Friday, October 16, 2009

The truth about CFLs

Fluorescent lighting has been around since the late 1930s, so you'd think it would be more popular, right? After all, they last longer and they're "green." So why the long road to acceptance?

Perhaps CFLs have gotten a bad rap due to the flaws of early-generation versions coupled with myths about today's standard CFLs.

For one, CFLs are more expensive, but only at first. According to Energy Star, the joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy, a CFL will save about $30 over its lifetime and pay for itself in about six months. Add in the benefits of conservation plus the warm and fuzzy feeling you get for being environmentally conscious. Priceless.

Fire, UV Radiation and Mercury
There is also the fear that CFLs expose consumers to the dangers of mercury and ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Some believe that CFLs pose a fire hazard. Since CFLs operate at a lower temperature than incandescents, CFLs actually reduce the threat of a fire caused by lighting fixtures in your home. Still, you should always be sure that your CFL is UL- (Underwriters Laboratory, a products-compliance firm) and Energy Star-certified. Don't be concerned when your CFL finally burns out because it may smoke a little and smell of melted plastic. This is common and not considered dangerous.

While CFLs do emit some UV radiation that ranges from 50-140 microwatts/lumen, UV emissions from a CFL are not considered hazardous and are far less than the amount in natural sunlight. Studies have shown that after 70 years of operation, there have been no significant health problems reported from UV emissions related to fluorescent lighting. Today, double-envelope CFLs, which have a glass or plastic cover which makes them look like incandescent bulbs, emit essentially no UV radiation.

It's no myth that a CFL contains mercury and upon the end of its life must be disposed of properly. The truth is that you'll only be exposed to the mercury inside a CFL if its broken. (See below for how to dispose of a broken CFL.) The use of CFLs actually prevents mercury from being emitted into the air because they require less energy to operate. Over a five-year period, a power plant that burns fossil fuels such as coal, diesel and natural gas to create electricity will emit 10 mg of mercury into the air to light an incandescent bulb. The same power plant will only emit 2.4 mg of mercury to light a CFL in the same period.

Recycling CFLs
If Energy Star-certified CFL is broken, it will release 4 mg of mercury. So it is important that CFLs are disposed of properly. Check your municipal Web site for disposal options, visit or for more information about recycling CFLs, or simply bring your used CFLs to Home Depot or Ikea. Some organizations have created convenient ways for you to ship your used CFLs to a recycling center. The Veolia ES CFL FedEx Recycle Pak allows you to collect and ship your used CFLs right from your home. Find it at the Gateway Energy Store ( and search "Veolia."

Again, always be sure that the CFL you purchase is Energy Star-certified so you know that the amount of mercury is regulated. Go to or to learn more.

What If It Breaks?
If you break a CFL in your home, first ventilate the room. Open windows and turn off the central a/c or forced-air heating system, if you have one. Wear disposable gloves. For hard surfaces, use stiff paper or cardboard to scoop up fragments and sticky tape (like duct tape) to get any glass or powder left over. Avoid sweeping or vacuuming because that will flick particles around the room. Put the clean-up materials and broken pieces into a glass jar or sealed plastic bag. On carpeted surfaces, carefully pick up fragments and use sticky tape for remnants. If you must vacuum, vacuum only the area where the bulb was broken. Remove the vacuum bag or empty and wipe the canister. Put the vacuum bag and broken pieces into a glass jar or sealed plastic bag. Put the bag or jar in a trash container outside your house for the next normal trash pickup.

No Longer The Ugly Duckling
So, you may be sold on the benefits of CFLs and you realize that they're safe to use inside your home, but you may still be skeptical.

Recent conversations that we've heard from family and friends echo general criticism about CFLs: "They're so ugly." "I can't use them in my fixtures that dim." "I can't use them in my 3-way lamps." We have good news: Recently, manufacturers have made huge strides. Unlike their earliest counterparts, today's CFLs do not buzz or flicker. While it's true that most are not dimmable or useful in a 3-way lamp, manufacturers have wised up and begun to make dimmable and 3-way CFLs to allow you to create the same lighting ambience to which you've grown accustomed in your home.

Find all types of CFLs - standard spiral; covered A-shaped, which look like incandescents; covered globes for bathroom vanities and ceiling pendants; candle bases for decorative fixtures; reflectors for indoors and outdoors; dimmable and 3-ways, along with compatible accessories - at the Gateway Energy Store ( as well as some other online retailers including Amazon. Watch your shipping costs though: standard shipping on a dimmable CFL can run you almost as much as the CFL itself. Buy five or six, so you get the most for your cost.

Did You Know?
Calling CFLs "compact fluorescent light bulbs" is actually a misnomer? For all you Cliff Clavins out there, CFLs are actually "compact fluorescent lamps." In lamp-industry jargon, a lamp is a device that generates light when connected to electric power. The term "bulb" is used to describe the glassware before it is made into a functional lamp. In addition, the device that most users would call a lamp is called a fixture or luminaire in the lighting industry. For example, what most people refer to as a table lamp is technically called a portable fixture. Yes, Cliffy would be proud.

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