Compact Fluorescent Bulbs – What You Didn’t Know

Compact Fluorescent or CFL bulbs have been lauded in the past few years by the various media outlets as the new way to save energy as they are much more efficient (i.e. use less energy for the same amount of light) than standard incandescent light bulbs. What they don’t mention a lot of the time are some of the things that you have to watch out for. The largest problem that CFLs have, that no one type of standard lighting (including LEDs) has is that….

CFLs contain mercury.

CFL bulbs contain small amounts of mercury which is toxic to individuals, especially those that are still developing, such as children and pregnant women. This is an inherent part of the technology so you will never get a CFL bulb that doesn’t contain mercury. Most CFLs contain about 3-5mg of mercury. Here are some excerpts from Wikipedias article on mercury exposure

“A study has shown that acute exposure (4-8 hours) to calculated elemental mercury levels of 1.1 to 44 mg/m3 resulted in chest pain, dyspnea, cough, hemoptysis, impairment of pulmonary function, and evidence of interstitial pneumonitis.[37]”

“Acute exposure to mercury vapor has been shown to result in profound central nervous system effects, including psychotic reactions characterized by delirium, hallucinations, and suicidal tendency.”

Here’s a link to the article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercury_%28element%29#Occupational_exposure

What should you do if you accidentally break a CFL bulb?

Here’s some cleanup procedure excerpts taken from the Environmental Protection Agency’s website:

  • “Have people and pets leave the room, and don’t let anyone walk through the breakage area on their way out.”
  • “Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.”
  • “Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder.”
  • “If vacuuming is needed after all visible materials are removed, – Remove the vacuum bag and put the bag or vacuum debris in a sealed plastic bag.”
  • “The next several times you vacuum, shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system and open a window before vacuuming.”
  • “If clothing or bedding materials come in direct contact with broken glass or mercury-containing powder from inside the bulb that may stick to the fabric, the clothing or bedding should be thrown away.”

So not only is it a pain to clean up, but it is not something that you want to have ever happen, even once. Supporters of CFLs claim that the bulbs are not fragile as are less likely to break, thus reducing the chance of needing such intricate procedures to clean them up. The fact that they are in the house or office, means that there will always be that possibility. As recently as February of 2008, the state of Maine did a study on handling broken CFLs and the precautions you need to take when disposing of them. You can read the study here.

Other problems that CFLs have include:

They are less efficient than LEDs – CFLs, despite their efficiency, are still only about half as efficient than LEDs. A 10W LED bulb gives about the same amount of light as a 20W CFL bulb.

They have an undesirable form factor – CFL bulbs aren’t exactly appealing to the eye and currently can’t replace bi-pin halogen bulbs (MR16 and GU10) typically used in many track lighting applications.

They have a shorter lifespan – The life of a CFL is significantly shorter if it is only turned on for a few minutes at a time: In the case of a 5-minute on/off cycle the lifespan of a CFL can be up to 85% shorter, reducing its lifespan to the level of an incandescent lamp. The US Energy Star program says to leave them on at least 15 minutes at a time to mitigate this problem. (LEDs can be cycled on and off with no problem and work better in cold temperatures.)

Warm Up Time – CFLs takes a perceptible time to achieve full brightness, and can take much longer in very cold temperatures.

Not Fully Dimmable – Dimmable CFL have emerged in the past year, but there have been reports of buzzing and color shifting while dimming as well as a limited range of dimmability. Most LED bulbs are not dimmable at the moment, but the ones that are, are fully dimmable and do not buzz. Keep a lookout for dimmable LED bulbs that we’ve found.