incandescent and CFL bulb sizes.

  14. Crunch

    Color issues or no, the outside lighting can benefit – especially covered lights that are weatherproof. I put a cheap CFL on my outside streetlamp/post and it survived a pretty harsh northern midwest winter okay.
    Many new housing editions have a mandatory night lamp in their front yard. Our is on roughly 12 hours a day, so it got the first CFL for maximum benefit.

  15. Priscilla

    Okay, a great source for CFLs is
    They have dimmables, smaller CFLs to fit small lamps, Adapters/harps for table lamps, recessed dimmables, and full-spectrum! The technology on the dimmables are limited, therefore they dim to about 20%. Buy with specifications of 2700 – 3000 Kelvin for warm light, or 5000 – 6500 Kelvins for daylight for cool light. HD (typically best prices) has the generally desired 2700 K, whereas EFI carries all temperatures. The improved technology is such that they are instant on, though some require some warm up period (ask customer service). I know Ikea recycles CFLs but as the adoption of CFLs takes off there will be more options. I passed by a new Whole Foods & saw that they were recycling batteries and ink jet cartridges, therefore save the old CFLs until you find an opportunity to recycle. Living in my house for 6 years, my CFLs haven\’t failed me except for a couple of duds that gave out in a few months but again thats was early on when the technology & quality wasn\’t as mature !
    as it is now.

  16. bulby

    There’s a helpful and easy-to-use CFL guide at
    You can sort by specific needs – chandelier lighting, dimmable, three-way, etc – and it will give the names and ratings of bulbs currently available. Ladies – go for higher Kelvin ratings for that warm glowing look! (2700-2800 degrees K)

  17. Anonymous

    As much as I would like to switch to these bulbs….
    I need the “3-way/150 watt” item –
    these are SO MUCH BIGGER than the regular bulbs, they don’t fit under the “harp” or shade.
    I tried a taller harp, but now the shade is too high.
    Has anyone run into this situation?
    (All new lamps are not an option….due to rrelocating, 6 of our lamps are new….
    Thank you.
    Sammy Campson

  18. elizabeth

    To the first (Xta/Christa) and last (Sammy Campson) posters:

    I have an older lamp–probably circa late 40s to mid-50s that went ka-put the other day. The repair guy said the switch needed to be replaced, and asked if I wanted an on-off or a 3-way switch. I opted for the latter, as I’d been using an incadescent 3-way bulb before. On my way to pick up the lamp today from the repair shop, I invested in a $12 3-way CFL. When I was at the shop, the repair guy showed me with an incandescent bulb that the lamp now functioned correctly–but when I got it home . . .

    I found Xta’s and Sammy’s comments to be true: The bulb only functions at one lighting level, so I could have saved money and bought an on-off switch AND an on-off CFL. Also, the 3-way CFL’s size prevents me from positioning the shade “grill” as it normally is–so the shade doesn’t fit snugly.

    Very frustrating–anyone find any answers?

  19. Anon

    Odd. I understand the idea a incandescent light has a byproduct of heat, so the heat is not entirely wasted if you live in a cold climate.

    O’Hare assumes 100% heating efficiency in all of his calculations. That’s okay all things being equal.

    His mistake is to assume the waste heat of an incandescent bulb is directly substitutable with the heat generated by an HVAC. Given bulbs might be in ceiling fixtures, the heat from such bulbs may simple stay up by the ceiling, compared to HVAC which may have vents in the floor or if it has vents in the ceiling uses moving air to cycle the heat.

    Regardless, the basic tenant of TerraPass is it is better to “offset” one form of energy with another which is more carbon friendly, it seems a no-brainer to use CFLs, even for a 10% improvement.

    Especially when the 10% is probably too low of an estimation because incandescent waste heat and HVAC heat are not directly comparable.

  20. Anonymous

    Great. I just realized O’Hare blog is just a bunch of leftist political tripe.
    Adam, in future please pick better sources.

  21. Kevin

    Most of the lights in our house are can type ceiling reflectors(BR30). We have had poor luck finding CFL bulbs of this type that warm up quickly. The two brands that we have purchased N:vision (HD) and Sylvania (Lowes) both take a minute or two to reach full brightness. They are really quite dim when first turned on. Any advice is appreciated…

  22. Kevin

    Most of the lights in our house are can type ceiling reflectors(BR30). We have had poor luck finding CFL bulbs of this type that warm up quickly. The two brands that we have purchased N:vision (HD) and Sylvania (Lowes) both take a minute or two to reach full brightness. They are really quite dim when first turned on. Any advice is appreciated…

  23. LJ

    CFL are a waste of money!! I’ve replaced 25% of the lights in the house with CFLs. So far I’ve had 2 blow out within 1-1/2 years and had one break above me by accident while moving furniture (guess I should have called 911 and gone to the hospital for contamanation). As usual, our electric company has to raise the rates every year because folks are reducing usage, the rates go up because the electric co didn’t sell enough power to cover costs. So no more $3 CFL’s, just regular 4/$1 bulbs for me.

  24. Mark Haven

    I am a scientist and have studied energy consumption and CFL’s for about ten years. I’m sorry to have to report that a lot of what is propogated by the energy reduction industry is inaccurate. Put simply, the energy savings are negligible when factors such reactive load and heat compensation are taken into account.
    What also needs to be factored in is the VASTLY increased environmental cost in terms of manufacture. A CFL uses up many times more earth resources in production than a CFL. At the very least this wipes out and longevity claims. In addition, it is now possible to manufacture incandescent bulbs with a lifetime approaching that of CFL’s.
    So, why the hype? Well, CFLs cost around 10 times the price of a similar incandescent. Thus, manufacturers stand to profit massively from their sales.
    One final factor to consider. The light quality / colour rendition is nowhere near as good. Developing truly “warm” CFL’s has proven a challenge whilst retaing CRI. This is why most labeled as warm white are really closer to cool white when tested in use or subjectively by users.
    Thus, many, many people find the light too cold and harsh for bedrooms or living rooms. The new dimmable CFL’s look hideously dingy and cold at low light settings as the light colour does not “warm up” as the intensity dims. We psychologically expect this to happen and when it doesn’t we find it disconcerting / sinister.
    Don’t believe the hype. Test out what you are told

  25. Adam Stein

    I can’t speak directly to all of the quality issues with CFLs, but the notion that the bulbs are a way for manufacturers to increase profits doesn’t seem to stand up. CFLs last much longer than ordinary bulbs, and profit margins are thin. I suspect bulb makers do better selling cheap bulbs that burn out quickly.

  26. Anonymous

    FD writes:
    //There is Mercury in the bulb but even if it broke and all the Mercury instantly vaproized, which is highly unlikely, the concentration of Mercury vapors is still at a safe level.
    Can you or snopes document this “safe level” of mercury?
    The materials safety data sheet sets an upper limit of about 0.025-0.05 mg/m^3.
    Appearance: silver liquid.
    Danger! Corrosive. Harmful if inhaled. May be absorbed through intact skin. Causes eye and skin irritation and possible burns. May cause severe respiratory tract irritation with possible burns. May cause severe digestive tract irritation with possible burns. May cause liver and kidney damage. May cause central nervous system effects. This substance has caused adverse reproductive and fetal effects in animals. Inhalation of fumes may cause metal-fume fever. Possible sensitizer.
    Target Organs: Blood, kidneys, central nervous system, liver, brain.
    You guys can play with mercury all you want, but I’d rather have the choice to avoid potential exposure if I so decided.
    I don’t know how many CFLs have been sold, but this source says 150 million in CA alone in 1996.
    Wal-Mart to cut mercury in CFL bulbs
    With an estimated 150 million CFLs sold in the United States in 2006 and with … For example, California no longer allows anyone to throw CFLs in the trash …