Compact Florescent Light Bulbs: A Short but Brilliant life?

posted: 2008-12-12 | updated: 2020-08-01

CFL with installation date written in felt pen

CFL with installation date written in felt pen

I’m all for saving energy, so I leave the heat off most of the time—even in the winter. It’s snowing as I write this, yes, the heat is off (okay, it’s actually not that cold outside—a balmy 4° C). I also switched to compact florescent light bulbs, CFLs. The energy savings over incandescent lights is remarkable, or is it?

On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer: swap out the 60 watt incandescent bulbs with 13 watt CFLs. Why, that’s a savings of (where’s my calculator) 47 watts per bulb! I first started using CFLs a few years back, but quickly became disgruntled with their rather short life span. And cheap they are not. Sure, publicize the heck out of these energy saving wonder bulbs, then make us pay through the nose for something that needs to be replaced every 7 or 8 months. Armchair conspiracy theorists start your engines.

So how long do these things really last? Your mileage may vary, but I feel like I’m driving a Hummer. The packaging lulls me into a warm fuzzy state: hey, 13 W = 60 W, 5 Year Limited Warranty, fantastic! I’m doing something great for the environment, and saving on my electric bill! Hmm, either my memory has gone south for the winter, or these things are going the way of the Dodo pretty darn quickly. I decided to start writing the installation date on the bulbs with a felt marker. As you can see in the image, I installed this bulb on May 12, 2008. It died (and we’ll all miss it) on December 08, 2008. Using extremely complex math, I calculated that this bulb had hopelessly past its best-before-date in a titch shy of 7 months.

As long as I keep pumping out hard, cold cash for these short-lived devices, I can reduce my energy consumption. But what about this 5 year limited warranty? Can a CFL really last that long? Yes. But, CFLs are best suited to situations where they are left on (or off) for extended periods. Turning CFLs on and off frequently drastically shortens their life span. It’s the same for incandescent light bulbs, but they’re usually less expensive to replace. I turn off lights when I’m not using them, then on again when I need them. This happens many times a day and explains why my bulbs don’t last very long. I suppose if I could have an extremely intensive energy audit, I could tell which areas of my humble abode would benefit from CFLs and which would benefit from incandescent bulbs. Got a watt meter handy?

Our enthusiasm for environmental fixes may preclude the bigger picture. Two things come to mind:

  1. CFLs contain mercury—a heavy metal that makes Metallica look like folk singers. And where do these dead bulbs end up? In Vancouver, BC there are only two places I know of that accept CFLs for recycling. I was recently informed by a staff member at Canadian Tire (2290 Cambie Street) that they no longer accept CFLs for recycling, even though I’d just purchased 3 boxes from them. As far as I know, the City of Vancouver, BC Hydro, and the Province of BC have no programs in place for keeping CFLs out of the landfill. Happily things it’s easier to recycle CFL than it was when I wrote this—see the update below.
  2. How much energy and how many resources go into the production and distribution of CFLs versus incandescent light bulbs? I have no clue, but looking at the big picture will give us a more balanced comparison regarding energy savings and environmental impact.

My guess is that compact florescent light bulbs, or any other florescent lights for that matter, are probably a stop-gap measure for most households. Better than incandescent light bulbs? Maybe. I think that in the near future we’ll see LEDs replacing CFLs in situations where lights are frequently turned on and off. Whatever lighting technology is the flavour of the day, using less light, but more effectively, is always a good tactic. It’s that whole task lighting versus area lighting thingy. And don’t forget, recycle those CFLs.

Update 2020-08-01:

Since I wrote this article LED light bulbs for home and commercial use have flourished. Their price is (almost) reasonable considering how long they last. I no longer have to choose between energy-efficient lighting and buying shoes. Ironically, I have several CFLs that are now over six years old and still work! Amazing. Maybe it doesn’t pay to be an early adopter. And maybe best of all, there are more places to recycle CFLs and other lighting products.

Find out where to recycle household lighting products (including compact fluorescent light bulbs) in British Columbia:

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