Friday, December 31, 2010

In a Different Light

Beginning in 2012, the compact fluorescent light is likely to be the only lightbulb available to consumers. Persuaded that CFLs save energy and therefore benefit the environment, many people have already started replacing the incandescent lights in their homes with these unusual-looking objects. Most find the light from CFLs unappealing, but it's a small thing to do to save the planet.

Recently I heard a report on NPR about the potential hazards of CFLs. They contain mercury which escapes when the bulb is broken, and people were cautioned about using them in lamps that might be accidentally overturned--such as lamps in children's rooms or, in my experience, anywhere in homes where there are cats. Mercury also raises critical environmental concerns about appropriate disposal and recycling.

Respected lighting designer Howard Brandston has a commentary about CFLs on his website Brandston takes the position that the potential problems of CFLs far outweigh the potential benefits in energy savings and advocates for a repeal of the mandate to phase out incandescent light in favor of CFLs. His commentary and research are recommended reading.  


  1. Yes I'm sure Howard is right. He is one of the most knowledgeable men in the world on the subject of lighting -- he lit the Statue of Liberty, the Getty Museum, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur etc etc -- and there are many important issues related to light beyond energy use. CFLs are ugly, they contain mercury, they're not as energy efficient as advertised and they're all made in China.

    Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that the Feds have the right to tell us what kind of light we shall have.

  2. I hate fluorescent light. It's cold and without a soul.

  3. Thank you Howard! The compact flourescent light sheds a horrible light - unless you love the Walmart effect. There is an incandescent light called Reveal(sp?)that has a very nice effect -better than the white incandescent methinks.

  4. Howard and I had an extended conversation about this a couple of months ago. While I certainly respect his experience as a lighting designer, I disagree with him regarding the amount of emphasis to be given to the danger of broken bulbs. Our mental calculation of the risk associated with any potential hazard is a mixture of how much harm the hazard could cause and how likely that hazard is to occur. Humans are notoriously bad at this exercise. People who may be afraid of flying in a modern jet aircraft will hop into a car without a second thought, in spite of the statistical evidence showing that the car ride is much more likely to cause serious injury or death. The perceived difference has to do with the spectacular nature of an airplane crash, which gets in into the national news as opposed to the thousands of car crashes which happen every month and are covered only in the local news. While I know of no statistics regarding the incidence of CFL breakage in the home, I would guess they don't break all that often. Like an incandescent bulb, they are fragile and we treat them with appropriate care. I've only broken one in all the many years I've used them. In the event one breaks, you clean it up with technology only slightly more complicated than cleaning up any broken glass and certainly no more complicated than cleaning up a broken bottle of any of the other household chemicals that most of us have in our kitchen cabinets.

    As for the lamps being "ugly" - that, of course is in the eye of the beholder, but they do come in covered versions appropriate for some decorative applications or in reflectors for use as flood or spotlights. The complaint about the quality (warm vs. cold) of the light was common in years past, but the latest versions come in many different "color temperatures" which can be applied to a range of appropriate uses, from a warm and sociable living room to a bright and functional retail space or office.

    The energy savings are real. Getting similar amounts of lumens or foot-candles with a fraction (15w vs. 60w) of the energy consumption reduces the amount we spend on the electricity and in turn reduces the amount of electricity demanded and the pollution produced in that power plant. In the case of coal fired power plants, the air emissions include mercury vapor. Over the life of the incandescent bulbs used to equal the light of a CFL, the amount of mercury which will certainly be emitted into the atmosphere will exceed that to be released
    in the un-certain event of a bulb breakage.

    The lamps differ in life span (among other qualitative measures). A look at Consumer Reports shows which ones are best buys, like any other manufactured product.

    Now that I've defended the CFL as an intermediate step towards a future more-perfect light source, I'll mention some other options and things to look forward to.
    Dimmers (electronic) are under appreciated as a means of saving electricity and extending the life of incandescent bulbs.
    LED lamps are now widely used in flashlights and other battery powered devices. The energy use is much less than even a CFL and they will probably outlast you. However, they are still a bit expensive when implemented as table lamps or ceiling fixtures. There are other technologies in the works, but it will be a while (several years) before they are widely available.

  5. Howard and I had another conversation about CFLs last night. He reminded me of some other concerns he has about CFLs - power-factor mismatch with household circuitry and the grid, EMF emissions (for lamps in close proximity to people)and excess heat for certain fixtures (in the base, rather than the bulb itself). I'm doing some additional reading on these aspects so as to better understand them and develop an opinion.

    He doesn't disagree with my take on relative risk assessments of bulb breakage vs. mercury from coal-fired power plants but is concerned about the disposal of millions of CFLs in landfills. We agree on that point, although I think the CFL-related disposal strategy can and should be included in a comprehensive "e-waste" program, such as has been already implemented in Europe.

  6. Amen Howard!!

    Beyond the aesthetic and safety concerns, I admire the sentiment, but find the idea that switching bulbs will somehow have any impact on the ecological situation we're now facing, well, frankly quite silly. Its a classic red herring, while Obama continues to support more coal fired plants and more nuclear reactors, we're asked to use these hideous bulbs in a sad effort to jeer and guilt the consumer in to affecting change, while the utilities run wild, corporations reek havoc, and international finance continues the march of extraction to the last corners of our globe. But if we just switch our bulbs, we can sleep soundly, just doing our part!!

    These paper tigers are at best silly, but when adjudicated (as in Europe, and proposed here), downright insulting. I say let Rome blaze the night thru in lavish light!!

  7. As this blog post states, CFLs do save energy, but they also contain small amounts of mercury. It is important for consumers to realize that CFLs and fluorescent bulbs require special handling and cannot be thrown away in the trash. The mercury vapor can be detrimental to handlers' health—from those involved with handling new bulbs to people involved with storing, packaging and shipping used lamps. Mercury vapor, which can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled, can cause neurological damage, and when it gets into water, it can enter the food chain through fish. Read more about the dangers of mercury exposure at

    In the future, if a bulb is broken, it should be properly cleaned up. Also, to reduce the risk for mercury vapor exposure, CFLs and fluorescent lamps should be stored and transported to recycling facilities in a package that is proven to effectively contain hazardous mercury vapor. Find out more about safe packaging and clean-up procedures at