compact fluorescent light bulb

When I started this blog and sent it out to some friends for feedback, I got a couple of responses from those who wanted me to write about compact fluorescent bulbs, or CFLs. I was hesitant to do so because I felt the argument for CFLs, while absolutely pertinent, has become a little clichéd. Everyone’s jumping on the CFL bandwagon and it seems like anyone who’s replaced an incandescent light bulb with a CFL now feels vindicated that they’ve done their good deed for the planet.

After all, Wal-Mart recently embarked on their own CFL crusade, and while that’s good, we shouldn’t let Wal-Mart stop there.

Or maybe it was because I’ve already changed every bulb that I can in my own home to a CFL and figure I’m over it. But there are still many (countless many) out there who haven’t installed a single bulb and are either hesitant to do so or don’t even know what a CFL is.

Changing a light bulb is a very easy to do, and it’s perhaps the easiest thing you can do for the planet and has the biggest payback. According to this oft-quoted statement from the US government’s Energy Star Web site:

“If every American home replaced just one light bulb with an ENERGY STAR qualified bulb, we would save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes for a year, more than $600 million in annual energy costs, and prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of more than 800,000 cars.”

And that’s just one bulb per household. Imagine if you changed two, or—gasp!—all of them.

Consider these other top reasons to switch out your bulbs:

• CFLs use 75% – 80% less electricity than incandescents.
• With an average low cost of $3 per bulb, a CFL can pay for itself in about 5 months.
• CFLs last about 10 times longer than incandescents. That can be up to 10 years!

But CFLs contain mercury, and that is seen as a drawback. However, when weighing the facts in big-picture environmental issues, one must go back a step or two to examine the overall impact and then put it in perspective. According to a FAQ PDF on the Energy Star site,

“CFLs contain a very small amount of mercury sealed within the glass tubing—an average of 5 milligrams—about the amount that would cover the tip of a ballpoint pen. By comparison, older thermometers contain about 500 milligrams of mercury. It would take 100 CFLs to equal that amount.”

Because of the mercury issue, disposal becomes difficult. Some states prohibit throwing bulbs in the trash. But there are few recycling programs, the few that there are aren’t standardized, and it’s just too easy to simply throw a bulb in the trash.

Even with mercury in the bulbs, it’s better to use compact fluorescents than not. According to a National Public Radio report from February 15, 2007, Energy Star’s Wendy Reed, who manages EPA’s Energy Star program, says that,

“…even though fluorescent bulbs contain mercury, using them contributes less mercury to the environment than using regular incandescent bulbs. That’s because they use less electricity—and coal-fired power plants are the biggest source of mercury emissions in the air.”

Indeed, this graph from a Wikipedia entry about CFLs puts it in good visual perspective.

Wikipedia graph
Mercury use of compact fluorescent lamp vs. incandescent lamp when powered by electricity generated from coal.

The bottom line is, from your incandescent bulbs to the coal-fired plant bringing you electricity, CFLs have far less impact than the status quo. So change your incandescent bulbs for CFLs where you can and recycle them when they reach the end of their useful lives.

Finally, the last reason I hadn’t done much on the CFL front for a while was that I hadn’t found a reliable source for dimmable bulbs. That, too, has finally changed. There is a host of dimmable bulbs out there. I found information from about dimmable compact fluorescent light bulbs and results from a search for dimmable compact fluorescent bulbs. Needless to say, I’ll be ordering about a dozen new bulbs very soon.

Here are links to some of the quoted articles and to other things you might find interesting.

Wal-Mart to reduce mercury in CFLs

Wal-Mart’s “Change a Light. Change the World.” program

FAQ about compact fluorescent light bulbs and mercury

FAQ page on GE’s site

Info on dimmable CFLs

List of dimable CFLs

NPR story on CFLs