Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs: One Consumer’s Viewpoint

The incandescent light bulb, you know the regular household bulb, has been in use for roughly 125 years. It appears that its demise as the predominant source of lighting is imminent. Replacing it is the compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL) which has been around for roughly 30 years. They were originally promoted as the solution to the energy crisis of the 1970s. Back then they were bulky, expensive and just plain ugly. Consumers just did not like them.

Compact Fluorescent Bulbs

Now in 2007 they are much smaller, reasonably attractive looking, and even more efficient. The reason for the renewed interest by governments and environmental groups is that very significant energy savings can be achieved with their use. A groundswell of support is gaining momentum in an effort to ban the regular (incandescent) light bulb and replace it with the CFL. Consumers need to assure themselves that these are safe and friendly to the environment. Governments must have thought this all through if they are implementing this compulsory change, or have they?The Government of Canada has decided to ban the common (incandescent) light bulb by the year 2012. Little thought has been given to the potential environmental and health risks associated with this change. Environmentalists are praising the step, but seem to have ignored a couple of key issues. With every change there is always a downside. Environmental groups tend to forget about the downside sometimes because it is convenient to do so, or because it doesn’t fit with their agenda.

I believe that there are definitely pros to this change, but also significant adverse impacts that cannot be ignored.

The big advantage of CFLs over incandescent bulbs is the major energy savings available. The basic difference between an incandescent bulb and a CFL is in the amount of light and heat generated. An incandescent bulb is not at all energy efficient. The good old everyday light bulb converts less than 10 percent of the energy it uses into light. The remaining 90 percent is wasted as heat. Where does most of the electricity come from to power these lights? Why usually from dirty, coal-fired generating plants that are one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. No wonder the environmentalists and government want to get rid of them.

On the other hand a CFL puts out 95 percent light with only 5 percent wasted as heat. The CFLs also last roughly ten times longer than an incandescent light bulb. This longer life is reduced though it the bulb is turned on and off too often. They are actually more efficient and last longer if left on.

According to EnergyStar, an organization that promotes energy efficiency, if every household in the United States made the switch in just one socket, it would be the global warming equivalent of taking 800,000 cars off the road . This adds up to an environmentalist’s dream. The result is an apparently easy way to put a dent in the release of greenhouse gas emissions, the primary “cause” of global warming.

CFLs contain mercury. Mercury is a toxic substance that is extremely hazardous to the environment and to health. Proper disposal is imperative. The danger occurs when a CFL breaks. The mercury is then released to the atmosphere. It is harmful if inhaled.

However, the amount of mercury in a CFL is very small, about 10 milligrams. To put this in perspective, it is roughly the amount needed to cover the head of a ballpoint pen ball. The amount of mercury in a household thermometer is about 500 milligrams.

Mercury is very difficult to cleanup and does not breakdown over time. The impact of the mercury from one bulb is not significant, but if millions of these come into everyday use, the potential impact increases dramatically.

Governments, environmental groups, and consumers need to satisfy themselves that an efficient and safe cleanup of a broken bulb is possible. The cumulative effect of the disposal of millions of CFLs into landfills must also be considered. The escape of mercury from landfills to our groundwater aquifers could be catastrophic. Larger corporate users are working on disposal solutions. Hopefully the solutions of the larger users will be transferable to the everyday consumer who only needs to dispose of a few of these bulbs a year.

Based on my research, I have decided that I will use the technology, but with certain conditions. First I do not intend to convert my entire house to CFLs. However I will use them in locations where the lights are on almost constantly. For example, I have some high locations above my kitchen away from window light. These seem to be on all the time. I have converted to CFLs here and have been very satisfied with the quality of light. I will not be putting them in any of the children’s bedrooms or in any spots where a breakage would be more likely to occur. I did try putting a 100 watt equivalent in a ceiling pod above my desk. The light intensity was not adequate so I changed back. I recommend trying them out at various places. For anyone who is interested I also have a list of articles available for suggested reading. Just email me directly (see my profile for address) and I will be glad to send it to you.


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