ask ken | energy-saving q&as
CFl Myths and Facts
The compact fluorescent lamp is not a toxic bomb, and it will save you money.
By KEN SHEINKOPF
QI’ve read articles you’ve written touting com- pact fluorescent lamps (CFls), and they are unfortunately one sided. The cost savings
dwindle when these bulbs burn out, and [the bulbs]
must be taken to a toxic waste disposal site. The time
taken to find such a site, plus the car expense involved,
offset any original price reduction. Why don’t you write
about this? — B.P., Aurora, Ill.
Ken Sheinkopf is a communications specialist
with the American Solar
Energy Society (ases.
org). Send your energy
questions to askken@
AMakes you wonder why anyone would want to bring these “hazardous products” into a home. CFL use is booming, thanks to dramatic price
drops, widespread availability and new bulbs that work with
everything from dimmers and recessed fixtures to three-way
switches and track lighting. So let’s look at the myths and
facts surrounding CFLs.
Stories on the internet can be shocking. I’ve read tales
of people who put CFLs in their homes and then got sick or
who broke a CFL and had to call in an emergency cleanup
team. I’ve read about CFLs smoking and causing home
fires. But I’ve seen no evidence that any of these stories
are true. (Check out snopes.com/medical/toxins/cfl.asp
for one example of the facts behind a story you may have
I set aside a couple of weeks this summer and read
through every report, news story and paper I could find
about CFLs. I called several energy experts and tried to
come up with a concise accounting of the myths and the
facts about these bulbs. There is indeed mercury in CFLs,
so I read the Environmental Protection Agency’s and
manufacturers’ recommendations for cleaning up after a
break. And because I often hear from readers who complain that the CFLs they buy never last very long, I tried
to find the best ways to use the bulbs so they reach the lifetimes their manufacturers promise. Here are some things
to consider about CFLs:
• All fluorescent lamps contain mercury, including
fluorescent tubes. Lamps do not emit mercury while being
used or handled. A CFL contains about 5 milligrams. By
comparison, some watch and hearing aid batteries have
25 mg of mercury. Dental fillings can have 500 mg, and a
common household thermometer contains at least 500 mg.
CFL manufacturers continue to work on reducing even the
very small amount of mercury in the bulbs, and there have
been significant reductions in recent years.
is if the bulb breaks. When putting a CFL into its socket,
hold it by the base and don’t use force, so it doesn’t break.
If the glass does break, ventilate the room for about 15 min-
Copyright © 2009 by the American Solar Energy Society Inc. All rights reserved.
utes, so the gas can escape. Carefully scoop up the broken
glass bits, double bag them and throw them out with your
trash. For more details on the best disposal of a broken
CFL, visit epa.gov/mercury/spills/#fluorescent.
•;The;largest;man-made;sources;of;mercury;are;coal-fired power plants. The Sierra Club estimates that coal
plants, which produce about half of the country’s power,
put about 50 tons of mercury into the air every year. When
you replace a 60-watt incandescent with a 13-watt CFL,
the EPA estimates the CFL, over its 8,000-hour rated life
cycle, would put a total of 1.8 mg of mercury into the air.
The original incandescent would put out more than three
times that amount from its electricity use over the same
recycling center. Contact your municipal solid waste agency to find the location, or get information online at epa.
gov/bulbrecycling, lamprecycle.org, recycleabulb.com or
earth911.org (or call 800-CLEAN-UP). Home Depot, Ikea
and other retailers offer recycling to consumers who drop
off the used bulbs at local stores. Some CFL manufacturers
also accept burned-out CFLs for recycling.
fires, but make sure your CFL carries the Underwriters
Laboratories (UL) mark. It shows that the brand has been
tested for safety hazards.
its useful life. When a lamp will be used for 15 minutes or
less (such as in closets or stairways), use an incandescent
bulb. Heat can also shorten the life of a CFL, so when
putting a bulb into a recessed fixture, for example, make
sure the package says it is recommended for such use.
CFLs are sensitive to varying wattage, big temperature
swings and vibration, so three-way fixtures, dimmers and
outdoor lamps and ceiling fans all require specially made
and marked CFLs.
well as those with the Energy Star seal on the package,
which ensures the bulb meets strict efficiency standards.
Low-quality bulbs often buzz and flicker and have short
•;You;will save money by using CFLs. On a typical
home energy bill, 12 to 20 percent of the cost is for lighting.
CFLs will last 7 to 10 times longer than incandescents and
use one-fourth of the energy to produce the same amount
of light. If you handle them properly and choose the right
bulb for the fixture, CFLs will be safe to use for many years,
paying you back their higher purchase price in a relatively
short time. ST