It sounds like such a simple thing to do: Buy some new light bulbs, screw them in, save the planet. But a lot of people are finding the new compact fluorescent light bulbs anything but simple.
Consumers who are using them for the first time say they sometimes fail to work or wear out early. Irritation seems to be mounting as more consumers try CFLs and vociferous complaints are posted on the Internet, signs that the bulbs are found lacking.
Bulb manufacturers and promoters say the overall quality of today’s compact fluorescents is high. But they also concede that it is difficult to prevent some problem bulbs from slipping through. Experts say the quality problems are being compounded by poor instructions. Using the bulbs incorrectly, such as by screwing low-end bulbs into fixtures where heat is prone to build up, can greatly shorten their lives.
Consumers should be able to protect themselves by buying bulbs certified by the government. But experts and some environmental groups complain that standards are weak, permitting low-quality bulbs with too high a level of mercury, a toxic metal contained in all compact fluorescents.
“The standard essentially establishes a floor which sorts out the junk, with the expectation that the rest is good,” says Michael Siminovitch, director of a lighting centre at the University of California, Davis. “It’s not.”
The government, which will begin enforcing tighter specifications this year, says it must seek a balance between quality and affordability to achieve its goal of getting millions of additional consumers to install the bulbs.
The truth is, light bulbs are getting a lot more complicated. In a guide they wrote, lighting experts at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York, declared that compact fluorescent bulbs require “a little insight and planning”. That may be an understatement. While research suggests that compact fluorescent technology has improved over the last decade, the bulbs do not replicate the performance of incandescents, the light bulbs to which most consumers are accustomed.
Below are some highlights from various guides on using compact fluorescent bulbs, including tips prepared by Rensselaer’s Lighting Research Center, the US government’s Energy Star programme, and experts from the magazine Consumer Reports:
• Look for bulbs with labels which indicates they have passed at least minimal performance requirements.
• Be aware that compact fluorescents can take 1-3 minutes to reach full brightness. This is not a defect.
• The place where people are most likely to use compact fluorescents, closets, may be a poor choice. Experts warn that turning the bulbs on and off frequently shortens their lives, and recommend using them in fixtures that are used at least 15 minutes at a time or several hours a day.
• The bulbs do not do well in hot environments with little airflow, such as recessed ceiling fixtures. They are ideal for use in table lamps. For recessed fixtures, specialized heat-resistant compact fluorescents are available.
• Not all compact fluorescents work with dimmers or in three-way sockets. Be certain to check the label.
• Learning about “colour temperature”, which is printed on the label of high-quality bulbs, can help consumers avoid disappointment with the colour of the light. The warmest-looking bulbs generally have a colour temperature of less than 3,000 Kelvin, while the harshest bulbs are usually above 5,000 Kelvin.
• Compact fluorescents contain mercury and should not be disposed of in the trash.
• If you break a bulb, take precautions to avoid mercury exposure: Clear people and pets from the room and open a window for at least 15 minutes, if possible. Avoid vacuuming. Scoop up larger pieces with stiff paper or cardboard, pick up smaller residue with sticky tape and wipe the area with a damp cloth. Put everything—glass, clothes and cardboard—into a plastic bag or sealed glass jar. In most cases, this can be put in the trash.
LEORA BROYDO VESTEL AND TOM ZELLER JR
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES