CFL’s fact and fiction

Like any new breakthrough technology, there is always a considerable amount of cynicism and rhetoric that follows it from the polar opposite ends of acceptance, with either end really knowing much about the technology to make a subjective, logical decision about it.  Ideology tends to trump logic, and the technology either becomes the saving grace of the world, or is the bane of existence.  One can look back through history and read debates concerning the printing press.  The compact fluorescent lamp is no exception.  One side of the aisle is stating the lamps are the complete solution to the world’s energy crisis, while the other side is saying that they are the worst lighting technology ever produced, and the wax candle has it all over them.

Now, with a ban of incandescent lamps looming on the horizon, I am NOT writing this article to weight the political pros and cons of if we should ban or not ban incandescent lamps.  I am writing this article to put politics aside and clear up many of the rumors and hearsay that has followed the politics of this technology as people decide which side of the aisle they want to be on without looking at the facts….so here they are

MYTH:  CFL’s will last 10,000 hours:  Under ideal conditions, compact florescent lamps can last much longer than incancescant lamps.  10,000 hours is given as 10 times longer than an incandescent bulb.  This is supposed to justify the higher cost of CFL lamps over incandescent bulbs. If run 24/7, this means your CFL should last about 416 days.   The problem is that the ideal conditions are rarely met.  There are many factors that shorten the life of a CFL lamp.  The more frequently they are turned on and off will shorten their life.  Hotter, environment, and enclosed light fixtures will also shorten their life too.

A big factor that shortens the life of CFL lamps is where they are made.  Most CFL lamps are coming out of China.  Partly because they can be made extremely cheap there, and partly because the manufacturers can easily operate the hazardous manufacturing of the CFL’s with little regulation there.  The lack of “ideal” conditions however starts at the manufacturing end, with Chinese manufacturing being notorious for poor quality control, and CFL manufacturing  being no exception!

Despite this, in my own experience, I have a CFL in an outside light fixture that is several years old that continues to operate well, with based on my calculations,  has well over 10,000 hours on it.  I also have several in other locations around the house that have exceeded their specification.  My advice is to not buy the cheapest CFL lamps you can find, but spend a little more money for  a higher quality variety from a well-known brand.

MYTH:  all CFL’s give out poor quality light. Many of the people who do not like CFL’s for whatever reason, be it political or whatever their means claim the biggest issue with these lamps are the poor quality light they give out.  Complaints range from flickering to poor color rendition.  The fact of the matter is that these issues can be applied to ANY lighting source if it is not properly designed, and CFL’s are no exception.  When people complain of these issues about CFL’s, chances are it’s not the fault of CFL technology, but the fault of the user buying a poorly designed lamp.

When someone purchases a CFL lamp, as most consumers do, they first look for the cheapest price tag on the shelf and buy that one without paying any consideration as to what they are actually buying.  Purchasing CFL lamps however requires a bit more discretion.  First, when buying the cheapest lamp on the shelf, it typically means the poorest quality ballast. The ballast is very important on a florescent lamp because it regulates and filters the power the lamp uses.  If a poor quality ballast is used, the lamp will flicker when power fluctuations pass through to the lamp.

Second, the phosphor coating on a fluorescent lamp is what actually makes the light you see.  Cheaper priced lamps use lower quality phosphors. “White” light is a combination of all colors of light, and poor quality phosphors may not always produce all colors of the spectrum.  Spending a little more and buying higher quality CFL’s means that you will get better phosphors that produce more balanced light.  CFL lamps also come in different color temperatures than incandescent lamps.  It is best to choose the color temperature based on your preference.  The most common are “Warm-white” which looks yellowish like a slightly dimmed incandescent bulb, “Day light” which resembles sunlight, or a halogen bulb, and “cool white” which is sort of a bluish light like a cloudy day, or like moonlight.   My own preference leans towards the “Day Light” bulbs.

MYTH:  CFL lamps cannot be dimmed.  I would say this is fact, because the vast majority of CFL’s out on the market cannot be, BUT I have found dimmable compact florescent lamps occasionally at some stores.  Typically the big hardware home stores will stock a few varities of dimmable CFL’s, and they are also easy to find online.  One of the advantages to the dimming a CFL is that it’s color temperature does not shift as the lamp is dimmed, like an incandescent bulb will do.  Another advantage is that dimmable CFL bulbs typically have higher quality ballasts so they can be dimmed, so they not only tend to last longer, but also do not flicker as much as the cheaper varities. It is especially important to install a dimmable CFL in fixtures connected to dimmer switches.  One disadvantage to dimmable CFL’s is that they typically will only dim as far as 20% or so before they shut off completely.  Also, dimmable CFL’s can cost a little more than their non-dimmable counterparts.

MYTH:  CFL lamps present a new hazardous material disposal problem. While CFL lamps have only been around for about 10 years or so,  their full-size Fluorescent lamp counterparts have been around a lot longer….for about 60 years or so, with the “F40CW” being the industry standard for office building lighting since the fifties.   With this being the case, the industry is already set up do deal with handling the disposal and recycling of florescent lamps, compact or full-size.  Any well established electrical or lighting supply shop will have a way of disposing of florescent lamps, either full-size of CFL.

This is NOT to say that CFL’s are not hazardous. Care must be taken not to break any florescent bulbs when handling them because they contain mercury (full-size bulbs have more mercury than CFL bulbs) Luckily, CFL bulbs, even the poor quality cheap ones, typically contain thicker, harder to break glass than incandescent lamps.

FACT: CFL’s produce 4 times more light than an incandescent bulb. This is true!  Many energy efficient technologies may only marginally improve efficiency.  For example an energy-star refrigerator may only be 15% to 25% more efficient than a standard refrigerator, but CFL technolgy makes SIGNIFICANT strides over incandescent lighting technology.  This is why a 13 watt lamp can produce as much light as a 60 watt incandescent bulb.

CFL lamps are vibration resistant There are no fragile filaments inside CFL lamps, so when it comes to uses where mechancial movement an vibration are present, the CFL is the best choice.  Applications such as garage door openers, clothes dryers and other appliances have been a challenge. Thicker filaments have been used in special incandescent lamps so that the filaments don’t break when the machines operate.  The problem is these thicker filaments produce less light because they do not get as hot.  Because CFL lamps do not have filaments…problem solved!

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