11 myths about compact fluorescents
These energy-efficient bulbs have come a long way since they were introduced, but misconceptions about them linger. We asked the experts to shed some light on the issue.
This oft-cited statistic is irresistibly appealing: If every homeowner were to replace light bulbs in five fixtures with energy-efficient bulbs, greenhouse-gas emissions would be reduced by the equivalent of taking 10 million cars off the road.
But when MSN Real Estate ran a story on congressional efforts to ban the old incandescent bulbs within a decade, many readers were skeptical, questioning the safety and cost of the replacement du jour, the compact fluorescent bulb (CFL). And they're not alone.
We turned to the experts to clear up some of the more common claims.
The claim: CFL bulbs are bad for the environment; they contain mercury, a neurotoxin, which is released into air and groundwater when the bulbs are thrown out.
CFL bulbs each contain up to 5 milligrams of mercury, about 1/100th the amount in a thermostat or dental amalgam, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (See this list for other products that contain mercury.) But with sales soaring, more bulbs could break in dump trucks or be crushed at landfills, releasing mercury vapor and raising exposure in those areas.
Nonetheless, the total amount of mercury released into the atmosphere would still be reduced, scientists say, because CFL bulbs use much less energy than incandescents. Less energy used means less coal burned at power plants. Coal, which accounts for more than half of America's power supply, contains the natural element mercury, which is released into the atmosphere when the coal is burned.
While the federal government does not classify CFL bulbs as hazardous waste requiring special disposal, officials recommend the bulbs be recycled and environmentalists are trying to make it easier to do so.
In short, if you're concerned about mercury in the environment, say the experts, work to reduce coal-fired power-plant emissions by converting to CFL bulbs. Then recycle those bulbs.
"We recognize mercury as a toxic pollutant, but this is not the amount of mercury or mercury in a form that we are really worried about," says Julia Bovey, federal communications director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The claim: It is expensive and difficult to dispose of CFL bulbs safely.
Recycling is typically free for the consumer. How difficult it is to find a place to do it, however, depends on where you live and how easily you can change your habits. People are accustomed to throwing small objects like light bulbs into the trash. But CFL bulbs require special recycling, to remove and reuse the mercury, and can't simply be tossed in with the glass recyclables.
Efforts are under way to encourage more stores to open recycling centers, as IKEA has done, so that recycling a bulb can be as easy as buying one. Ask your local retailers if they will accept the used bulbs now or in the future.
The claim: CFL bulbs are no better for the environment than incandescent bulbs: Mercury is still released into the environment during production.
The production of CFL bulbs does emit more mercury than that of incandescents. But even that amount is still offset by how much less energy — a.k.a. coal burning — the bulbs later use. An incandescent bulb will require an amount of electricity that results in a power-plant emission of 10 mg of mercury; by contrast, a CFL bulb will require electricity that results in the emission of just 2.4 mg of mercury, according to the EPA. So CFLs still come out well ahead.
"Overall they're mercury negative," says Bovey. "If you're concerned about mercury, using highly efficient light bulbs is one of the cheapest, quickest ways to get mercury out of the environment."
The claim: If a bulb breaks, mercury may be released and pose a health risk.
While the glass in CFL bulbs is sturdy, if it does break the mercury will vaporize inside the room, possibly taking an hour or so to completely clear. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends these clean-up steps, which on first glance can appear alarming: Open windows, leave the room for 15 minutes, don gloves to sweep, and dispose of the waste in two sealed plastic bags.
However, the amount of mercury that would be released from breaking a CFL does not exceed the recommended limits for safe exposure.
Helen Suh MacIntosh, an associate professor of environmental health at Harvard University's School of Public Health, posted the math at treehugger.com: If one CFL bulb containing 5 mg of mercury broke in a 25-cubic-meter bedroom (medium size) then vaporized immediately, which is unlikely, the exposure would average .025 mg per cubic meter over an eight-hour period, below the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration standard of .05 mg per cubic meter averaged over eight hours.
Environmental groups say they would not promote the bulbs if they thought they posed a health risk.
"I've discussed this at length with our doctors and scientists on staff here and they would say the same," Bovey says. "They want people to worry about what happens if there's lead in the toys they buy for their children, not what happens if a light bulb breaks."
The claim: CFL bulbs produce a harsh, narrow, cold light that is difficult to read by. They cause headaches, nausea and eye irritation in some people.
This was once more true than it is today, users say.
Incandescent lights have a filament that heats up and emits a steady stream of light. Fluorescent lights, on the other hand, have a separate unit that manages electrical current to trigger chemical changes that produce light.
Poor-quality or older-model bulbs that don't have an optimal current-management system will flicker, says Stephanie J. Anderson, of Osram Sylvania, a bulb manufacturer. This flicker might not be consciously perceived by the human eye, but it can cause eyestrain, leading to headaches and discomfort.
However, the technology has improved to a surprising degree. Some who couldn't read by CFL bulbs are able to now. And CFLs now come in different color options. A recent review by Popular Mechanics found that people actually preferred the glow of new CFLs to incandescents.
The claim: CFL bulbs make noise and emit an odor.
CFLs have been guilty of these in the past, but experts attribute both to poor-quality or fading ballasts.
CFL ballasts contain a small electrical transformer, which can emit an odor when it fails, says Vestal Tutterow, a senior program manager at the Alliance to Save Energy, a Washington nonprofit that promotes energy efficiency.
A poorly working transformer could also hum. High-quality bulbs do not make noise. "Hear your light? That's not something that you want it to do," says Sylvania's Anderson.
Any electrical unit that smells or sounds odd could be a fire hazard and should be checked out if the problem continues with different bulbs.
The claim: CFL bulbs are not safe to use in an enclosed space because they contain mercury.
The mercury used in CFL bulbs — about the size of the tip of a ballpoint pen — is encased and is not released during the bulb's use.
"If there was a crack in the glass of a CFL, then the gas would escape from it and it wouldn't function," Tutterow says. "So there's no risk of mercury exposure during the normal operation of a CFL."
Tests by the Consumers Union and Underwriters Laboratories Inc. found no mercury release even in bulbs where the transformers had burned and released an odor, says Donald Mays, senior director of product safety planning for the Consumers Union.
"The mercury was still contained in those bulbs," Mays says.
The claim: CFL bulbs are too expensive.
Ever wondered why businesses almost all use fluorescent lights? Because for years they have known this fact: They save money.
In the 1980s, fluorescents went compact, and the price has come down dramatically, from $15 just five years ago to $3 today and dropping. That's still more than a 75-cent incandescent, though, right?
Wrong. CFL bulbs last seven to 10 times longer, so they pay for themselves in one or two years. In addition, they use a quarter of the electricity. Depending on the wattage, one CFL bulb can represent $30 to $60 in savings over its lifetime. (For a fun explanation of how this works, check out this video on the Alliance to Save Energy's site.)
To save more money, keep an eye out for store promotions (often secretly subsidized by utility companies) offering CFL bulbs for a dollar or less.
The claim: CFL bulbs don't cost that much more to produce than standard bulbs; customers are simply being overcharged.
Incandescent technology is simple and old — a metal filament is heated to the point where it emits light. Fluorescent technology is more complicated, and therefore more expensive to produce.
First, the bulbs have two parts. In addition to the lighting tube, there is an electronic ballast, which contains an electric chip and other components to regulate the electrical current. Making small ballasts is what allowed fluorescents to go compact.
The second innovation was to twist the long tubing into the shape of a small bulb for use in home fixtures. At present, each of those twisty tubes is blown by hand, says Anderson. (Machines shape the glass for incandescent bulbs.) A mechanical process has yet to be developed.
"There's a race to achieve that, believe me," Anderson says. "Whoever comes up with that technology first will be in a very attractive position."
Mark Kohorst, a senior manager at the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, points out that competition also prevents any price inflation. "It is about as competitive a market as you can get," he says. "If these guys up their price a couple cents, there's another guy who's going to undercut them in a minute."
The claim: CFL bulbs burn out more quickly than advertised.
Energy Star bulbs typically come with a guaranteed life span. Sylvania's, for example, come with a seven- to 10-year warranty. A bulb could burn out early for several reasons:
- It was used in the wrong fixture. Putting a standard bulb where a specialty bulb needs to go — a dimmer or vibrating ceiling fan, for example — can shorten its life.
- The wattage was too high. Read the label, as the wattage differs from that of an incandescent. For comparisons and more, see the EPA's Energy Star site.
- Bad luck. Millions are made; a few might be faulty. Return the bulb for a refund.
The claim: CFL bulbs are too bulky for use in some fixtures and can't be used on dimmer circuits.
This used to be true, but CFL technology and design is improving by the year. Specialty bulbs are available for dimmers, three-way lights, chandeliers, recessed enclosures, vibrating fans and more. It's important, however, to use the right bulb. For pictures, information and a cost calculator, see this page at GE Lighting.
The claim: Removing incandescent bulbs will make the room colder; the traditional bulbs create and use heat, which helps provide warmth.
This is true! Incandescents generate so much heat that only 10% of their energy is used to produce light. But the location and timing of light use doesn't often coordinate with when and where heat is desired, so it's generally wasted energy.