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Compact Fluorescent Lights- The Good, the Bad & the Mercury

They're in demand and soon they may be our only choice - compact fluorescent light bulbs, also known as CFLs. With a new drive to "go green," environmentalists and supporters are also pushing CFLs. Indeed, there's significant proof that the war on global warming just might get a boost from switching to these fluorescents. With all the positives, of course, a few negatives exist that consumers should take into account. (more below...)


The Plus Side of Using CFLs

Using compact fluorescent light bulb does result in cost savings over time. With proper use in the right spots, they last many times longer than incandescent bulbs. Even at their higher prices, this should pay off for the average user.

CFLs produce much less heat than traditional lighting. Experts state that the ratio is about 90/10 (light to heat) as opposed to a 70/30 average for incandescent. That translates into reduced electrical consumption. In turn, it also reduces the use of coal power, which is a major contributor to environmental woes.

The ENERGY STAR® blessing also helps. Some reports indicate that as much as $30 can be saved over the life of the new bulbs. Statistics fluctuate on actual life, depending on who is reporting; six to ten years seems to be the range.

Newer styles are beginning to warm up a little, but only in illumination. Earlier models - and many still in existence - cast that familiar fluorescent harsh light. Don't forget the buzz - ballasts in some models still produce a hum. It pays to shop carefully.

Overall, CFLs are getting good reviews from those who are making replacements in the home. It's one of those "feel-good" things to do, and if everyone joined in it would certainly have an impact on dangerous emissions.

Of course, all this is nice for the environment - probably. However, there's a dark side to compact fluorescent lighting, including the potential to actually raise operating costs.

The Downside of Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs

Compact fluorescent bulbs also have drawbacks. Some are openly discussed, while others may come as a surprise. The presence of mercury is perhaps one of the biggest considerations.

Size is one consumer complaint. The coiled tube is somewhat larger and longer than comparable bulbs. They simply won't fit in some sockets. In addition, no replacements are yet available for chandeliers.

CFLs also can't withstand temperature extremes. In cooler areas, they take longer to come to full illumination. They're not advised for use in unheated garages. Some rumors do exist about humid bathrooms or spa areas. Yes, CFLs will work fine there. The bad news is the humid environment will reduce the life of the bulb.

Many CFLs take a few seconds to come up to full speed, too. This could be a drawback if you're expecting to use them for security purposes. Here's another rarely-discussed point. Once the switch goes up, leave it there for no less than 15 minutes. That's right - in order to enjoy that 6-10 years of long life, you must leave the light on longer than you normally might. No more running into a room in search of your keys and then mindfully flicking the lights out. Forget about flicking a switch in the closet just to grab a jacket. In the longer-term, this could lead to greater energy consumption.

Forget the simple task of replacing your lights that are on a three-way or dimmer switch. You'll need to have a specialty add-on for that. The same goes for recessed canisters - another added expense for a conversion.

Due to the nature of their construction, the possibility exists CFLs cause electrical interference with smaller household appliances and gadgets.

Mercury, CFLs & You

Mercury is a dangerously toxic pollutant and each compact fluorescent bulb contains a small amount. Large enough, however, that you'll have a cleanup of monumental proportions if one is broken. The instructions for doing it yourself are downright scary. You can read about that on the ENERGY STAR® web site.

While it's still legal in most states to discard CFLs in the trash, that is not recommended. Bulbs get broken in transit to landfills and that puts everyone in danger, especially the workers who handle bags of trash. Conscientious disposal is not simple. First, you must find a recycling facility - and it won't be curb service. Even if laws are in place, there is much speculation that those mercury droplets will still find their way into the trash. Now, if everyone is doing it, that becomes a disaster of more epic proportions.

Those in favor of CFLs will state that coal powered plants produce much more mercury than a single light bulb. The point made by many is that with CFLs, this dangerous toxin is coming inside the home.

A switch to compact fluorescent lights is already government mandated. By 2014, it will actually be against the law to manufacture or sell incandescents. Obviously, changes are in order before everyone will embrace the concept of compact fluorescent light bulbs.

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