Monday, May 5, 2008

What’s the Deal with CFLs?

WELCOME visitors from Money Hacks Carnival #11 - Ebb and Flow Edition over at Save and Conquer. Please look around and stay awhile. If you like what you see, feel free to subscribe via RSS over in my right margin!

So we are all working to go more green, right (or at least we’ve all been told that)? Well, we have CFLs (Compact Fluorescent Lamps) in our house everywhere that is feasible to use in the place of an incandescent bulb. That saves energy, right? Then I started seeing all of this information about mercury content in these bulbs. So I decided to investigate. Here is the lowdown (most of these are direct quotes from the below cited sources, but I have added my own “color” commentary in italics):

1.) The sales pitch. If every home in America replaced just one incandescent light bulb with an ENERGY STAR qualified CFL, it would save enough energy to light more than three million homes and prevent greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those of more than 800,000 cars annually. Wow. That sounds convincing. Great job pitching it to us!

2.) Breakdown of the Benefits. CFLs, when compared with standard incandescent bulbs, offer many benefits. First, they help save energy and money. They use 2/3 less energy than standard incandescent light bulbs, and last up to 10 times longer. Replacing a 60-watt incandescent with a 13-watt CFL can save you at least $30 in energy costs over the life of the bulb. Second, CFLs offer convenience, because they last longer, and come in different sizes and shapes to fit almost any fixture. In addition, CFLs produce about 70% less heat than standard incandescent bulbs, so they're safer to operate and can help cut energy costs associated with home cooling. When shopping, always look for ENERGY STAR qualified CFLs. There you go…back it up with numbers. We like those. We don’t bother to check them, as they look convincing enough.

3.) Leave them on? Compact fluorescent light bulbs work best if they are left on for over 15 minutes each time they are turned on. These types of lamps can take up to 3 minutes to warm-up. Warm-up will probably not be noticeable from a user stand point, but the lamp needs to warm-up in order to reach the point of most efficient operation. Frequently switching them on and off will shorten the life of the product. If the life of the lamp is shortened significantly, you will not reap the financial benefits (includes energy & life of lamp), that are common to CFLs. Isn’t this contradictory to what my mom told me about turning off the lights?

4.) Mercury? You mean the highly toxic stuff? CFLs contain a very small amount of mercury sealed within the glass tubing - an average of 5 milligrams (roughly equivalent to the tip of a ball-point pen). Mercury is an essential, irreplaceable element in CFLs and is what allows the bulb to be an efficient light source. By comparison, older home thermometers contain 500 milligrams of mercury and many manual thermostats contain up to 3000 milligrams. It would take between 100 and 600 CFLs to equal those amounts. Well, you’re trying to back it up with numbers again. Nice attempt, but let me think about this a minute…

5.) Safe as long as they don’t break. CFLs are safe to use in your home. No mercury is released when the bulbs are in use and they pose no danger to you or your family when used properly. However, CFLs are made of glass tubing and can break if dropped or roughly handled. Be careful when removing the lamp from its packaging, installing it, or replacing it. Always screw and unscrew the lamp by its base, and never forcefully twist the CFL into a light socket by its tubes. Used CFLs should be disposed of properly, learn how to properly dispose. How many broken bulbs have you encountered in your life? Do you think that number will be reduced just having by a different type of bulb?

6.) Okay… Because there is such a small amount of mercury in CFLs, your greatest risk if a bulb breaks is getting cut from glass shards. Research indicates that there is no immediate health risk to you or your family should a bulb break and it's cleaned up properly. Ahh...if it is cleaned up properly. There’s the loophole for them.

7.) So what if they have mercury? Mercury is probably best-known for its effects on the nervous system. It can also damage the kidneys and liver, and in sufficient quantities can cause death. When sufficient mercury accumulates in a landfill, it can be emitted into the air and water in the form of vaporous methyl-mercury. From there, it can easily get into the food chain.Yeah…we’ve already been warned about the possibility of mercury exposure in tuna. I’ve heard differing stories about how the levels in CFLs compare. However, don’t you think that if people do not dispose of these properly, that the exposure will only become greater? I mean, won’t the tuna then get more in their system because there is more being disposed of (improperly)?

8.) Ummm…should I be worried now? Most consumers, even those already using the CFLs, do not realize the long-term dangers the bulbs pose to the environment and the health of human beings. (Gulp…)

9.) How do we get rid of them? EPA recommends that consumers take advantage of available local recycling options for compact fluorescent light bulbs. EPA is working with CFL manufacturers and major U.S. retailers to expand recycling and disposal options. Consumers can contact their local municipal solid waste agency directly, or go to or to identify local recycling options. If your state permits you to put used or broken CFLs in the garbage, seal the bulb in two plastic bags and put it into the outside trash, or other protected outside location, for the next normal trash collection. CFLs should not be disposed of in an incinerator. ENERGY STAR qualified CFLs have a warranty. If the bulb has failed within the warranty period, look at the CFL base to find the manufacturer’s name. Visit the manufacturer’s web site to find the customer service contact information to inquire about a refund or replacement. Okay…I can do that.

10.) Say what? Many waste centers that are set up to accept CFL recycling currently have only one collection day per year. So are the same people pushing us to buy them also pushing them to recycle more frequently?

11.) IKEA Cares! Bring your used mercury containing light bulbs to the IKEA store for free disposal. Since...CFL bulbs contain a small amount of mercury, they should not be simply tossed out. IKEA offers the perfect solution: a ‘Free Take Back’ program offering recycle bins in all IKEA stores. Or for lamp disposal information for your state, please go to obtain more information. I hope you have one locally, because I don’t!

Things The Salesperson Doesn’t Tell You:
--Compact fluorescent light bulbs may generally be used in enclosed fixtures as long as the enclosed fixture is not recessed. Totally enclosed recessed fixtures (for example, a ceiling can light with a cover over the bulb) create temperatures that are too high to allow the use of a compact fluorescent bulb.

--Generally it is not recommended to use CFLs in vibrating environments. Vibration can cause the electronics in the CFL to fail. There is one CFL bulb (FLE11) that is available for use in a ceiling fan. Check the package for this application.

--Dimmable CFLs are available for lights using a dimmer switch, but check the package; not all CFLs can be used on dimmer switches. Using a regular CFL with a dimmer can shorten the bulb life span. Anything else you’d like to share?

--Most CFLs can be used with a timer, however some timers have parts which are incompatible with CFLs; to check your timer, consult the timer package or manufacturer. Using an incompatible timer can shorten the life of a CFL bulb. So is there anywhere other than a lamp that I CAN use them?

--CFLs can be used outdoors, but should be covered or shaded from the elements. Low temperatures may reduce light levels - check the package label to see if the bulb is suited for outdoor use. But…there’s always a “but” isn’t there?

So there’s the scoop. I really am not trying to persuade or dissuade you from using them. We have some, and they have saved a lot of money for us, and they work in many places as well. However, I just think it is fair if we are all well-educated before we jump on the bandwagons.

Hooray for informed decision-making!


  1. Sounds like too much work to use these (better) bulbs! LOL

    Hubby does from time to time try to convince me of their added benefits...hasn't worked so far. I didn't know about the mercury, but I did know they always warn to handle them with care.

    The Ikea around here is so incredibly packed, I wouldn't be willing to go there to drop off a used lightbulb...interesting.

  2. I am not thrilled about CFL's mercury content either, but their hazardous material content has to be looked at from a "big picture" context.

    Most of the electricity in the US is produced by burning coal. Coal gives off mercury vapor when burned. Even with scrubbers, quite a bit of mercury is released into the environment.

    150 million CFLs were produced in 2006. (Many more in 2007, but I don't have the numbers. 2006 will work for this example.) For comparison sake, assume no CFLs were recycled. That would put 1,653 pounds of mercury into the environment. In addition, over their 5-year lifetime, these 150 million CFLs will add 606 pounds of mercury from the electricity to run them.

    Now, compare to incandescents. To keep 150 million fixtures running for 6000 hours, 2,425 pounds of mercury will be emitted.

    Mercury from 150 million CFLs and their use = 2,259 pounds
    Mercury from equivalent incandescent bulb usage = 2,425 pounds

    Switching to CFLs reduces the mercury put into the environment by 165 pounds or 7% assuming not a single CFL gets recycled.

    I wish LEDs would hurry up and arrive in useful packaging, but until then, use and recycle CFLs and help the environment.

    (I'm can sometimes be a long-winded engineer. Sorry.)

  3. Wow...thanks Bryce. That's a great breakdown of the details.

    As I noted, I am not trying to necessarily dissuade people from using them, as I use them too. However, I do think that those of us who have them should be aware of the mercury and that they need proper clean up and disposal. I would hate for people to think they had "saved the earth" by buying the bulbs and are still damaging the environment when they can be doing more to help.

    And don't worry about being a long-winded engineer. I too am an engineer and can be quite long-winded and technical when given the chance. =)

    Thanks again for the insight.

  4. As someone who sells light bulbs for a living, I am less enthusiastic than most about compact fluorescent bulbs due to their mercury content.

    It is my belief that the technology should progress to a point at which the mercury levels are low or nonexistent before people changeover their entire homes.

    Another consideration is that as these bulbs burn out, they will most likely be thrown away as though they are normal rubbish (despite the EPA's disposal instructions) and landfills will have incredibly high levels of mercury in their soil as a result.

  5. Most CFLs today on the market contain less than 5mgs of mercury and there are CFL options out there that contain as little as 1.5mgs of mercury- which can hardly be called a “significant amounts of mercury” considering that many item in your home contain 100s of times more of mercury including your computer. Mercury levels in CFLs can never be “nonexistent” since mercury is a necessary component of a CFL and there is no other known element that is capable of replacing it. But CFLs actually prevent more mercury from entering the environment. According to the Union of Concerned Scientist, “a coal-fired power plant will emit about four times more mercury to keep an incandescent bulb glowing, compared with a CFL of the same light output”.