The days of the incandescent light bulb in the U.S. are numbered.

In the thread on the newly green New Years Eve countdown ball in another thread SEB member Webs mentioned that all we need to do now is get rid of other old lighting technologies. Apparently he’s not aware that the energy law recently passed by Congress will eventually do just that:

The incandescent light bulb, one of the most venerable inventions of its era but deemed too inefficient for our own, will be phased off the U.S. market beginning in 2012 under the new energy law just approved by Congress. Although this will reduce electricity costs and minimize new bulb purchases in every household in America, you may be feeling in the dark about the loss of your old, relatively reliable source of light. Here’s a primer on the light bulb phase-out and what will mean to you:

Why are they taking my light bulbs away? Moving to more efficient lighting is one of the lowest-cost ways for the nation to reduce electricity use and greenhouse gases. In fact, it actually will save households money because of lower utility bills. Ninety percent of the energy that an incandescent light bulb burns is wasted as heat. And yet, sales of the most common high-efficiency bulb available—the compact fluorescent (CFL)—amount to only 5 percent of the light bulb market. Earlier this year, Australia became the first country to announce an outright ban by 2010 on incandescent bulbs. The changeover in the United States will be more gradual, not mandated to begin until 2012 and phased out through 2014. However, don’t be surprised if some manufacturers phase out earlier.

How do I save money, when a CFL costs six times as much as an old-fashioned bulb? Each cone-shaped spiral CFL costs about $3, compared with 50 cents for a standard bulb. But a CFL uses about 75 percent less energy and lasts five years instead of a few months. A household that invested $90 in changing 30 fixtures to CFLs would save $440 to $1,500 over the five-year life of the bulbs, depending on your cost of electricity. Look at your utility bill and imagine a 12 percent discount to estimate the savings.

The rest of the FAQ lists off some information that even I wasn’t aware of—and I’ve already converted most of the lights here at my in-law’s house to CFLs—such as the fact that any CFL with the Energy Star symbol is required to have a two-year limited warranty so if they burn out prematurely you can get them replaced. So while it’ll be a few years yet the end of the incandescent bulb is on the horizon and may even arrive early if enough folks jump on the bandwagon.

92 thoughts on “The days of the incandescent light bulb in the U.S. are numbered.

  1. Not all CFL bulbs provide broad spectrum light, but they definitely can. I’m told to check the packaging for words such as “broad spectrum” or “full spectrum.” They’re a bit more expensive, but they’re available if you want them.

    In poking around for them I came across a website that lists off deals on “green” stuff and it includes a CFL category. Here’s a link to some broad spectrum CFLs. Looks like the price averages $9.00 to $22.00. The latter is for a CFL flood light, which I didn’t even know they had yet.

  2. It’s amazing what they have now for CFLs and LEDs. In fact Phillips has developed an LED bulb for every kind of incandescent we have in use in the US.

    I guess it’s an accomplishment to wait four years to become more energy independent and to reduce greenhouse gases, even though we have the technology to work at this now and have had the technology for the last 4 years… forgive me for not being very excited on that front hmmm That’s what lead to my comment on the other post.

  3. I think we need to be kicked in the ass really hard to want to change anything, sad to say.  Light bulb manufacturers did a hell of a job convincing people that CFL’s give out ugly green light. 

    But lighting is a big part of the puzzle and as Webs said, an easy transition to make so it’s not terribly impressive that we’ll phase out some bulbs in a few years. 

  4. Generally I think moving toward light bulbs that are more energy efficient is a good idea I did read an argument against the legislation. 

    The main meat of the argument was that right now CFL manufacturers have been working hard at innovating better energy efficiency and making the lighting “broad spectrum” for more of a natural feel.  All of this is being done to try and bring over more customers from incandescent.  Over time as CFL prices continued to drop and the quality of the light went up people would naturally ditch the older bulbs and switch to the energy savings offered by a compact fluorescent.  If legislation is passed the CFL makers would lose much of the incentive to innovate.

    Of course it doesn’t bring up that competing CFL makers would still be trying to one up each other to claim they have the best bulbs with the best brightness per watt.  I switched out most of the incandescent bulbs around my house about a year ago with CF’s.  I made the mistake of buying some cheapo multi pack from Costco.  Those bulbs were horrible they took between 7-8 minutes to get to full brightness when turned on and for the first few minutes they are really, really dim.  I ended up picking up some other CF’s from a light shop and they seem much better within about 20 seconds they are at full brightness and are much brighter when initially turned on.  So there is definitely a big difference out there in what’s available currently.

    I’m still on the fence as to if legislation is really needed or not for something like this.  I felt that people would naturally shift to CF’s as they become more and more common, but maybe I’m just being too optimistic.

  5. I use CF flood lights in the track lights in my living room.  I found that the slow warm up time of CFLs is actually an advantage in the bathroom in the morning.  I wonder when Home Depot is going to start selling Philips LED light bulbs.

  6. The LED bulbs I’m very curious to see in action, but the few LED bulbs I’ve seen (in magazine’s and websites not in person)in the past cost over $20 per bulb.  So hopefully Phillips is able to produce them at a cost that less resembles bleeding edge technology.

  7. We have been (slowly) replacing the filament type with flourescent type. It started a few years ago when the bathroom light, which is left on all night for the kids was going every few weeks. I bought the CF type, partly so I didn’t have to keep replacing it, partly because it was on all night. 

    The problem is 1) we have had a lot of filament types still boxed 2) getting hold of them 3) thinking ahead – “hmm 89p or £4.99?”

    ‘2’ is a real problem, because most of ours arn’t the ‘bulb’ type- downstairs 6 ‘candle’ and 8 ‘spot’, which are harder to get- especially the ‘spot’ type, which are small Edison screw, rather than the normal bayonet type.  I bought 2 from Ikea to see how they stack up.  Trouble is the shops round here are expensive for the ‘spot’ type- if they stock them, so I’ve been waiting for another trip over!  The spot bulbs we have just do not last, plus they are expensive anyway.

  8. I’m still on the fence as to if legislation is really needed or not for something like this.  I felt that people would naturally shift to CF’s as they become more and more common, but maybe I’m just being too optimistic.

    I can’t see a reason to be on the fence. I think the problem is getting people to realize just how big a deal switching to CFLs can make.

    The price of LED bulbs is still a little high, but as the energy bill keeps creeping up and LED light bulb technology gets cheaper, they will become more prevalent.

  9. One of the major leaps in US car safety was the way the Government got seatbelts in cars.  US manufacturers had been resisting for years.  Then a decision was made all new federal cars had to have seatbelts.  As no manufacturer could afford to lose that market cars were made with seatbelts.  A forward thinking president would so the same thing with light bulbs.

  10. If legislation is passed the CFL makers would lose much of the incentive to innovate.

    Nope.  If nobody can get their familiar bulbs they’ll be looking for the best CF bulbs.  If Sylvania has a better spectrum than GE, or longer life, or faster-On, they’ll advertise it.  And GE will have to top them.

    Some people are extremely opposed to the concept of any regulations.  Few people give a rat’s rear about conservation because energy is cheap in this country and they may have exaggerated ideas about how closely consumption/waste and standard of living are related. Also only a tiny minority realize just how large an environmental catastrophe we are facing and how urgent the need is for action.

    LED bulbs are quite expensive, so it makes sense to use them only in areas where the lights are on a LOT and the potential for theft is low. 

    One of the major leaps in US car safety was the way the Government got seatbelts in cars.  US manufacturers had been resisting for years.  Then a decision was made all new federal cars had to have seatbelts.

    Excellent point, and that should be done immediately because it’s easier to get a purchasing directive than it is to pass a law.  Both are subject to the influence of lobbyists and the stupidity/cupidity of legislators, of course.

  11. I take it CFL means compact fluorescent.

    If so I already knew the answer to my question which is a big problem as far as i see.

    My rusty physics knowledge says that discharge bulbs (including fluorescent bulbs) discharge an energy spectrum (shifted into the visible spectrum of frequencies generated by electron shell jumping discharge. These frequencies are fixed and so there are big gaps in the spread. An incandescent bulb by being white light produced by heat is a broad spectrum of light similar to sunlight in breadth.

    This is why we during winter are often happier (those of us affected by the lack of winter sunshine) when exposed to incandescent light as opposed to fluorescent light.

    I would imagine with wide spread adoption of CFL lighting, that there will be many people suffering from greater degrees of SAD during winter, particularly in northern areas of the world.

    The lighting technology we use should not ignore psychological (and neurological issues).

    While CFL lamps may be good for some situations, there are places they are very bad and we should look at other ways to reduce power consumption in these areas.

  12. Normal lights don’t affect SAD, as they don’t give out the right wavelengths.  Special lamps can be used to provide artificial sunlight for sufferers.  Many people who do various crafts use special ‘daylight’ bulbs so as the colours of their hobby are shown true when working after dark.

    Few years ago at my wargames club one guy was very proud of his gang, all painted to authentic colours by daylight bulb.  Unfortunately under the strip lights of the hall, all their dusters were the colour of cucumber innards.

  13. We switched all the bulbs in our house awhile ago, but I keep a couple of incandescent bulbs around for shooting youtube movies. I use the reveal ones that have a more natural light. But I learned something new. I am off to try a full spectrum CFL now. Thanks for the tip. grin

  14. Gemma K is right on.  Forgive the long quote following but I can’t help geeking out on this stuff:

    Basically, light is emitted as an electron loses energy.  Once again this is a consequence of the first law.  An electron can only change energy by transferring it to something else, in this case to light,  Thus the approach to making light is straightforward.  Add energy to the electrons moving about molecules by hitting them with other electrons, that is, with an electric current.  As these “excited” molecular electrons lose energy, light is emitted. However, the laws of quantum mechanics do not permit the electrons to surrender its energy continuously but in quanta.  Think about an excited electron as having been knocked to the top of a staircase.  it loses energy by falling down the stairs, and in the process gives off light.  The color of the light given off is related to the height of the steps.  If an electron falls down a high step, out comes blue light.  A low one, and out comes red light.  An electron falling down a very high step will emit energetic light that cannot be seen, such as X-rays, while an electron falling down a very low step will emit low-energy light that similarly cannot be seen.  Such light is called infrared or microwave.

    Nothing requires the excited electron to fall down the staircase one step at a time.  It may fall down one, two, three or more steps, emitting a different color light in each case.  This is the origin of the spectra we observed with our diffraction gratings.  Different molecules have different staircases.  However there is a general relationship dictating that the approximate height of a step in this staircase is proportional to the inverse of the size of the molecule in which the electron is excited.  That is, a very big molecule will have little steps, while a very small molecule will have big steps.

    So here is the answer.  In a tungsten filament bulb, the excited electrons can be anywhere in the filament.  It is really one huge molecule an inch or so long.  In a fluorescent tube, excited electrons are contained in a molecule that’s a ten-millionth this size.  The steps in the incandescent bulb are tiny compared to those of all the other light sources we observed.  For all practical purposes, the energy levels of the tungsten filament look more like an inclined plane than a staircase.  An electron bouncing down this plane can make transitions of any energy and hence emit a continuous spectrum.
    Mark E. Eberhart, Why Things Break: Understanding the world by the way it comes apart, pages 199-200

    There’s a lot more, and it’s fascinating stuff that feeds into statistical mechanics and the Maxwell-Boltzman distribution.  The book is about the author’s lifelong obsession with fracture mechanics.

    Anyway, fluorescent bulbs start by exciting electrons in molecules of mercury vapor (less mercury than would be emitted by burning the coal to power an incandescent bulb, if you’re wondering) which emits ultraviolet light.  The powdery white coating inside the fluorescent bulb is a mixture of mineral phosphors, whose molecules are excited by the ultraviolet light and in turn get rid of the excess energy as visible light.  The “spectrum” of a fluorescent bulb is determined by the mix of those mineral phosphors.  Getting the mixture right to approximate a continuous and pleasant spectrum is part science, part art.  It’s a lot like mixing paint and needless to say, your mixture can be easily analyzed by the chemists of competing companies.

    “White” LED spectrums are another matter.  Most are simply ultraviolet LED’s with a phosphor spot to change the output to something approximately white, so they’re really a tiny fluorescent bulb with a different UV source.  A few are really 3 LED’s outputting R,G,B to let the brain sort it out.  I don’t know which kind the LED lightbulbs are.

  15. Sigh.  I have three problems with this:

    For poor folks $3 over .50 is a huge increase.  Don’t give me the you have to spend money to save/make money speech.  That doesn’t mean dirt when you’re poor. 

    CFL bulbs do not fit in all fixtures.  Oh they may screw in…but then try to put the glass over top.  We’ve been searching in vain for a bulb to put in the damned fixtures in the basement and bedrooms.  We can’t find any that will fit with the glass over the fixture.  That’s quite a bit of money to replace. 

    CFL bulbs can be destructive to fixtures in old houses.  We’ve had two fixtures in our house fry out when we tried to put in CFL bulbs.  They are dead.  Now we need an electrician we’re saving up for that.

  16. Does anyone know the shelf life for incandescent bulbs?  I want to stock up for my lifetime!!  ALSO, what about recessed lights?  Do I need to stock up on those too??

  17. For poor folks $3 over .50 is a huge increase.  Don’t give me the you have to spend money to save/make money speech.  That doesn’t mean dirt when you’re poor.

    I take it you didn’t look at any of the links I have in my above comment, or DOFs? The energy savings of CFLs is pretty substantial as the money spent is made back in only 6 months. If poorer people can afford high energy bills than they can easily afford to switch to CFLs since the money is made back rather quickly in energy savings. Last time I bought some, which was in June, Home Depot had a 4 pack for $10. That’s pretty cheap.

    CFL bulbs do not fit in all fixtures.  Oh they may screw in…but then try to put the glass over top.  We’ve been searching in vain for a bulb to put in the damned fixtures in the basement and bedrooms.  We can’t find any that will fit with the glass over the fixture.  That’s quite a bit of money to replace.

    Are you saying that you have a problem with the energy law because 4 years from now you think there will not be multiple types manufactured to fit multiple housings? If we are forced to make the switch to CFLs wouldn’t you think manufacturers would need to make a greater variety to handle market demands?

  18. Does anyone know the shelf life for incandescent bulbs?  I want to stock up for my lifetime!!  ALSO, what about recessed lights?  Do I need to stock up on those too??

    Incandescent bulbs are extremely long-lived on-shelf.  As a high-temperature device all the components resist oxidation, the filament lives in a gas envelope, and is itself tungsten which doesn’t easily decay.  But a better reason to stock up on incandescent bulbs is to sell them at a profit right after stores stop carrying them.  Then you can afford to buy all CFL’s and get lower electric bills.

    Not sure what you mean by recessed lights.  We have hundreds of CFL’s in recessed fixtures at my place of work.  Building’s been there for three years and only a couple have failed despite constant use.

    CFL bulbs do not fit in all fixtures.  Oh they may screw in…but then try to put the glass over top.  We’ve been searching in vain for a bulb to put in the damned fixtures in the basement and bedrooms.  We can’t find any that will fit with the glass over the fixture.  That’s quite a bit of money to replace.

    Oy!  That drove us nuts at first, the delicate little squiggles simply did not work in lamps where the shade fits on the bulb itself with a wire clamp.  I spent a goodly amount of money retrofitting a lampshade to accomodate CFL’s, only the next time I went to the store to find Philips’ round-bulb CFL’s that are shaped like a regular bulb and would have swapped right in.  Wal-Mart has ‘em, along with the squiggly kind.

    I have a hunch that fixtures that do not have secure connections (excessive resistance) may work with incandescent but not with lower-current bulbs like CFL’s.  In other words, the different bulb brought out an existing defect.  Interesting, I’ll have to be on the lookout for that.

    Anywhere the bulb is seldom used I use incandescents.  So far I’ve only swapped out ones that I use a lot.

    Webs, don’t be too quick to dismiss purchase price as a factor.  Budgeting is always wrapped in a container of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  What might seem rational from outside that container often looks different from inside. 

    After incandescents are no longer available in stores I’d like to see bulb-swap programs – bring in all your incandescents, good-or-not, get the same number of CFL’s, one-time.  It would be a cheap way to jump-start a state’s carbon reduction – hell of a lot cheaper than the enormous subsidy that Illinois is granting to that energy giant company for their new “clean-coal” plant.

  19. Does all incandescent bulbs mean ALL incandescent bulbs?  Because my beloved Lava Lamps need a nice hot incandescent to work.

    I was at the Home Despot the other day and I picked up a couple of LED night light replacements.  Screwed into my dollar-store Virgin Mary night light, it casts a soft, three point glow on the wall.

  20. I can’t believe there are still people bitching about the drawbacks to CFL’s.  The only serious drawback I can see is the color issue for filming or paint work.  Admittedly, I prefer bright flourescent light to dull yellow incandescent, so that wasn’t an issue for me, but CFL’s are superior in just about every other regard.

    Complaining about the price?  Please!  The average American probably spends 5 times the replacement cost on junk food each month.
    For some perspective, I am an unskilled laborer making $9.00/hr.  I live 5 blocks from the beach and therefore pay $750/month rent for a one bedroom apartment.  I am also helping put my girlfriend through a vocational school and raising a new puppy.  Yet our broke asses switched to CFL’s over two years ago, and we haven’t bought a bulb since.  Hell, utilities are included in our rent, we’re doing the landlord a favor!  I just got sick of changing light bulbs all the damn time, and having so many dark corners that incandescent bulbs just wouldn’t illuminate well enough(tall ceilings, dark colored furnishings.)  CFL’s improved the situation on all scores.  My apartment also has old, crappy wiring.  Incandescent bulbs never lasted long in any of our fixtures, sometimes burning out in a couple months, but CFL’s have performed as advertised.  Not one burnout in over two years, and more light for less energy. 
    There are all kinds of sizes available now, and if you really can’t find a bulb to fit(which I seriously doubt)there are these places called Wal-marts, and other places called thrift stores, where lighting fixtures can be found for less money than a new shirt or the latest movie on DVD. 
    If po’white trash like me can spring for $19 worth of light bulbs, what’s the problem?  Stubbornness?  Old fogeyism?  It reminds me of hearing automobile enthusiasts complaing about fuel injection vs. carburator, and hating catalytic converters because they limit how loud, smoky and annoying your exhaust can be to your neighbors.

  21. hmmm…on a re-reading of Michelle’s comment, I do wonder about wiring and fixture issues.  I knew I had crappy light fixtures and wiring in my apartment, but using CFL’s seems to have helped the problem.  Incandescents regularly burned out much faster than they should have, whereas the CFL’s are doing fine.  Anybody have any idea why we would get almost opposite outcomes?

    Sorry if I seemed a little damning in my previous comment, but my experience switching to cfl’s has been great, and I just never understood the depth of resistance to flourescent lighting.

  22. Man I hate not being able to comment while at work. Got a couple of comments I want to follow up on:

    Benior asks…

    Is there a non-incandescent version of heat lamps?

    As it turns out, yes, there’s several. There’s a couple of different energy efficient Ceramic Infrared Heat Emitters as well as several UV emitting CFLs specifically designed for reptiles at that site.

    Michelle writes…

    For poor folks $3 over .50 is a huge increase.  Don’t give me the you have to spend money to save/make money speech.  That doesn’t mean dirt when you’re poor.

    A valid concern, though I think the prices will come down as more people start using CFL bulbs. There’s already enough of a market that they’re making colored lamps for decoration and parties. I saw green and red CFLs at the local Meijers in the Christmas decorations.

    CFL bulbs do not fit in all fixtures.  Oh they may screw in…but then try to put the glass over top.  We’ve been searching in vain for a bulb to put in the damned fixtures in the basement and bedrooms.  We can’t find any that will fit with the glass over the fixture.  That’s quite a bit of money to replace.

    This should also become less of an issue over time. There’s already a surprising diversity in sizes and shapes including ones designed to look more or less like incandescent bulbs to work with lamp shades that clamp onto the bulb. LED lighting, while even more expensive at this point, should also help fit some of the more unusual fixtures.

    CFL bulbs can be destructive to fixtures in old houses.  We’ve had two fixtures in our house fry out when we tried to put in CFL bulbs.  They are dead.  Now we need an electrician we’re saving up for that.

    I have to admit, that’s a new one to me. Most CFLs draw less power from the sockets they’re in so it seems odd that they’d destroy a socket. Perhaps if they didn’t fit quite right due to the socket being an old standard and it causing a short, but nothing about the operation of the bulb itself should be more of a strain on a socket than a normal light bulb.

    Walker writes…

    Low-energy bulbs ‘cause migraine’

    The BBC left out a key word in that headline: “could” cause headaches. And, yes, they possibly could. Like all fluorescent lighting, CFLs have a frequency to them and can flicker when they’re starting to wear out. If you get headaches from office lighting (which tends to be fluorescent) then chances are CFLs might cause a similar problem for you. Most folks aren’t affected by it to any great degree.

    In which case I recommend spending the extra bucks to get LED lighting. grin

    NeonCat says…

    Does all incandescent bulbs mean ALL incandescent bulbs?  Because my beloved Lava Lamps need a nice hot incandescent to work.

    Word has it that there’s some high efficiency incandescents in development that will probably avoid the ban, though how much heat they’ll put out remains to be seen. I’m sure the Lava Lamp folks will find a solution.

  23. I forgot to mention that I think the biggest concern I have about CFLs is the mercury issue which makes clean up more of a pain if you break one. It also means you should recycle the bulb instead of just tossing it into the trash. That’s one reason I’m eager to see LED bulbs come down in price.

  24. Les: “Like all fluorescent lighting, CFLs have a frequency to them and can flicker when they’re starting to wear out.

    Flicker becomes noticeable when the sinusoidal luminance transitions occur slowly enough for the eyes to render as nerve impulses.  This is called the flicker fusion rate and for most people it’s around 1/15 second.  (Pity the individuals with a shorter response time; everything flickers to them.) 

    Standard fluorescent bulbs use a 60hz transformer ballast whose strobe effect gets more pronounced as they age.  This should not be terribly noticeable except that when you get several ballasts in a small area, they get visible heterodyne effects that can be quite obnoxious. 

    Most CFL’s use an electronic ballast whose frequency is far in excess of anyone’s flicker fusion rate.  So even very old CFL’s don’t noticeably flicker in relation to their ballast, they just get dimmer.

    One thing I have noticed about CFL’s is I think they fudge a bit on luminance equivalences. (My light meter is broken – damn! – so this is a subjective impression) If I’m replacing a 60-watt incandescent bulb, I buy the 100-watt “equivalent” CFL.  It still saves energy and they still last a long time, but I don’t like to sacrifice illumination levels. No sense living in a cave.

  25. Does all incandescent bulbs mean ALL incandescent bulbs?  Because my beloved Lava Lamps need a nice hot incandescent to work.

    Oven and refrigerator bulbs, candelabra lamps, plant lights, and certain other type of bulbs are exempted.  I just checked my partner’s Lava Lamp, it has a 40 watt appliance bulb in it – these are exempted.

  26. I think the mercury issue will take care of itself as there will be an obvious need to have recycling programs and such. And along them lines, in our area we already have a recycling program for such stuff, but the city does a shitty job of advertising it. Which explains why no one knows about it and landfills are still being filled with electronics as if that isn’t a problem.

  27. I wish that were true.  Our university has all sorts of environmental statements and intentions, but every day I ride past the library dumpster, and it is often FULL of long fluorescent tubes.  And by “often” I mean one day out of every two weeks or so, all year long.

    It’s difficult to get environmental understanding into practice.  Really, there’s a tremendous time lag.

  28. We have some that appear to be ‘normal’ shapes, but are actually the tube is bent inside the glass- I assume it’s a cosmetic thing.

  29. As I mentioned before, a lot of lampshades have a little wire clip designed to hold onto the bulb itself.  Also the external envelope improves durability.  So the bulb-shaped (with squiggles inside) CFL’s may not be just cosmetic.

  30. Bought 4 more SES spots today I don’t know about in the US, but most ‘normal’ bulbs are bayonet here, and if you need screw types they can be a pain to get. 

    Mrs H wasn’t happy as they were £1.69 each, rather than £1.29 for two- spots being more expensive anyway, but as I pointed out, they go so often that for an extra £4 or so its worth it. in the long run.  These are 7w=25w, only ones I’ve seen, so theoretically not as bright as the 40w they replace.  However once it warmed up after a few seconds it seemed about the same as the remaining 3 filament type on the rail- once all are replaced we’ll see, though that would still give 100w (theoretical), though pointing around different parts of the kitchen.  Mrs may complain, thou will be less of an issue in hall and landing.  I think getting hold of replacements for the living and especially dining rooms may cause disagreement, for the cosmetic shape, as these are the ‘candle type’, and need to look right.

    a lot of lampshades have a little wire clip designed to hold onto the bulb itself

    Not here- this is an oldfashioned way of doing it.  Shades are held onto the fitting itself by a screw-collar onto the socket part.

  31. The main problem with the CFLs is the huge potential for mercury poisoning.  They contain mercury and, if broken, you cannot just clean them up the way you would an incandescent because you will expose yourself—and the room in which it was broken—to mercury.  I read a story of a woman who dropped a CFL while installing it in her daughter’s bedroom, couldn’t afford the over $2000 to decontaminate the room, and had to cover the doorway with heavy plastic wrap until the levels of mercury declined.  They’re very dangerous.  The government’s gone and banned incandescents with no CFL disposal system in place.  Break one, you’re screwed.  Throw them out in the trash, the environement’s screwed.  This “solution” to one of our energy problems is about to make things a LOT worse.  Stock up on incandescents, people.

  32. I broke one about a year ago, no one got ill. Didn’t know about the mercury.  This could be a classic case of failed risk assessment.

  33. Tracey, inorganic mercury isn’t all that hazardous – see the link Les posted above.  If you spill organic mercury compounds like methyl mercury in your house, well that would be different.

    More importantly, just burning the coal to power incandescent light bulbs for the life of one CFL puts far more mercury into the environment than the CFL does.

    I put my CFL’s in a big plastic bucket with a lid, each in a bag.  Once a year, Illinois EPA toxic waste pickup in my county, problem solved.  But so far I’ve only had to recycle 2 of them.  I figure it’ll be 8 more years to fill the bucket and by then, we’ll have a regular CFL recycling drop-off point.

    It’s a non-issue.

  34. If metallic mercury were that poisonous, I’d long since be dead, considering the amount of mercury I rolled around in my hands, coated dimes with, and otherwise exposed myself to, as a kid.  The same is generally true of other poisonous metals, lead for instance: the pure metals are relatively insoluble, and thus they tend to pass through our bodies without doing damage.  As dof said, organic compounds are a different story.

    Not that we should be complacent: obviously mercury, and lead, and other potential contaminants, should be handled carefully and sequestered from the environment, as far as possible.  But there’s no need to be panicky about metallic mercury.

  35. How much mercury are we talking about?  Tracey- from the article you linked to

    She 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.

  36. Tracy, could you please provide some reference to the story with the woman who had to pay $2,000 to clean up the bedroom after a CFL broke?  The NPR article you linked said workers who recycle/clean up CFLs can be exposed to high levels, but it also says the bulbs themselves have very little mercury (emphasis mine):

    But the bulbs contain small amounts of mercury, a neurotoxin, and the companies and federal government haven’t come up with effective ways to get Americans to recycle them.

    “The problem with the bulbs is that they’ll break before they get to the landfill. They’ll break in containers, or they’ll break in a dumpster or they’ll break in the trucks. Workers may be exposed to very high levels of mercury when that happens,” says John Skinner, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, the trade group for the people who handle trash and recycling.

    I have a hard time believing that an entire bedroom could be contaminated on the level you are saying by a single CFL being broken.  The workers are being exposed to the accumulation of hundreds of broken bulbs if not more. The NPR article makes no mention to the bedroom cleanup incident, I’d be interested in reading the article that does if you could link it.

  37. Given that Flourescent tubes have been around decades, why the sudden hand wringing? They are common in offices, as well as around the home in kitchens and garages.

  38. Yeah.  I see this every week or two in a dumpster I ride past on the way home:

    And that’s just one building. Not a good thing, to be sure; microorganisms produce organic mercury compounds in landfills contaminated by mercury.  But the largest source of environmental mercury, by far, is burning coal.

    I understand that in Germany, you can’t throw fluorescent bulbs of any kind into a landfill.  We will catch up to them eventually.

  39. I am surfing the net sitting under a florescent light but I don’t think it is saving me any electricity at the moment. I figure every watt of waste heat it is not giving off is being made up for by the electric furnace that heats the house. Maybe it makes up for it in the summer when the AC doesn’t have to work as hard?

  40. Consider that your furnace was putting out the same amount of heat when you were using an incandescent which was less efficient than that CFL. Your furnace wouldn’t suddenly be more inefficient simply because it noticed you’re using CFLs.

  41. No, he’s right Les.  The furnace doesn’t notice CFL usage but the thermostat does, indirectly.  Consider his apartment as a big leaky calorimeter with a given heat loss rate.  It has one steady-state heat source (the light bulb) and one feedback-controlled heat source (the electric furnace, which is just a big incandescent lightbulb that only emits in infrared).  The runtime duration of the furnace is an inverse function of room temperature.  Competing heat sources (such as incandescent light bulbs) make it run for shorter time periods. 

    Hence building insulation listed as one of the really-cheap ways to cut carbon footprint in one of the links I posted upthread.

    He’s also right about the air conditioning.  Less interior heat production translates into many times the watt savings as inefficient air conditioning has to pump the heat outside.  And there again, insulation is good.  So on balance, the CFL still saves him a buttload of energy.

  42. Would an incandescent really pump out enough heat to make a temperature difference in the room?- even 3 60w in a room is only a 1/10 of a single bar electric fire, plus all the heat is near the ceiling, which is where it will stay.  Humans pump out about 60w each. If you want to stay warm, get a cow in- they are about 150w.

  43. The amount of waste heat given off by one incandescent bulb is small but we’ve converted most rooms in the house so it adds up. My point is that the (small) energy savings are mostly offset by the (small) increase in heating energy needed. As long as you’re heating with electricity it’s going to be pretty much an even trade. The savings offered by CFLs are more effective when we’re cooling instead of heating or with outdoor lights that have no effect on indoor heating.

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