5 things i didn’t know about compact fluorescent bulbs

29 December 2006, 8:07 pm
  1. I was hesitant to go CF because I was misled about how expensive the bulbs are. Here in high cost-of-living Boston, we paid $5-$6 a pop at our local drug and hardware stores. That means we can convert every convertible bulb in our household for under a C-note. That’s cheap enough that I will probably leave them in when we move, because they should still be going strong. And I hear tell on the internets that CF bulbs can be had at certain “big box” retailers for under $2 each.
  2. They take a split second to fire up. If you’re used to incandescent lights, it’s just long enough for you to think, “oh crud, the bulb blew, oh wait, no, it didn’t, cool!” Seems like this little rollercoaster ride is the biggest adjustment I need to make.
  3. After they come on, they slowly brighten over 30 seconds or so. So sometimes you think, “huh, that’s a little dimmer than I like . . . . . . . . . oh, wait, it’s fine.” The primary failure mechanism is apparently that they don’t get quite as bright as they used to, and I wonder if we’ll get acclimatized so we never really notice it, or what.
  4. They come in different shapes and color temperatures. Well, duh, but the differences are more drastic than you may be used to in incandescent bulbs. I really like the GE “energy smart” spirals (bleeve me, I’d never pimp for GE if I wasn’t really down with the product). They’re very close to the form factor of a regular incandescent bulb - haven’t found a fixture yet that doesn’t accommodate them, and they have a lovely yellow quality. We also got some “Fidelity” bulbs (they come from a distributor in RI, so I’m guessing they’re a generic packaging version of some other big manufacturer). They’re clunkier in some of the overhead fixtures, and noticeably bluer.
  5. They have mercury in ‘em, so you need to dispose of them appropriately (the GE package made this clear). Yow! it’s not quite all sweetness and light in CF land after all.

12 comments on “5 things i didn’t know about compact fluorescent bulbs”

  1. 2fs

    That last point is a deal-killer for me. In fact, although the packaging *mentions* the mercury issue, I’m sure very few people bother to look at the packaging, and I’m equally sure most folks will just toss the dead bulbs in the trash like regular bulbs. And that’s a serious problem. If we had any kind of functioning government (that is, a government that functioned in the interest of people rather than corporations), you simply couldn’t sell such bulbs without (a) making it crystal-clear that they *cannot* be thrown away; (b) including an earmarked charge in the price that went towards remediation of any problems caused by that mercury; and (c) making sure the public had a ready means of disposing of such bulbs.

  2. summervillain

    Dude, baby with the bathwater?

    Not to be all Pollyanna or anything but:

    • Right now, mostly only folks who pay attention to proper disposal of hazards are buying these things anyway.
    • Since the bulbs last for 5 years or so, local governments have some time to get bulb reclamation infrastructure into place to handle mainstream usage. Right now, it probably does take a phone call or a visit to a web site to figure out what to do with them when they croak.
    • One of the two brands we purchased did clearly indicate your point (a) on the packaging.
    • I don’t agree with you at all on (b); I think we need to erode barriers to adoption, not make more. I take mercury contamination plenty seriously, but I think we’re going to have to trade risks off against each other in order to begin to effectively address the problems that threaten our species.

    Ultimately, I suspect we’re all going to have to accept lifestyle changes that a democracy won’t inflict upon itself unless it believes that its existence is genuinely at stake. But I’ve been convinced that we can’t start by asking people to make changes at those levels. I think it’s going to be easier to start with techniques that can reduce our energy consumption/CO2 production at the minor-belt-tightening scope, and move on from there as public awareness of the crisis increases. And I think there’s a pretty good case to be made for mostly ditching incandescent light bulbs as a significant part of that early adoption agenda.

    Oh, and according to Wikipedia (at least today) we’re talking “trace” amounts of mercury, not the big globs you used to find in thermometers, and the EPA allegedly sez that, “(when coal power is used) the mercury released from powering an incandescent bulb for five years exceeds the sum of the mercury released by powering a comparably luminous CFL for the same period and the mercury contained in the lamp.” So there’s that to consider, too, depending on whether you bleeve Wikipedia.

    And finally, I need to stress that I’m not writing from any holier-than-thou high horse/moral ground. For years I thought I was living a low-carbon-debt life on account of not driving much, but the more I learn, the more I realize that I had enough bad carbon habits to more than offset the positive impact of my transportation habits.

  3. Ezra

    Quoth energystar.gov:

    A coal-fired power plant will emit 13.6 milligrams of mercury to produce electricity required to use an incandescent light bulb, compared to 3.3 milligrams for a CFL.

    I also have been getting the sense more and more that the mythical “most people” who supposedly don’t care about these kinds of things are willing to do more than they are being asked to. Terri’s uncle– politically probably on the conservative side, but a thoughtful guy– just bought a hybrid for a lot of reasons, including wanting to reduce our dependence on Middle-Eastern oil and reduce CO2 emissions. I think there are a lot of people like that who are looking for ways to do things like that, so I think you’re very right that it’s time to encourage people to take first steps like this. Bravo for you, Mr. Villain.

  4. Ezra

    Yikes– apologies for contorted English on previous comment.

  5. 2fs

    Makes sense. Note, though, that all of my letter-delineated suggestions assume (as if…) that we had a functioning government. We don’t, of course. In other words, all I’m really saying is that, generally, if it’s good for the public to adapt some device or object *except* for one thing, it would be a good idea if a government worked to have that one thing overcome. So the mercury issue isn’t as bad as I thought it was, judging from your and Ezra’s comments.

    I’ll have to investimagate…

  6. Flasshe

    I’ve been using a CF bulb in the light fixture for my outdoor (covered*) porch for a few months now. I think it’s one of those spirals. Though I thought I read the packaging from top to bottom, I don’t remember seeing anything about disposal or the mercury issue. Hmmmmm. Maybe I didn’t read it as thoroughly as I thought.

    * - The packaging did say you’re not supposed to use them outdoors where they can get wet, which is why I mention that the porch (and fixture) is enclosed. It seems to be working okay. You can see it in this photo. Yes, it’s on during the day. I’ve heard it takes more power to turn it off and on then it does to just leave it on, though I’ll admit there’s a good possibility that’s a myth. Mostly I just want to leave it on all the time because the on/offness may give some clue to burglars about when I am there or not. Paranoia runs deep.

  7. summervillain


    I’ve heard it takes more power to turn it off and on then it does to just leave it on

    I was really curious about this, too, since old-school fluorescents take much more juice at start up. I found a CFL article at Treehugger which claims that the magic turn-it-off vs. leave-it-on point for CFL bulbs is about 3 minutes. It certainly does suggest that if you have lights that you only use for a few seconds at a time — maybe a closet fixture, for example — they’d be poor candidates for conversion.


    Finally, I’m amused to note that despite my best efforts, I’ve stumbled into a trendy blogging meme, as marketeer Seth Godin is attempting to declare that January is web-wide blog about compact fluorescents month. Whoda thunk?

    ps: Ezra, I didn’t think it was all that contorted. Got yer point, anyhoo.

  8. yellojkt

    At work I heard a story second hand about a lady who broke a mercury laden CF bulb and called the county about what to do. They sent out a HAZMAT squad and billed her two grand for the clean-up.

  9. 2fs

    Sounds pretty damned urban-legend-y…

  10. 2fs

    Re the broken bulb story: I was right: . Note also that the source linked in that article is the sort of publication that refers to “persecuted Christians”…and that the Maine governmental agency referred to does not recommend a HAZMAT squad. Basically, what you do with a broken CF bulb is carefully sweep it up, put down a damp towel to get rid of fine particulate shattered glass (and remaining mercury), and if you can, open a window for a while. And of course, dispose of them properly (much as you’re supposed to do with batteries and other things).

    Anyway: bought one - it was actually too white and harsh (5000K color temp), but the real problem is that it emitted a hum. I’m going to return it and assume/hope it was merely a faulty ballast. But I’m sure not going to live with that hum!

  11. Ezra

    OK, almost a year later….

    I wanted to point out that I’ve been staying in a lot of hotels over the last 3 months, and in that time, every last one of them has had nothing but CF bulbs, from the rattiest former-flophouse in almost-SOHO-but-really-the-Bowery to some generic suburban Comfort Inns, to some pretty nice places in Santa Barbara and some reasonably posh midtown Manhattan joints.

    Also, just saw on the Make blog that Ikea now has CF drop-off stations to (more) safely dispose of (recycle?) the mercury.

  12. summervillain

    Thanks Ezra…

    Last time I was in the Central Square post office in Cambridge, they had a big display up about Cambridge CFL recycling, but I was late to work and didn’t take the time to look at it in detail.


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