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By HHI Staff

Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) are an energy-efficient form of lighting capable of slicing as much as 75 percent off the operating cost of each light source, with no change in brightness. The resulting energy savings help slow the growth of overall electricity consumption, which in turn reduces growth in the emission of greenhouse gases generated during electricity production.


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CFLs have come a long way from the bulky, expensive models first introduced during the 1980s that emitted harsh, orange-hued light. Recent advances in the technology give many CFLs a warm glow closely approximating that of frosted incandescent bulbs. Today’s CFLs also are nearly the same size as similar incandescent bulbs.

CFL prices have tumbled as they’ve become more popular: Standard lamps that once cost between $20 and $40 will now set you back only about $2 to $10. While that’s still a lot more than the cost of a comparable incandescent bulb, compact fluorescents will shine up to 10 times longer. Add in the energy savings, and they’re a clear bargain compared with traditional lighting.

They’re better for the health of the atmosphere, too. The U.S. government’s Energy Star website claims that if every American household replaced five high-use incandescent bulbs with CFLs, it would reduce each home’s annual energy bill by $60, saving a total of $6.5 billion in energy costs and preventing “greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions from more than 8 million cars.”

Good as they are at saving energy, though, CFLs contain small amounts of mercury, a toxic heavy metal that can contaminate water or air as worn-out units are thrown away and deposited in landfills or trash incinerators. As of 2007, CFL recycling programs were available only in limited areas. In the meantime, many manufacturers have agreed to limit the amount of mercury in each lamp to no more than 6 mg.

Compact fluorescents come in two basic types:

  1. The integrated CFL, which combines a ballast and bulb in one unit. These are the most common types today; the widely used, inexpensive “spiral” CFL is an integrated model.
  2. The component type, in which a bulb plugs into a separate ballast unit, which in turn screws into a standard bulb socket. Component CFLs tend to be significantly more expensive than comparable integrated models.
Even with all their advantages, CFLs are not ideal for all lighting situations. Here are a few considerations:
  • Make the switch to CFLs in high-use lamps first. Lights typically left on for long periods of time, such as in the kitchen, den and living room, are top candidates for replacement. Conversely, most people use bathroom and closet lighting for much shorter periods. There’s less justification for the higher initial expense of CFLs in these locations given the reduced energy savings you’ll realize.
  • Standard CFLs cannot be placed on a lighting circuit controlled by a dimmer switch or dial. Standard lamps subjected to reduced voltage can overheat and even catch fire. Dimmable CFLs are becoming more widely available; look for products with labels that carry such a rating. A few integrated CFL models feature built-in dimmer dials. Others are made specifically for traditional “three-way” table lamps.
  • Manufacturers of certain models don’t recommend using CFLs in enclosed light fixtures. While such use is generally not hazardous, restricting airflow around the ballast can cause early failure.
  • Many CFL makers say these lamps should not be used in a fixture with a photovoltaic sensor, which turns the light on at dusk and off at dawn. Rapid on-off cycling of the sensor at these times of day can cause premature failure of the ballast.
  • In cold climates, consider buying models with ballasts rated for low-temperature use. Standard CFL ballasts may have trouble working in cold temperatures and can fail altogether.


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CFL:  Created on June 4th, 2009.  Last Modified on December 20th, 2009


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