Light bulb testing

Uncle Sam testing light bulbs, 1938. Harris & Ewing Collection. (Image via Shorpy)

Picture your favorite place to sit. It is likely next to a sun-filled window or in a cozy spot next to a lamp. Think about the lamps in your living room or the antique glow of a city café. Now think about places that are unpleasant: Safeway, hospital waiting rooms, the DMV. The reason we like the sun, candlelight, and fireplaces is the same reason we like incandescent lighting. The reason we feel uneasy with institutional lighting is the same reason we resist putting compact fluorescent lights in our bedrooms and living rooms. We’ve all been inundated with “proof” that incandescent bulbs are bad for the earth, and that switching is so worth the energy and cost savings that our love of incandescence is just nostalgia-laden selfishness. But never is it that simple.

Compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) use 75% less energy to power and have up to 10 times the life span. You get 8,000 hours of light compared to 800. CFLs win the efficiency of use contest, but to this day three out of every four sockets in the U.S. still contain the least efficient bulb available on the market, the 100-year-old incandescent bulb. Clearly there’s more at hand than energy efficiency.

America is hesitating at the register on CFLs partly because they cost more money up front, and partly because they are ugly. The cheapest CFLs cast a universally unflattering, cold light, and while some are better than others, no CFL so far can replicate the warm, saturated glow of incandescents. Apparently, we’re not up for changing the world if we have to change it to a creepy blue one.

Scene from In the Mood for Love, 2000, Wong Kar Wai

The warm company of a good lamp. Film still from In the Mood for Love (2000) by Wong Kar Wai.

There are two ways to think about the way light looks: its ‘color temperature’ and its ‘color rendering index’ — the way the light colors objects and surfaces. We read/feel incandescent bulbs like we do flames, when it’s all the way up, we read it white (like the hottest center of a flame) and as it dims, we read it warm and yellow like the outer tip of candle light. Incandescents cast a saturating glow on the space around it.

We read/feel fluorescent bulbs the opposite: cold and blue, making everything around it seem dead and uninviting. That dimmer switch is no help either, fluorescent light only becomes colder and eerier the dimmer the bulb gets.

When buying CFLs, talk to someone who works at the hardware store, or just buy a few different brands, some different wattages, some bright white, some daylight, some soft white and see what looks best to you in your space. Mixing incandescents with fluorescents can work well to soften the harshness of CFLs, but mixing CFL brands and colors could produce a rather unsettling effect, so be systematic. Also, techniques are improving and new CFLs more closely mimic the visual effect of incandescent light in bulb appearance and light color quality.

Vintage advertising for light bulbs

When light bulbs needed to be advertised. Vintage ads from Philips.

It is worth noting that CFLs don’t fulfill all their claims. Price pressures and government subsidies compromise quality. A large number of CFL bulbs are shipped with faulty ballasts, so they don’t last as long as they claim.

Shoddy, and also unsafe. Fluorescent light is created by exited mercury vapor racing back and forth. Mercury is a poison that affects the nervous system, endocrine glands, kidneys and other organs. Symptoms vary with severity, but they all suck and should be avoided. There’s less mercury in a CFL bulb than a watch battery, and way less than a thermometer, but there are more of them, and they break. If you break a light bulb, the EPA advises you to evacuate the room of humans and animals, shut the broken pieces into an airtight container and dispose of it in a properly designated landfill (to keep the mercury from leaching into our soil and water).

Basically, we can only handle CFLs in rooms that can be ventilated and easily evacuated, or risk human and puppy hazard. Besides individual and environmental dangers, there’s a human cost to CFLs: Closing incandescent factories shed jobs in the U.S., and Chinese workers are suffering Dickens-style health problems from working in CFL factories. As if that’s not enough, more energy is expended making and using CFLs. They don’t do the two-for-one room heating that incandescents do, so gains there are off-set to some degree by higher heating costs. A Danish study also found that it took 1.8 kilowatt hours of electricity to assemble a CFL compared to 0.11 kilowatt hours to assemble an incandescent bulb. The bulbs are also heavier and take more energy and money to transport.

These factors need to be considered when claiming that compact fluorescent lighting is leading the way to an energy efficient future. Luckily scientists aren’t so quick to give up on incandescent lighting. Improvements aren’t far in the horizon and hybrids are trickling out into the market. They may not be quite as energy efficient as CFLs claim to be, but neither are CFLs.

– Can Incandescent Bulbs Compete on Efficiency? The New York Times
– Plumen, the designer energy-saving light bulb
– GE Hybrid Light Bulb Solves CFL Issues, CNet News
– We considered neither the climate change-denying nor the libertarian aspects of CFLs, but here it is from the New York Times’ Room for Debate section: The Politicized Light Bulb

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  1. Jess
    Posted March 17, 2011 at 11:44 PM | Permalink

    Thank you for such a common sense post! We're the lone holdouts in our neighborhood & continue to purchase incandescent bulbs for two big reasons… Mercury & old – house wiring. The bulbs burn out in weeks if your current fluctuates like it does in our century home. Not only is it a waste of money but it seems crazy to trade a little bit of CO2 for polluting our landfills (and water table) with one of the most toxic substances on Earth. Plus when you look at the companies that are. manufacturing/promoting the heck out of them, they oftwn have deep ties to the government & stand to benefit mightily from anti-incandescent legislation.

  2. Casey
    Posted March 18, 2011 at 12:44 AM | Permalink

    Great post. It should also be noted that the government is mandating incandescents be 30% more efficient by 2012.

  3. Hilda
    Posted March 18, 2011 at 1:13 AM | Permalink

    Thank you for this post! All the environmentalist pushing fluorescent bulbs fail to mention the danger of the mercury in them. Each fluorescent bulb contains about 5 milligrams of mercury, which can be dangerous even in small quantities because, if the bulb is broken, it can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin, and it damages the central nervous system. Small amounts can also build up in the environment if the bulbs are thrown in the garbage and break or are incinerated. Mercury can enter the food chain and accumulate, ie. when big fish eat smaller fish that contain mercury, as is already the case with tuna and other large fish. Lastly, they light they emit is terrible—it hurts my eyes and cause headaches. Bring back the incandescent!

  4. sylvie
    Posted March 18, 2011 at 4:45 AM | Permalink

    Good read. I hope they come up with a better alternative soon.

  5. Posted March 18, 2011 at 12:35 PM | Permalink

    Great post, not slanted to be bashing where it is unwarranted. My (romantic) position on why we are drawn to incandescents is that they closely mimic fire, and for thousands of years humans had fire as their sole means of lighting when the sun was not available. CFL's are also the wrong choice for lights that we only turn on for a few minutes at a time, or turn on and off frequently.

    I don't care what they say, I love my incandescents and will be stocking up.

  6. Skr
    Posted March 19, 2011 at 9:50 AM | Permalink

    Another problem with CFLs is their color rendition index or CRI. This is a measure from 0-100 of how accurately color is rendered by the light. Sunlight is the baseline at 100. Incandescents are also at 100. This is all regardless of color temperature. The CFLs have CRIs in the 80s. One reason for this is that the manufacturers game the lumen rating. They know that buyers are looking at the lumen rating to buy lights with outputs comparable to their old incandescents. The problem is that the lumen is a bit of a bs number. Lumens represent how bright the light appears to human eyes. It just so happens that humans have a greater sensitivity to the green spectrum. The manufacturers boost the green spectrum in the CFLs in order to print a higher lumen number on the packaging. That is why they make everything look green and why you really don't want them in the bathroom vanity.

  7. Monika
    Posted March 21, 2011 at 8:12 AM | Permalink

    Right on cue, this article was in the NY TIMES today. Could there be another solution on the horizon?

  8. JG
    Posted March 22, 2011 at 5:57 AM | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this honest are well-written article. CFLs are a part of the entire 'global warming' myth. (Anyone seen Al Gore lately????)

  9. Posted March 23, 2011 at 5:52 PM | Permalink

    @JG the point of the article is not to question the validity of climate change, but to look at qualities specific to CFLs and to explore the ways current bulbs can be improved.


    Aurora (KM editor)

  10. Jared
    Posted March 24, 2011 at 10:38 AM | Permalink

    @ JG: Stop listening to Rush Limbaugh and get a grip on reality.

  11. Posted April 8, 2011 at 9:50 AM | Permalink

    This is a great article about this issue. I don't use CFL's because I have issues with them giving me headaches. I'm also concerned with the possibility that they can cause skin cancer, I have a read a few studies on this.

    I have found that they never last as long as they say they do, I generally have longer life with incandescent. I also don't like to buy products that are not easily disposed of. It really bothers me that most stores sell these but they refuse to take them back to recycle them (just like batteries). So consumers are left with a problem – what to do with them. Finding a place to properly dispose of these is difficult if you don't live in a city – the closest place for me is an hour and half drive away (one way). I'd have to save a lot of electric to make up for a 3 hour car ride for recycling, not to mention while I save them up I have to have a box of CFL's in the house and risk breaking one!

  12. Jason
    Posted May 27, 2011 at 3:29 AM | Permalink

    This article points out a lot of faults with CFLs, but I don't think it does so in a fair manner. One could easily write a similar article espousing the virtues of candlelight over the "harsh" light of incandescents (ignoring the faults of the former, like fire risk, and focusing on faults of the latter, like the "feel" of the light).

    There are good CFLs and bad CFLs. One can find them in a range of color temperatures. Characterizing all CFLs by the color temperatures and build quality of the poorest is misleading. This website is frequented by people who go out of their way for good quality products, so you shouldn't judge CFLs by the worst examples.

    One fact pointed out in the article is the difference in production energy between incandescents and CFLs. That's a reasonable point to make. But, that difference is minuscule when compared with the difference in energy consumption in use. It's misleading to point out that fault, and also the fault of not providing as much heat, in the absence of a comparison with the big picture of consumption.

    Also, the mercury issue is greatly exaggerated in the media. The amount of mercury released into the environment as a result of the greater energy consumption of incandescents means more coal is being burned and leads to more mercury being released into the atmosphere than you get from CFLs. Yes, CFLs, when they break, do release that mercury directly into your home, but simply opening a window for an hour basically neutralizes the very tiny risks from that pollutant.

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