In 2012, purchasing an incandescent light bulb will become a crime. Americans will be forced to use compact fluorescent light bulbs, or CFLs.
Now, we all have heard about the mercury content of these bulbs, and the ridiculous lengths we must go to when cleaning one up after a breakage. Evacuate the house, air out the room, use disposable materials like cardboard to scoop up the debris, seal the debris in glass jars (!), etc. No one’s going to do this—apart from the Goode family. But the threat posed by mercury is overblown, anyway. It’s just interesting that it turns out that there is “good” mercury and “bad” mercury. Green groups go bananas over the mercury produced by coal-fired power plants, and shrug over the mercury contamination in our homes due to CFLs.
John Stossel talked about this, and other CFL hazards, in a post at his blog the other day, in which he quotes from a story by Michael Heberling. In addition to the mercury content, it turns out that the amount of UV radiation these bulbs produce is cause for concern:
….the United Kingdom’s Health Protection Agency recommends that people be no closer than about a foot from these lights for more than an hour a day. The ultraviolet radiation emitted by CFLs is like direct sunlight on bare skin. Thus the [US] government is mandating that we all have miniature sun lamps throughout our homes.
And do they really last as long as advertised? What do you think?
The DOE guidelines for CFLs suggest that they be left on for at least 15 minutes after they are turned on…the lifespan of a CFL depends on how many times you turn it on and off. Failure to keep the light on causes the bulbs to burn out just as fast as the Edison bulbs. There go those big savings. So try to get in the habit of not turning off the lights after using the bathroom, a closet, or the laundry room. However, plan to come back 15 minutes later to turn off the light.
But that understates the problem. Leaving a CFL bulb on for 15 minutes won’t magically “heal” the bulb. It’s just a way to artificially extend the “lifetime” of the bulb. Don’t think of it as a lifetime measured in hours, think of it as a limited number of “on-off” events. If the DOE recommended that the bulb be left on for an hour at a time, the typical “lifetime” of a bulb would increase even more. Hell, if you left it on all the time it would last even longer! But I thought these bulbs were supposed to save energy…
And while CFLs that are left on may last ten times longer than incandescent lights, no one is saying that they will fully perform for that long. A Department of Energy study found that after 40 percent of the advertised service life, a quarter of the CFLs started to become dim bulbs. If you don’t mind having dim bulbs for 60 percent of the service life, then CFLs should make you happy.
So, in addition to leaving the bulb on at all times to maximize your “savings,” you should get a second one started about halfway through the first one’s life—at least if you want to be able to read something. I guess that’ll mean doubling your savings!
So, what’s the new danger posed by CFLs? These things are serious fire hazards.
A few weeks ago, my father was using one of them in a work light in the garage. The light dropped and the CFL inside shattered. My father was not overly concerned about the danger of the mercury released by this accident, mainly because the bulb began to shoot out flames like a blowtorch. The flame extended several inches from the base of the bulb, and lasted for several seconds until he managed to pull the plug.
[UPDATE: Here's the description from the man himself:
It shot flames for about 30 seconds and then “toned down” to two glowing rods. I watched it for two minutes and there was no change in the glowing status, it just continued to glow. I finally pulled the plug.]
He contacted Underwriters Laboratories, who wanted to know the serial number of the bulb, and when he couldn’t provide it they said there was nothing they could do.
I checked the UL website and found no discussion of anything similar to this event. The closest that came up was a description of what can happen at the end of a CFL bulb’s lifetime, which they described as normal.
“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 [John Drengenberg, consumer affairs manager at Underwriters Laboratories.]
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…
“CFLs are one of the products that we regularly test and investigate to specific UL requirements for electrical safety, fire and shock hazards,” he said. “Any popping sounds or smoke that a consumer might see when a CFLs burns out means that the bulb’s end-of-life mechanism worked as it should have.”
Well, that’s not quite the same thing as what happened to my father, is it? (Not that loud pops and smoke issuing from a burned-out light bulb are particularly desirable, either.) But there is no mention at UL of the possibility of a CFL bulb taking on the properties of a blowtorch if it is broken while power is still being supplied.
Lest you think my father is some nut making up a story (which you should, until proven otherwise), he’s not the only person who has reported this.
I also switched one on one time and had it catch fire at the base, shooting out flames, and I had to unplug it and grab the base of the lamp, and rush it outside before it caught the shade and the house on fire.
I lucked out being there when it happened. I’ll be stocking up on tungstens to use until I become a criminal.
And there have been several such incidents posted on the Consumer Reports Home & Garden Blog:
My wife had been in bed, heard a noise, and looking in that direction saw her bedside hurricane lamp’s single CF catch on fire. Fortunately, the fire went out quickly, and it occurred in a lamp that had no fabric. Although the lamp was old, it was rebuilt several years ago, never had a problem, and has continued to work after examination for several months after the incident.
I bought a number of FEIT cfls. While we were not in the room, one of them caught fire, breaking the bulb and leaving a major mess. These are not safe or acceptable. I am going back to regular globes. I don’t want my home destroyed.
I just had one flameout, while I was sleeping the other night. I keep a dining room light on at night. Had it not been for the smoke detector, I wouldn’t be here. It ruined the light fixture. From the heat. The light fixture used regular bulbs just fine until I converted the whole house to CFL’s. I just got done today going back to incandescent bulbs. I will buy a lifetime supply of regular bulbs if I have to. I will never use these things again.
I was an early adopter to CFLs. I was buying them when they were $20 a piece because I love new tech and saving money. 4-5 years ago I had one catch on fire and blow a hole in the white casing.
And take a look at this one:
I HAD THE HORRIFYING EXPERIENCE OF A FEIT CFL BULB
23W 120VAC 60Hz 380mA
UL # E170906
SHOOTING OUT FIRE AND SMOKE AS IT BLEW OUT. THANK GOD (AND MAYBE NOT) THAT I WAS IN THE ROOM WHEN IT BLEW. BECAUSE MY ENTIRE HOME AND POSESSIONS WOULD HAVE BURNED TO THE GROUND.
There’s a serial number, and what do you know, a UL number, too. And yet, if this hadn’t happened to my father, I would never have heard about this danger. And I’ll bet you wouldn’t have, either.