All Hail the CFL
Surely you have heard by now that
compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) are the savior of the world.
Thomas Edison's incandescent bulb is the devil.
Australia announced back in February of this year (2007) that
incandescent bulbs will be phased out within a few years. The stated goal is to
cut greenhouse gas emissions by 4 million tons by 2012. According to one official,
"If the whole world switches to these bulbs
today, we would reduce
our consumption of electricity by an amount equal to five times Australia's annual
consumption of electricity." California politicians are pushing for the same policy
for their state – Arnold “the Gubernator” Schwarzenegger likes da idea.
countries are seriously considering a ban on incandescents as well. Proponents there
claim, “...if all inefficient traditional incandescent bulbs sold in Europe were
to be replaced with more efficient bulbs - such as compact fluorescent lamps or
CFLs - the continent would need 27 fewer power plants.”
consume about 20-25% the amount of energy per lumen that their incandescent equivalents
consume. Depending on which manufacturer's product you buy, the light is usually
whiter than that of an incandescent. In my experience, it is typically true for
the 100 W and above models, but all the 60 W CFLs I have seen are annoyingly yellowish
– almost like a low pressure sodium parking lot light. Here is a comparison of CFL
versus incandescent according to information on the package of 100 W CFLs that I
bought at Lowe's.
Energy (watts): 23
Cost: $8 for 4 $1.5 for 4
Savings Over Life:
Melanie and I just moved into a
that we were able to contract for prior to it being built. We figured it would be
a good test platform for some of the newer energy efficient technology (for what
our budget would allow). It is a split foyer design with all up-to-date building
components and plenty of insulation in the walls and attic, an upgraded HVAC system,
and good quality windows and doors. It has a little over 1,200 square feet upstairs,
with a 2-car garage and unfinished living space underneath. One additional measure
we took was to use all compact fluorescent bulbs in the light fixtures (except the
outdoor fixtures). 60 W and 100 W CFLs were used.
Since our old house had
all incandescent bulbs, it was fairly easy to make a comparison on the quality of
light. Both houses have roughly the same size and color walls and ceilings (off-white),
as well as light fixtures with the same number of bulbs. There is no doubt that
the CFLs do not illuminate the rooms as brightly as the equivalent incandescents
do, and the color of the light overall is noticeably yellower (even for the 100
W). The lumens might be equal, but the spectral distribution of a lot of the energy
must be in places that my eyes do not respond to. It is hard to resist the urge
to throw away the CFLs and replace them with incandescents, but for the sake of
single-handedly saving the planet, I will learn to live with them… unless it drives
me totally nuts. Sure, I could add additional lights to the room or put in larger
(and very expensive) CFLs, but doing so would defeat the purpose of using CFLs and
besides, some day in the not-too-distant future the light bulb police will be threatening
me with jail time if I do not comply. Resistance is futile.
So, with all
the good that compact fluorescents are going to do the world, is there no downside
to using them? In fact, there is. Just as with the long, tubular fluorescent bulbs
you have seen for years in office ceilings, stores, and in your workshop at home,
these CFLs need a pinch of
mercury (turned into a mercury vapor by a high voltage arc) to
cause the fluorescent material in the bulb to glow. How much mercury? Per a very
recent NEMA ruling, "Under the voluntary commitment, effective April
15, 2007, participating manufacturers will cap the total mercury content in CFLs
under 25 watts at 5 milligrams (mg) per unit. CFLs that use 25 to 40 watts of electricity
will have total mercury content capped at 6 mg per unit." Incidentally, the Hg content
limit is what ultimately also limits the lifetime of the bulb.
Mercury's chemical symbol, Hg, comes from the Latin word "hydragyrum" which means
liquid silver, due to its color and phase state at room temperature.
is a potent neurotoxin with the potential to build up in the food chain. The EPA
and FDA in the United States prohibits or greatly restricts mercury content in everything
from building materials to processed tuna fish. You have heard, no doubt of Lewis
Mad Hatter (or the saying, "mad as a hatter”). Hat makers of yore used mercury
nitrate as part of the felting process; it famously over a career left them loony.
It only takes 1/70th of a teaspoon of mercury (about the amount of Hg in a typical
medical thermometer) to contaminate a 20-acre body of water and make all fish within
it toxic to humans. 1/70th of a teaspoon equals about 970 mg, which is approximately
194, hundred-watt CFLs. I have not seen a calculation showing how much mercury would
need to be mined and then disposed of once the entire world converts to fluorescent
lighting. Some pro-CFL sites like to demonstrate how the mercury put into the air
by electric generation plants to supply the additional energy used by incandescents
is greater than that used in the production of CFLs.
Hopefully, the entire
debate will be made moot with the advent of high power LED lamps. Both incandescent
and fluorescent lamps could be made obsolete by the kinds of advances that are being
reported for LEDs. The Science
Daily website has run many stories in the last couple years on the topic. From
what I have read, there is no as-yet identified down side to LEDs either in the
manufacturing process or in the disposal thereof. One advantage to LED lamps is
that typically they are constructed from an array of individual LEDs, so that a
graceful degradation of the output occurs rather than a wholesale failure. It is
not uncommon to see commercial truck tail lights with one or more LEDs from the
cluster not working, yet the tail light is still useful.
As with all of
these kinds of debates, the extreme proponents are as wildly vehement about their
call for the complete abandonment of incandescent bulbs as the extreme opponents
are about keeping their beloved Edison models. I think that a lot of the rejection
of new paradigms like adaptation of alternative lighting, fuels, etc., is caused
by the over-zealous, in-your-face, I'm-smarter-than-you attitude by the early adopters.
Usually those people have no credentials for their nearly militant efforts at evangelization;
they are simply regurgitating what they have heard from some other non-credentialed
I am personally an environmentally friendly person and do what I
can within reason to help preserve the health of Planet Earth, but nothing makes
me want to go buy a Hummer more than watching Al Gore pontificate about how he lives
a carbon neutral life by virtue of purchasing "carbon offsets" to atone for
his excessive lifestyle.
Light Bulbs Can Become 'Toxic Time Bombs'
Please make your comments on
the RF Cafe Forum (CFL vs. Incandescent Debate).