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(6 Min. Audio)

The Battle of the Light Bulbs
By JR Dieckmann

Since the passage of the new energy bill in Congress, there has been a lot of confusion and a lot of misinformation about the Compact Florescent Lamp or "CFL." In this article I hope to clear up some of the myths and misconceptions associated with the CFL. This is not about politics or about the fact that portions of the latest energy bill were written by lobbyists from G.E., Sylvania, and Philips. Nor is it about how this bill stinks to high heaven of pork and special interest buy offs of elected officials in Congress. This is merely a technical discussion on the facts and myths of the CFL itself.

Let me begin by saying that I neither support nor oppose the use of CFLs. My views on them come from years of experience with them as an electrician and lighting specialist. What I am opposed to is a misdirected and misinformed Congress telling us what we can and can not light our homes with along with Congressional interference in private industry and the free marketplace. If people in Congress want to change the way the free market works or the way we live our lives, it should be done through education, not regulation. The choice should always be left to the American people, not the government.

The biggest problem with CFLs, we've been told, is that they contain mercury. In order for any florescent tube to light it must contain a very small amount of mercury. This provides a conductive path for the electrical current to establish an arc through the lamp. When CFLs are made, they are injected with a small dose of mercury vapor. This amount is less than is found in a small hearing aid battery or the battery that powers your wrist watch. You could make a couple dozen CFLs with the amount of mercury found in a mercury thermometer. Since the EPA has now listed mercury as a "hazardous substance," CFLs are therefore considered hazardous as well without consideration to the amount of mercury involved.

This creates a disposal problem since no hazardous waste is to be placed in the trash. Yet to date there is no practical alternative. If Congress is going to mandate that we use them, shouldn't their energy bill also contain a practical alternative for disposing of them? Right now, you can return any CFL to any Ikea store for recycling, and the Environmental Protection Agency and Earth911 have sites you can search for other recycling programs near your home. Of course the energy you save by using CFLs will be offset by the energy you burn driving to a recycling center. Now there’s a “carbon offset” we can all understand.

The fact is that this mercury hazard is way overblown. Now if you were to fill an entire landfill with CFLs, then it could present a problem for the environment if the mercury leaked out and settled into the ground water, then morphed into methyl-mercury. But just like they try to scare you with rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, even though CO2 represents only .03% of the total atmospheric gasses, CFLs in the landfill combined with all the other trash would represent only a very small percent of a percent of the actual content of the facility. Ground contamination would be almost nonexistent. If you're worried about it and don't have a recycling center that accepts CFLs near you, you can seal the CFL in a plastic freezer bag and hide it in your trash can or recycling bin.

What if you break one, is it considered a "hazardous waste spill?" According to the EPA it is. You may have seen the story about the woman in Maine who broke one in her son's bedroom and spent $2,000.00 to have it cleaned up. The story is a huge exaggeration but based on EPA recommendations. The truth is, it won't hurt you or your kid. Get a broom and sweep it up then wipe the floor with a damp towel. More than the mercury vapor hazard is the danger of the phosphorous coating on the inside of the glass getting into your body through a cut. This is poisonous and can cause irritation and infection.

Mercury was never considered hazardous until environmentalists discovered methyl-mercury in streams and rivers. Methyl-mercury is hazardous, mercury in it's pure state is not. As I kid, I played with mercury all the time. I collected it from used mercury batteries I got from a hearing aid store and used a vice to squeeze the mercury out. Never did it make me sick or anything else. We used to coat dimes and quarters with it and I wouldn't be surprised if some kids even put them in their mouths. No one ever got sick from it.

The best way to deal with these minor hazards of CFLs is simply to be careful and don't break them. Personally, I am not always that careful and have had many break on the floor and even in my hand while removing them. This type of breakage is more common with the PL-3 type of CFLs which plug into the socket rather than screw in. Still, I haven't died or ever been effected by them and I've probably broken more of them than anyone reading this. I'm still here to write about them.

You will be seeing a lot of propaganda about CFLs that is written to scare you away from using them. Some of it is valid, much of it isn't. You need to understand that CFLs are less hazardous than the common florescent tubes we've been using for decades. To my knowledge, no one has been hurt or made ill by them. CFLs are the same things, just smaller and self ballasting.

Consider the millions of florescent tubes in use in both commercial and industrial workplaces including the stores and restaurants you frequent. These 4 foot and 8 foot tubes contain considerably more mercury than do any CFLs and they get broken - a lot. Yet this has only become an issue since Congress began considering CFL legislation. If florescent lights were as hazardous as some are claiming today they would have been banned years ago and CFLs would never have been invented. You're going to have to be breaking CFLs everyday for some period of time in order to suffer any ill effects from them. One breakage every few years isn’t going to hurt you.

Some people object to CFLs because they don't like the harsh light a florescent lamp produces. The fact is that CFL lamps are available in a variety of color tints ranging from warm white to daylight. "Soft white" is closest to what an incandescent bulb produces but if you like something not quite so white but a little warmer, then a "warm white" might be more comfortable for you. The tint of the light is based on Kelvin temperatures ranging from about 2700 to 6500. These numbers are stamped on the lamp base with 2700 being a warm white and 6500 being a bright white light. They also come in a variety of wattages ranging from 2 watts to 32 watts in the screw-in variety. This gives you the brightness range equivalent to incandescent bulbs of 5 to 100 watts. By selecting the right wattage and Kelvin temperature you can have lighting equivalent to what you’re used to. They will not turn your home into an office environment unless you want them to. An option you don’t have with incandescent lamps.

It has also been suggested that CFLs cannot be used in recessed, globe covered, or chandelier lights. Not so. In some rare cases the socket in a recessed light may itself be recessed into the fixture housing in a way that doesn't allow for the wider base of the CFL lamp to be screwed into the socket all the way, but this is rare. CFLs work just fine in globe covered lights. The only consideration here is the size of the CFL you want to use. The higher the wattage, the larger the lamp. There will be some cases where a 32 watt CFL will not fit in a ceiling fixture with a shallow glass cover. You may have to use a 23 watt CFL in that fixture. Generally speaking, CFLs are about the same size as the standard light bulb and will fit most anywhere a 60 to 100 watt bulb will fit.

What about chandeliers? It all depends on what sockets your chandelier has. If they are the standard "medium base" sockets, then you should have no problem fitting the 13 to 23 watt CFL in them. If your chandelier has the "miniature base" sockets that use candelabra type lamps, not a problem. CFL also come with a miniature base for those applications. “But they look funny!” Still not a problem. CFLs are available enclosed in a plastic cover that mimics the frosted standard light bulb or the candelabra bulb. The difference is hardly noticeable.

"But CFLs don't work with dimmers." It's true that the standard CFL won't work with a dimmer. If you have dimmers you have to buy dimmer rated CFLs. They will work with dimmers.

What about using CFLs with light timers? It all depends on what type of timer you have. The only ones that will have a problem with CFLs are the indoor "in the wall" in-line type small timers that are made to replace the light switch and fit in the same space. These timers won't work with a standard CFL because they require a small electrical current to pass through the light bulb and return to the timer when the light is off. There will soon be on the market a CFL that is made for this purpose but in the meantime, an electrician can install a small ballast resistor behind the light fixture that will allow the timer to operate with the standard CFL.

The only real down side to CFL that I can think of is that if you have "3 way" lamps in your home, the CFL has only one brightness level and although it will work in those lamps, you won't get the three levels of brightness you get with dual filament incandescent bulbs. I would also mention that it is not unheard of to get a CFL that lasts only a few weeks or doesn’t work at all. This is just something I have noted in my work so when you buy them it might be a good idea to buy a spare.

A question has also been raised about warm up time for full brightness and EPA recommendations that they be left on for at least 15 minutes to preserve the full life of the bulb. As for the warm up time till full brightness, it's quite brief and you likely won't even notice it. As far as leaving it on for 15 minutes, go ahead and shut it off when you leave the room. So what if you have to replace it after only 5 years instead of 6. Just look at all the electricity costs you saved.

Besides the energy savings, there is another advantage with CFLs. Because of the lower current drain on your electrical system, you are less likely to have circuit burnouts as a result of a poor connection somewhere in the lighting circuits. And because the CFLs are much cooler than the incandescent lamp, you won’t be cooking the wiring until it shorts out in the junction box directly above the ceiling fixtures. Over the long run, this could save you hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in repair bills from your electrician.

I use several CFLs in my home and am perfectly satisfied with them. They stay cooler and use less electricity so they just seem practical to me. They don’t scare me, they don’t even scare my cats. I think some people want to make this a political issue, I'm interested only in giving you the facts based on my knowledge and experience with CFLs and other florescent lighting products. I have nothing to gain and nothing to loose here. I don't care if you use them or not. I just know that they work for me and that the criticisms you often hear about them are way overblown and often exaggerated, usually by people who don't know what they're talking about and have no experience with them. And yes, that would even include Rush Limbaugh who says he will never use them. Watch for him to change his mind when he learns more about them and can no longer get incandescent bulbs. But on the other hand, by 2014 when all incandescent bulbs are phased out, CFLs will probably be replaced by LED lights, then we can go through all of this again.