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Fish on Friday: Light Bulb Revolution, 14 Months & Counting

A year ago, I wrote a story about the dramatic improvements that finally made compact fluorescent light bulbs so appealing for home use. The story was keyed to Wal-Mart’s effort to single-handedly double the compact fluorescent bulb market in the U.S. in a single year (which it looks like Wal-Mart will do with millions of bulb sales to spare).

A year ago, I wrote a story about the dramatic improvements that finally made compact fluorescent light bulbs so appealing for home use. The story was keyed to Wal-Mart’s effort to single-handedly double the compact fluorescent bulb market in the U.S. in a single year (which it looks like Wal-Mart will do with millions of bulb sales to spare).

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But for me, the story was also personal. In my family, I’m the light bulb custodian (following in the footsteps of my father, who has a passion for tracking the longevity of his bulbs). I buy the bulbs, I organize the bulb shelf, I replace the bulbs when they go dark.

So although I was assured by many experts that CFLs would change not just energy consumption, but the light bulb tending experience, I looked forward to seeing how that would play out in practice. Would the bulbs really come on reliably and quickly? Would we find the light appealing? Would they really last for years?

Fourteen months after installing a dozen bulbs, I’m here to offer a status report.

The CFLs are great. The most noticeable thing is this: They really do last and last. We live in a rambling three-story Victorian, and during our first years here, there was never a weekend when some bulbs somewhere — usually high up, requiring the 8-foot ladder — needed to be changed.

Three bulbs in particular tell the story: We have two outside post-lights that burn all night, from at least 10 pm to 6 am every day; a third light burns at the bottom of the stairs, also all night. That’s typically 60 hours a week per bulb, and the conventional bulbs never seemed to last more than three or four months. I was forever changing one of the three.

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I haven’t replaced the CFLs in any of those fixtures since June 2006.

Same for the CFLs installed in the downstairs bathroom, and in the main bathroom where are bedrooms are. At this point, as bulbs burn out — in the kitchen ceiling, in ceiling fans, in lamps — we swap in CFLs, if they fit. I think we’ve only lost a single CFL. We’ve probably got 25 installed.

You really can’t tell the difference from incandescents — except for the slight lag in coming on, a lag that is no more than 5 or 10 seconds, but is sometimes still surprising.

We’ve come up with a good technique for dealing with the delay, which I pass along: In fixtures with multiple sockets, where instant-on seems important — the bathrooms, the hallways — we’ve typically included a single incandescent bulb in the mix. That way, when a child needs help at night and you flick on the hall light, when you come home and want the downstairs hall lit as you enter, when you stumble into the bathroom in the middle of the night, you get light immediately. But you also retain the benefit of the CFLs (we’ve got 1 out of 3 bathroom vanity lights incandescent; in the hallway, one fixture has CFL, one has regular).

No, regular CFLs don’t work well with dimmers. Yes, the mercury is a concern, but less all the time as the mercury content is reduced, and as we reported, the CFLs actually contribute far less mercury to the environment, even if shattered, than incandescents do. (See, “The Silver Dot,” third item.)

Some people, especially in the comments at the end of the original story, and in emails to me, complain that in their homes, CFLs last only a few weeks, or a few months; that they consistently burn out.

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Two things can cause this. First, it’s worth buying name-brand bulbs. CFLs are complicated electronic devices, and quality matters. Second, and perhaps more common, CFLs are quite sensitive to fluctations in current (that’s why only specially designed ones work in dimmers). Conventional bulbs, not to mention TVs and coffee makers and computers, don’t notice the current variations.

But CFLs don’t like even 5 or 10 percent variations in the electricity your utility supplies, and those variations quickly fry the electronic controls. If you install a wave of name-brand bulbs in non-dimmed sockets, and find they don’t last, that’s probably the reason. You’ll have to find another way to reduce your electricity bill (as I like to say around here: the best energy saving bulb is one that’s off).

As for the energy savings, in a single year, in a house filled with children who think light switches have only an “on” position, it’s a little hard to tell. But in most months in the last 12, our electricity consumption has been down 10 percent. I’m happy with that.

And now, it is the rare weekend when any socket has a burned-out bulb. Light bulbs are off the shopping list, and off the chore list as well.

How has your experience been? Let us know below.

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