Sunday, October 11, 2009

On Lighbulbs

The New York Times says that CFL purchases have been falling off. People don't like the color, the price, that the bulbs contain mercury, that they often can't be dimmed, that they take a while to come up to full brightness....

Well. I've been using Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs) since the early 1990's, and I have a bit of trouble understanding what all the fuss is about. When I first started buying them, they were around $12-$15 apiece. I put them in all the major lights in our house that were on often. Lights in closets and such that rarely were on stayed as incandescents. In the late '90's, I had a guy come in and look at my electric consumption to install solar. He told me our house was one of the lowest consumption houses he had seen, and that it didn't make sense for us to get solar (we did a bunch of other stuff to save electricity too). The CFLs I bought around 1994-1995 lasted until we moved into the new house in 2003. I don't recall ever having replaced any. I did replace some of the CFLs I bought in 2003 last year though, since they were getting dimmer.

Nowadays, CFLs run about $1.50, and most of the problems people seem all worked up about are solved. The light quality is definitely different than incandescents, but it is quite acceptable. The picture below, from Wikipedia, shows a group of 4 bulbs. The second from the left is an incandescent bulb, the rest are all CFLs. The only CFL that looks "cold" is the one on the far left. That's a 6000 Kelvin bulb. The other two on the right are around 3000 Kelvins and are indistingushible from the incandescent to my eyes.

Most CFLs these days come up to full luminosity within around a minute, some even right away. As for dimming, well, do you really need to dim all the lights in your house? Use incandescents in the bedroom or dining room if you must. My chandelier has incandescents, as do the hall lights, but they are low wattage (around 20 watts) and we  rarely use them anyway.

The mercury is a problem, but it is manageable. I put my used CFLs into a box for toxic waste disposal. We did have a CFL break, but it was cleaned up and the room aired out. It broke on a tile floor so there was no problem with the mercury being absorbed into a carpet. Fortunately, because CFLs wear out so infrequently, they rarely are thrown away. All that said, I think the manufacturers and local municpalities could do more, for example, have recycling bags specifically for CFLs like they do in my town for batteries. And fluorescent tube lights have been in use for years without mercury being a problem.

So what about LED lights? The blogs and green news sites are all aflutter with reports about how LEDs are going to replace CFLs.

I had looked at LEDs a couple years ago when we remodeled our kitchen, but had decided in favor of fluorescents (tube model) because the amount of energy savings was not up to what fluroescents provide, and the cost was about 40x as much. A couple weeks ago, I saw a news item about a new LED light, the Pharox from Lemis Lighting. They were offering a 60 watt bulb replacement for $40. Admittedly, this is still 26x the price of a CFL, but I consider myself an early adopter, and one of the tasks of an early adopter is to try new things out despite the price (as long as it isn't too exorbitant). So I ponied up $90-odd (including tax and shipping) and got back two bulbs. Here's a Lemis bulb in front of it's widget-like packaging (which I think is supposed to make you feel good about the price):

What a disappointment. The light was much too dim for reading in the living room. I had to put them into a nightstand table in the bedroom and in our hall bathroom. These are areas where we don't have the lights on much and fine details (like 10 point type) are not important. If I had to rate the wattage, I'd say it was more like 40 watts. Of course, these LED lamps could be dimmed, but so could CFLs at 1/20 the price.

In the New York Times Green, Inc. blog article, Lemis conceded that the light output might not be equivalent to 60 watts after all. They gave a typical, weasel-worded marketing explanation that "it depends on how the bulb is used" (sure, and if I put a mirror behind it, it will look like a 100 watt bulb). Their ostensible 60 watt bulb puts out 336 lumens, a 60 watt-equivalent CFL puts out 800 lumens. A 40 watt incandescent puts out 400 lumens, so the Pharonx is actually about equivalent to 40 watt bulb. Not only that, but if you look at the energy efficiency, it's around 60 lumens per watt. That is exactly the energy efficiency of the CFLs that you can get today, at 1/20th the price!

So I guess LED lighting has made some progress in the last couple years. Now the efficiency in terms of lumens per watt is about the same as CFLs instead of less. The price is still way out of line. The lifetime of the LEDs is much longer, something like 20 years, but if CFLs last 5 years, as mine have, then I would buy only 4 in that time and still save over the cost of an LED light. Plus the fact that the light output from the LEDs is too low for reading. I wonder how much a decent LED for reading would cost, probably over $100.

Anyway, I guess I'll just stick with CFLs for now,  and deal with the mercury by recycling my bulbs back to the toxic waste pickup.


  1. We switched over to predominantly CFLs in our house about 2 years ago. Already, one was a dud out of the box, and three have "burnt out." Disappointing, but I have faith I'm an anomaly.

    I came over from town mouse country mouse. I, too am an engineer (civil/arch) and a bit of a conservation fiend. Looking forward to what you do here.


  2. Just wanted to let you know that I too came over from TM/CM. Interesting review of CFL vs LED. We too mostly use CFLs in our house but have been disappointed in how long they last. I think when they ramped up the production to meet demand, the quality suffered. We'll continue using them and hope they get better.

  3. My girlfriend hates CFLs because they often make a humming noise. I didn't notice this until she pointed it out, but it's true. This makes them unsuitable for bedside lamps in my mind.

    Notwithstanding the noise, in my recently redone kitchen I make extensive use of fluorescent lights because those lights are often on for long periods of time and who notices a little hum over the sounds of a meal being prepared.

    However, aside from a few places elsewhere in the house, I feel like incandescents are good enough since I can turn the lights off when I leave the room just like I've always done.

  4. I too am puzzled by the objections to CFLs. The fact that the overheads in the kitchen and the outdoor lights don't get to full strength immediately is sometimes a bit annoying, but it's not bad enough to warrant going back to incandescents. I've been told about the humming but I have never noticed it -- my computer hums a lot more and I have learned to ignore it. Anyway, thanks for an interesting discussion. I'm going to put your blog on my "read regularly" list. FYI, I came over from TM/CM.

  5. Thanx all for the comments! It sure makes blogging more interesting, I tried blogging about a year ago and got no comments so I gave up.

    I've not found a problem with humming on CFLs though I installed a standard tube fluorescent in my garage a couple of years of the inexpensive Chinese variety and it hums quite badly until it warms up. I think the humming only happens if the ballast is magnetic, if it electronic it shouldn't hum because there is nothing physical to vibrate.

    I do agree about the quality deteriorating recently. I think it mostly has to do with lack of quality control on the product. I don't think that low price or high volume intrinsically means low quality. If you look at, for example, computer chips, the quality remains high even though the price continually goes down. The spotlights I have in my living room now which I replaced last year seem to be dimmer and take longer to start up than the ones I had before. It could also be because the weather is starting to get cool, though, so the mercury takes longer to vaporize.

    It's hard as a consumer to know what to do, I guess spotting brands that are higher quality and letting people know might help, but it isn't like there is much place to complain and a lightbulb is not such a big purchase so most people don't have a problem with just chalking up to a bad decision. Of course, that gives CFLs in general a bad reputation.

  6. We switched maybe half or more of our lights to CFL bulbs when we moved in. Most of the most frequently used lights. All gotten free through a program in our community. Our two outside lights take a while to come to full strenght, which I do find annoying, but they are also left on by accident much more often, so I feel better knowing they use less energy than other bulbs. I haven't noticed a humming, but most of ours are installed in ceiling fixtures. Great post, I was wondering about LED lights. And also came over from TM/CM.