Death of a Compact Fluorescent

Those of you whose tenure with Whatever goes back to 2005 will recall I planted a compact fluorescent bulb into my desk lamp in November of 2005, and then basically kept the light on continually ever since, to see how long it would take for the thing to give up the ghost — I want to see if it would last ten times as long as a regular bulb, as implied. Well, it finally kicked over the weekend, which means it lasted two and a half years. That’s half of GE’s guaranteed five year life span, but then that guarantee was predicated on four hours of usage a day, not 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Pretty sure I got my money’s worth out of this one.

The only drawback to the compact fluorescents is that you’re not supposed to just throw them away; they contain trace amounts of mercury. So this one will have to be recycled. I do believe Wal-Mart allows you to bring in your spent bulbs to be recycled, however, so this will actually be easier than it might otherwise have been here in rural Ohio. I don’t mind taking the bulb to Wal-Mart since it’s where I would be buying the replacement, anyway.

In any event, I’m officially pleased with the performance of compact fluorescents. You shouldn’t have needed my seal of approval to start using them over regular bulbs, mind you. But in case you did, there you go.

47 Comments on “Death of a Compact Fluorescent”

  1. That is officially awesome. I am linking this to all of my friends and acquaintances who seem to think I’ve got soft in the head for replacing every single bulb in my house over the last year with a fluorescent.

  2. I think CFLs are great and have replaced several in my home. My only beef is that not all brands are “instant on” even though they say they are. You kinda get used to the split second delay after a while, but that’s besides the point. Maybe I’m just (un)lucky enough to have tried the only ones that have that delay. That said, I have found that the Phillips Marathon 60W replacements are as fast as incandescents, and have resorted to sticking with them. I don’t always like spending more money for the name brand stuff, but I’m just fussy like that.

  3. Cool! I’ve replaced a number of bulbs with CFLs over the past couple years and have yet to have one burn out on me. Of course I haven’t left them on 24 hrs a day either.

    That’s great about Wal-Mart taking them back (I wasn’t aware of that). IKEA stores will also take them for recycling (though there are a lot fewer IKEAs than Wal-Marts).

  4. Very cool! I replaced all of my bulbs with CFLs in February. My electric bills have been down 11% since the replacement.

  5. I have to say, one place where the CFLs have held up well for me is in places like ceiling fans where the vibration often burns an incandescent bulb out faster. I see where they are now making them with the tiny bases as well, so you can use them in chandelier fixtures as well.

  6. I’ve had pretty mixed results with the CFLs. One only lasted about 9 months; another lasted two years. The rest are still going after five or six years.

    I also have a pair of them in my office, feeding my plants. Those are on a timer. I think I’ve had to replace one of them so far — for the most part, they’ve outlasted the timer! (Which is a cheap mechanical timer. Perhaps I should look at an electronic one.)

    Do LEDs ever burn out?

  7. There does seem to be quite a bit of variation between brands. I’ve had more than one CFL burn out on me, and a number of the ones in my house now take annoyingly long to come up to full luminescence. Maybe I’ll check out the Philips Marathon next time we shop for them. Who stocks them?

    And yes, I’m glad they don’t make them like they used to. The 107-year-old bulb is cool as an exhibit, but I gather it’s horribly inefficient at lighting, even by the standards of incandescent bulbs. (I’m told that both its long life and its inefficient performance is due to the use of a very thick filament, designed for higher voltages than what’s being fed to it now. Keeping the light on continuously has helped too.)

  8. Ah CFL’s our friend… I had one burn out in a year with very little use but I’ll chalk that up to being defective as the other ones installed at the same time are still going strong :)

  9. I have about 1/4 of the bulbs in my home switched out to CFLs so far. No complaints as of yet. Anyone know how they stack up to regular bulbs when it comes to power surges?

  10. I don’t like that some of them take a while to warm up before they put out an acceptable amount of light. It’s not a major complaint, but there it is. My parents replaced the lights on the stairs to the basement with compact fluorescents and every time I visit I notice that only illuminate the basement to the level of “dusk, right after the sun disappears behind the horizon” for at least the first minute

  11. CFLs are not *my* friends. They make my head throb with pain. I’m using them, though, because my energy supplier has asked. Not everywhere – none of my reading lights are CFL and I hope they never will be. All of the bathrooms’ lights are being replaced with CFLs and the son’s bedroom is all converted.

    There’s an article in this week’s New Scientist about lighting a space with a window with integrated prisms that route sunlight into a space. I have solartubes in the roof for two rooms in my house that would otherwise be dark, and I’m thinking about using the integrated prisms in another room. Using the sun’s energy seems to be even more thrifty than CFLs.

  12. So then, somewhat roughly, of the estimated 7,304 hours (or 7,308 if there happened to be two leap years within the 5 year span of time…) that the bulb was expected to get, you got approximately 2 years and 195 days of continuous luminescence or 22,200 hours of life from it. Which, if my math is correct, is just a hair over 3 times longer life than is guaranteed on the packaging. Sounds like a thumbs up to me!

  13. The two problems I have with CFLs are (1) the warm-up period, as mentioned by PJ in #11, and (2) you can’t use them with dimmer switches, which makes them less than optimal for rooms with a bunch of recessed fixtures. That said, I’ve got them in the recessed lights in the office (no dimmer) and all the floor and table lamps.

  14. I can’t stand the things. Would it really be so hard to put a filter in them, so the light they produce wouldn’t be so harsh?

    That said, I couldn’t use them even if I wanted to. There are 4 light bulbs in my apartment; I couldn’t put them in the kitchen or bathroom because those lights are only on for a few minutes at a time which ruins the efficiency and lifetime of CFLs, the main room has a fixture that requires a standard round bulb, and there’s no way in hell I’m putting a fluorescent light in my reading lamp.

  15. I got all excited to replace the bulbs in my new home a year ago. I’ve since had 5 or 6 of the CFLs go belly up.

    Not sure I’m convinced they’re saving me any money at that rate.

  16. I’m a big fan of CFLs, especially since I live in a Victorian with 10 foot ceilings, where replacing bulbs involves getting out a 5 foot ladder and balancing awkwardly on it. In my living room fixture, I’ve only had to replace 2 of the 4 bulbs in the last five years.

    However, there is one place they don’t work: the front porch light, which is on a light-sensing diode. Maybe it’s the flickering at changeover, but the two I put in there both burned out within a month or two. I don’t know what I’m going to do there if incandescents are banned.

  17. @14. You can buy CFLs that work with dimmer switches.

    You can also buy ones that mimic natural light. Which may help with the headaches that some people get…

    At least you can buy these in the UK, I don’t know if they’re available in the USA.

  18. My Mom lives in a senior citizen apartment building with electrical problems. Her incandescent bulbs would burn out after a couple of months- I ended up changing a bulb about once a month, and there are maybe ten in the whole apartment. The filament was always fried.

    Then, bless her at 78 for caring, she decided to switch over to CFLs to help the environment. They have managed to last.

  19. You’re having much better luck than we have. Our continuously burning CFLs never have lasted more than a year. My understanding is that they work best in that fashion, rather than a light that’s switched on and off. Using CFL in several lamps, we’ve found they die far faster than the incandescents and therefore have switched back. I figure the longer lived bulb is better, no matter how much energy it consumes. Less non-recyclable trash and energy to build the bulbs are factors too.

    I’m also rather annoyed with the hooha one must deal with if the CFL breaks. Do I really want mercury lying on my basement floor or worse, carpet? You’re not supposed to vacuum it up, so how do you get it out safely?

  20. When we built our house, the first thing I did was switch all the lights I could to CFLs. That was back in ’05. In 3 years I’ve replaced one bulb. I cannot tell the difference between these bulbs and incandescents (except when I pay my utility bill), and I think folks complaining about the “quality” of the light sound a lot like the group in Santa Fe claiming to be “allergic” to wi-fi.

  21. I’ve use CFLs in all my lights in my house since I bought it two years ago. The only exceptions are a lamp in my living room and my ceiling fan in my living room, neither of which the CFLs will fit in (the ‘collar’, for lack of a better word though I’m guessing it might be the ballast, doesn’t fit in those sockets).

    I’ve run my two outside lights pretty much 24/7 since I moved in and they’re still running just fine. A few of them inside blew yesterday when I got a power spike from a lightning strike that either got the pole or my neighbor’s house. So they’re not lightning proof, but other than that, they work pretty well. There is a difference in color (at least in the early ones), but you kinda get used to it. Unfortunately I never ran regular bulbs, so I don’t know what kind of power difference there is, but I’m sold on them.

  22. We only use them in certain fixtures since we have old crappy wiring and any bulb will burn out in months. They are best for lights that need to or can be left on for long periods or where the heat given off by an incandescent is a hazard. LED tap lights powered by rechargeable batteries are scattered through the house and solar cell recharge LED garden lights are in various places(good for camping, no fire hazard).
    The best option is to not turn lights on in the first place and use natural lighting most of the time.

  23. Just did the math on your numbers and based on that your light bulb lasted 15 years of typical usage (4 hours at a time) thats pretty impressive.

  24. S.E. Fagan @ 7:

    Be aware that electronic timers might affect the current going to the bulb in ways that mechanical timers don’t, possibly leading to shortened lifetimes. LEDs do eventually burn out, but they should have long lifetimes compared to incandescents, and possibly CFLs.


    L Uroff @ 12:

    There’s a percentage of folks that actually get migraines from the flicker frequency of CFLs. Not much to be done, AFAIK.


    M Kirkland @ 15:

    Newer iterations of CFLs match the incandescent spectrum a lot better (I’m guessing, anyways). I have two inc’s and one CFL in my ceiling fan right now, and you have to look back and forth a few times between them to see a difference in the spectrum.


    tavella @ 17:

    If you’re in the US, you’ll have to get something figured out eventually – domestic sale of incandescents will be totally banned as of 2014, if all continues as is.


    Cassie @ 21:

    I was concerned about the mercury as well… on looking into it (I forget where I read this, unfortunately), I think they said that the amount of mercury in a single bulb is less than that in the average can of tuna. (And yeah, whatever that says about the average can of tuna.) So, for the average adult, no big deal. Where it might be a problem is if one breaks around a child or a pregnant woman… dunno.

    Anyways, the impression I got was that the main problem is if millions of bulbs go to a trash dump and release their mercury collectively. If everybody in the country (*chortle*) is responsible and recycles their CFLs, the occasional in-home breakage of a single bulb is of pretty minor concern.

    For me personally, I’m hopeful that LED-array bulbs will start to become economical prior to the complete phase-out of incandescents. No mercury hazard, very good power efficiency… the only concern is heat dissipation, but there are already companies working on creative solutions to that (one example, EarthLED).

  25. John Mark Ockerbloom @ 8
    Wegman’s in Rochester, NY carries the Phillips Marathon CFLs in a few different wattages, I don’t know about other stores, though. You mentioned the warm up time of some bulbs being long. These take maybe a minute or two to get to full brightness. When we first got them, I could actually see them get brighter all of a sudden, but haven’t noticed it in quite a while.

  26. John, you are assuming that the bulb would have lasted longer had you only used it four hours a day, but maybe leaving it on for long periods actually extended the bulb’s life. As you can see from the comments, people have varying experiences with the life of these type of bulbs.

    The question someone has to ask is why use CFL’s? If you are just trying to save money then initial cost, energy cost, bulb life and disposal cost are factors to consider. The problem is that bulb life does vary, so whether you save any money may depend on the brand you buy. I did not save money. I just Googled the code from a bulb and found this website which has reviews of CFL’s, and I found out that other people had the same bad results with this brand.

    If your use of CFL’s is concern for the environment then perhaps saving money is not a factor, but how do you get an accurate environmental cost of CFL’s in comparison to incandescent? In calculating energy savings, wouldn’t you have to account for the extra heat needed during cold weather since CFL’s are cooler than incandescent? And, unless your only concern is energy use, the fact that CFL’s are considered toxic waste should be important. Fire up Google and see what the recommended procedures are for cleaning up a broken CFL. This does not seem to be something that the promoters of these bulbs want widely disseminated. It sure wasn’t on the package I bought.

  27. I’ve found CFLs are very heat-sensitive. I had an exterior fixture of solid plastic that just sucked the life from a CFL. When I replaced the fixture with a glass & aluminum one, the bulbs last longer (still running after almost a year).

    Home Depot got smart about CFLs and groups them by light spectrum, and there are significant differences. I’ve also noted that the cheaper bulbs take longer to warm up, and the older the bulb, the longer the warm-up.

  28. I bought my first CFL about 18 years ago, when they were much pricier and bulkier and I was much poorer. It was a worthwhile investment for someone who is terrified of heights and finds changing the room ceiling light traumatic, never mind the light on the staircase landing. I’ve bought a number of different brands and models over the years, and they do vary quite a bit in how comfortable the colour spectrum is and whether they flicker enough to trigger a migraine. The good ones are very good; the really bad one nearly went straight to recycling.

  29. FYI – though the amount of mercury in each bulb is trace, in some areas there is a mandatory hazmat cleanup if you break a bulb, and the bills for that totally outweigh any power bill savings. For those of you living in cities which are especially notorious for making new laws for the sake of making new laws (Chicago, New York, etc.) you might want to check your Municipal code before investing in CFLs.

    Also, LEDs last for a VERY long time, but after the first few dozen to few hundred hours (depending on quality) they dim rather rapidly.

    And now you know

  30. I have some CFLs which are mounted horizontally and they have a noticeable hum. The ones which are mounted vertically, base up or base down, don’t have the hum. Cheap bulbs? Anyone else notice this?

    I have some three way CFLs which take several seconds to before there is any light. The standard ones are instant on but both they and the three ways take almost a minute before full luminescence as others have noted.

    Since they do produce less heat, I use higher luminescence bulbs in enclosed fixtures and still use less current.


  31. As someone who tries to go out of my way whenever possible to be “green” I have to draw the line at CFLs. The light they emit is garish, I can’t dim them, and they hum.

    That said, I did put one in my garage light fixture and by Al Gore’s math if every Californian did just that we’d have the equivalent of 40,000 fewer cars on the road.

    Babs steps I guess…

  32. I’m told turning a light bulb on and off drastically reduces its life span. So maybe you actually did the light a favor in leaving it on continuously!!!

  33. I can’t stand regular fluorescent lights – they are a contributing factor to my migraines – but I’ve found CFLs to be surprisingly good. I can’t see the flicker, and as long as I don’t use them as my sole light source while reading or sewing, the light isn’t too harsh.

  34. Brian #27 said it all. The headaches are from the frequency of the flicker, as fluorescent lights aren’t constant on devices (it has to do with how our brains process our sight, how fast those brains are, and how fast the fluorescents flicker). For some that remember there used to be a problem with computer monitors and fluorescent lights, until monitor refresh rates got faster.

    It’s nice that they finally figured out how to get the helix tube manufactured properly, but the reliance on Mercury in the starter is still a problem. However, that configuration is light years ahead of the old lamps.

  35. Mercury in the starter? I thought the mercury was in the tube itself, and no good way around it, ‘cos that’s what makes the UV primary emission that the phosphor coating converts into visible light.

    You’d think they could kill the flicker, and make them dimmable too, with a simple AC-to-DC converter, but probably there’s some reason the current through the tube has to be AC…

  36. I hate ’em.
    Whatever brand I buy (and I’ve tried at least 4) they take over a minute to light my kitchen fixture. Sorry, I don’t feel like standing around in the dark waiting for illumination.
    The one in my bedside light hums and causes static in the radio plugged into the same outlet. I also notice interference lines in the TV.
    It may be the mostly 1940s wiring in my house, but I doubt having the whole place rewired will be cost-efficient.
    If I have to I’ll just stockpile incandescents, and keep on minimizing our carbon footprint in the ways we’re already doing.

  37. I have a variety of CFLs I bought mostly in 2001, for around $5 each. Two of them finally burnt out mid-may this year. I was never all that careful about avoiding turning them on and off. My old apartment was kind of sketchy and probably had lousy wiring; the new one has fine wiring.

    There is a brightening time, but except for one bulb, the initial lighting is almost the full brightness.

    A few of the bulbs have a blue light which isn’t nice at all alone. Before, I put them in my two lamps with yellow lampshades, which softened it. Now, I have them in multi-bulb fixtures paired with more yellow-centered bulbs (also CFL), which worked out rather fetchingly. This also helps to get some light while the bulb that isn’t so bright initially gets up to speed.

  38. Zack, there’s mercury vapor in the tubes, which is the greatest hazard if you’re around when the bulb breaks (or if it’s broken in a closed area and you come into that area afterward). The mercury vapor is what gives off the photons when excited. The starters, though, contain an amalgam as well. When most people talk about the mercury hazard, they talk about the vapor (the phosphers – the white powder- can also contain mercury, which is a lingering hazard). Sorry if I confused anybody.

    A former client used to do extensive work on CFLs and experimented with various starter configurations, but never could get past the functionality (and cheapness) of the amalgam starter.

  39. Have any of you checked what is inside the hefty plastic base of a CFL?

    There is a small, circular PCB (Printed Circuit Board) about 1 inch diameter (25 mm), with about 26 discrete electronic components, eg transformer (copper windings, iron core, plastic bobbin), switching semi-conductor, electrolytic capacitor (with alkaline electrolyte etc), other capacitors, resistors, choke (more copper wire and plastic-impregnated iron powder core) etc etc.

    These form a high-frequency oscillator, to produce the higher voltages needed to get the tube to strike (start producing UV radiation from the mercury) before dropping to the running voltage.

    The UV radiation then hits the Rare-Earth white coating on the inside of the tube, which fluoresces, to produce the visible light, which is in in about three spikes rather than spread across the visible spectrum.

    Although the copper, iron and aluminium/aluminum are in relatively small quantities, collectively over the many billions of CFLs now in use, it must amount to a considerable tonnage. More copper and solder on the resin-impregnated PCB.

    The base and mounting plate are plastic, again amounting to a fair tonnage.

    Amazingly complex compared to a conventional incandescent lamp.

    I wonder how much of these CFL materials are economically recyclable?

  40. I had several CFL’s (of different brands) burn out, so I opened the bases to see what went wrong. Most of the lights had one or both of the semiconductor components obviously blown, i.e. bits missing. A couple of the lights had failed short, blowing fuses as they went. The insides looked like 1970s technology, with thru-hole components installed on brown single-sided board. Only one of the failed lights had a fiberglass circuit board and surface mount components. Thermal management was nonexistent; the designs relied on heat just radiating away from the base. There were obvious signs of overheating in all lights, such as discolored and deformed plastic around the base of the tubes, including ones that had been used in open fixtures.

%d bloggers like this: