Are CFL Bulbs REALLY a Good Solution to Save You Money?

Are Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs Really a Good Solution to Save You Money?

The Dangers of CFL Light Bulbs

A number of people claim that one smart way you can save money is by changing the lighting in your home from incandescent lamps to compact fluorescent lamps, or CFLs.  Part of this claim is true – But there is a darker side of the story that needs to be known.  I am by no means an expert in the field, nor am I one of the incandescent extremists you sometimes fine.  Here is what I learned from my CFL experience.

Compact fluorescent light bulbs use less wattage than their incandescent counterparts.  This is a simple, easily proven fact.  In most cases, a 13 watt CFL light bulb produces about the same amount of lumens as a 60 watt incandescent bulb.  By using a CFL, you consume about 78% less energy.  Sounds like a win!

Before making a decision, the cost and life expectancy of light bulbs should be considered.  The cost of a CFL bulb is greater than an incandescent bulb.  But it lasts longer, right?  Wrong!!  A CFL bulb life is often advertised as 7 years, or 10 years.  In my personal experience, and that of many other people, many CFLs fail within the first year.  Some only last a few weeks.  The life expectancy is based on an unrealistically low number of hours of user per day.  My failed bulbs were mostly not heavily used.

My CFLs were manufactured by one of the industry leaders, not a cheap knock-off.   Some companies claim to warranty the bulb and replace it if it fails within that amount of time – and they will.  Sounds great!  If you want to spend all your spare time sending emails and light bulbs back and forth, then go for it; but please consider the rest of my experience first.

When an incandescent lamp fails, the filament breaks and you’ll hear a “pop!” and see the familiar “flash” as it burns out.  When a CFL fails, it’s a whole different story.  Manufacturers will tell you that the lamp may flicker, or burn dim and orange.  The base of the lamp may get hot, smoke, and produce an odor.  The Underwriters Laboratories (UL) will also tell you that this behavior is expected, and even explain that the base is made of flame retardant plastic.

They are leaving out some VERY IMPORTANT facts.  Read on to learn the real truth.

John Drengenberg, consumer affairs manager at UL, explains how a CFL burns out.  “People expect to see the bright flash and to hear the popping like a traditional incandescent bulb, but the burn out of a CFL is different. The light dims over time and might produce a more dramatic pop, emit a distinct odor, and maybe even release some smoke,” said Drengenberg.

The UL article also states, “In some cases, Drengenberg said that the plastic at the base of a CFL can turn black, but comments that this is also normal in most cases, as safety standards require the use of special flame retardant plastics in the base that do not burn or drop particles.”

And finally, “Because CFLs contain a small amount of mercury, they should be recycled rather than thrown out in the trash. Additionally, special considerations should be taken if a CFL should accidently break.”

Now let me be clear – This article says that the burning out CFL may “release some smoke”, “can turn black”, “produce a more dramatic pop”, and that they “contain a small amount of mercury” which requires “special considerations” if the bulb “should accidently break”.  But that’s okay, because “safety standards require the use of special flame retardant plastics in the base that do not burn or drop particles.”  Again, I’m not an expert in CFL technology, but it sounds like these things can be dangerous!!

Let me tell you about one of my CFL experiences.  I was in the kitchen when my wife and I smelled something burning.  While we looked for the source of the odor, and heard a loud “BANG” that seemed to have come from our bedroom.  We rushed to the bedroom and found a CFL in our ceiling fan to be the source of all the commotion. What we found shocked us.  The CFL base was slightly burned and smoking.  The glass from the bulb had exploded and was covering the bedroom floor and our bed (a 13 foot radius).  The carpet directly under the CFL had a piece of melted plastic and glass smoldering in the carpet.  There was a “string” of melted plastic extending from the CFL base, eight feet down to the smoldering piece on the floor.  Clearly, the CFL had a catastrophic failure.  We immediately evacuated the room as to not inhale the mercury vapor that escaped when the lamp exploded.

Clearly, my experience contradicts what the UL and manufacturers say should happen.  This bulb took it’s “expected” burnout sequence to the next level, and did exactly what they say can’t happy.  The flame retardant plastic that Mr. Drengenberg states “do not burn or drop particles”, dropped extremely hot material onto the (thankfully) flame retardant carpet below.  Had this been 18 inches farther over, it would have landed on our bed.  This experience contradicts everything stated by the UL.  Always be careful before you put 100% of your faith and trust into a certifying agency!

I contacted the manufacturer in regards to the violent failure.  I reluctantly shipped the failed lamp back to them for analysis.  Their quality assurance department inspected the lamp, and concluded that it did, in fact, fail due to a manufacturing defect.  The manufacturer replaced every lamp in my home, as well as the ruined carpet.  This is the most violent of the dozens that have failed in my home since 2007.  Nearly all of them got very hot and smelled aweful.  Seven of them have generated sufficient heat to break the glass bulb, and releasing the mercury vapor into the atmosphere in my home.

My family still uses CFLs in some areas of the home, but we are slowly transitioning away from them.  LED technology looks more promising from a safety standpoint.  Hopefully they will come to market with some good, reasonably priced products soon.

“UL sets the record straight on safety and compact fluorescent lamps.” Compact Fluorescent Lamps. (14 Jul. 2011).

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3 Responses to Are CFL Bulbs REALLY a Good Solution to Save You Money?

  1. Jordan says:

    I saw your comment on the Missoulian, and I am “zootownnative” on the thread. You say there is no clear advantage to using CFL’s and I would have to disagree with you. One must look at the higher level of the system to understand the benefits – you got half way there by understanding they use 78% less electricity, but missed the connection to the larger picture, that also means 78% less electricity is produced to power that bulb.

    There are numerous proven cases of pollution from coal fired powered plants, that have an unbelievable effect on our environment – from extraction to combustion. By using CFL’s you are helping decrease this pollution, and also helping sustain a fuel source that will eventually run out.

    • Incandescene says:

      And I will have to disagree with you. Let’s take your “big picture” even further… Where do CFLs come from? They are ALL made in China where there are little to no regulations on air pollution from factories. These factories use dirty coal that spews massive amounts of green house gases. Then these bulbs must be transported from China half-way around the world to the US. Then transported all across the US to your local store. Okay, now you use the bulb and save some electricity, but maybe not money as CFLs lose 10 hours of their state lifespan every time you turn them on (those high hours of use statements are based on *continual use*). Then, if you haven’t broken it and it hasn’t caused an EPA rated toxic spill, or it has exploded and caused a fire, then you need to take it to a special recycling center for disposal. These recycling centers use even more electric power as the bulbs must be carefully taken apart and the mercury recovered.

      In the end, CFLs are not better for the environment. They are only good for the light bulb corporations who now can make greater profits on these more expensive bulbs. Since the 1920′s the light bulb industry has been trying to find a way to make more money and now they found it… by convincing consumers and the environmentally conscious people that they are good for the planet. As a “green person” myself, I feel duped.

      Find out more at:

  2. Patriot_RAM says:

    I shot a video clip of a CFL smoking after it completed it’s arcing and flashing as it burned out. Here’s a link to the vid on YouTube:

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