CFL Bulbs: A Bright Idea for Going Green

CFL Bulbs: A Bright Idea for Going Green

Photo Courtesy of n:vision

So you want to go green but aren’t sure how to take that first step without cleaning out your wallet in the process? Well look no further than the lighting aisle of your nearest home improvement store. There you’ll find a wide selection of compact fluorescent light bulbs, or CFLs, that will save you money while helping the environment at the same time.

Perhaps you tried compact fluorescents years ago when they first came out, but after a few days of being bathed in their harsh blue light that made your family resemble extras from Night of the Living Dead, you banished them to the basement, where they’re probably still burning brightly.

CFLs have come a long way since those early days and are now available in a wide range of styles that are suitable for many different applications. Even better, their formerly ghoulish glow has been replaced by warmer shades that effectively mimic traditional incandescent bulbs.

CFL bulb on green ferns

CFL Facts

First a few facts to get you motivated. According to the federal government’s website,, compact fluorescent bulbs:

  • Use 1/4 the electricity of regular light bulbs to produce the same amount of light.
  • Give off 3/4 less heat than incandescent bulbs, which result in additional energy savings on air conditioning during the hot summer months.
  • Last up to 10 times longer than regular light bulbs.

Helping the Environment

But what about the big picture? Could changing a light bulb really make much of a difference to the environment? According to government statistics, if every household in the United States replaced just one incandescent bulb with a CFL, the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would be equal to taking over 800,000 cars off the road and would save more than $600 million a year in energy costs.

Energy Savings

I know what you’re thinking, how much difference can one light bulb really make? Depending on the size of the bulb, it is estimated that each CFL will save from $30 to over $100 in energy costs over their lifespan. Multiply that by the dozens of bulbs found in the average home and the savings can really add up. Even though it might seem wasteful to replace perfectly good existing bulbs with compact fluorescents, the savings in electricity for most bulbs will make up the difference in a matter of months.


A variety of CFL bulbs
Photo Courtesy of n:vision

So what’s the catch, you ask? Well, CFLs do cost more than traditional bulbs, but prices are now down to as low as $2 each if you buy in bulk. Most CFLs can’t be used with dimmers, nor should they be controlled by digital timers, though mechanical timers work fine. Also, they may have to be moved away from radios or computers if they cause interference.

The spiral shape and larger size of many CFLs can make them hard to fit into some fixtures. For lamps with clip-on shades, traditional “A” shaped bulbs are available, as are flood lights for recessed fixtures and torpedo bulbs for chandeliers, though these are not as efficient as their spiral shaped cousins. While harder to find and more expensive, three-way and dimmable CFLs do exist and are available online.

Living with CFLs

Compact fluorescents can take a little getting used to since there’s usually a slight delay when they are turned on. Also, it can take several minutes before they reach their full brightness.

It’s best to start by installing compact fluorescents in fixtures that are on the most. This not only maximizes your energy savings, but turning them on and off frequently can shorten their life. For this reason avoid putting them in places like closets and refrigerators where they won’t be on long enough to warm up properly.

Since they use less electricity and produce far less heat than traditional bulbs, you can use a brighter CFL in a fixture than the incandescent bulb it is replacing as long as the actual wattage being used by the compact fluorescent is less than the maximum rating for the fixture. That means you can use a CFL that produces as much light as a 150 watt incandescent bulb in a fixture rated for 60 watts, since the fluorescent actually only uses 40 watts of electricity.

Buying CFLs

Now that you’ve decided to take the plunge into the wonderful world of compact fluorescents, how do you choose which ones to buy? The first step is to find bulbs that meet your needs regarding shape, application, and wattage (or lumens if you prefer to think in terms of the light produced rather than the electricity consumed).

Next you have to make the all important decision as to the color of light desired. Isn’t all light white, you ask? Not by a long shot. Light has a color signature which ranges from the red end of the spectrum, found in most incandescent bulbs, to the harsher blue tones of natural daylight. This color is expressed using the Kelvin temperature scale, with the more familiar warm tones falling around 2700K-3000K while the harsher bluish light is at 4000K or higher.

Since temperature information is often omitted from CFL packaging, look for bulbs that are labeled “soft” or “warm” white if you prefer the soothing yellowish glow usually associated with incandescent lighting. Those with a brighter more unforgiving light are known as “cool” white (3200K-4000K), while “daylight” bulbs (4000K+) produce the harsh bluish tones often associated with fluorescents. Temperatures and other details for specific bulbs can be found at the government website under product search.

Finally, be sure the compact fluorescents you choose carry the ENERGY STAR label which assures that they meet federal government standards for energy efficiency and performance.

CFL Safety

While compact fluorescents produce more ultraviolet light than incandescent bulbs, it is not nearly as high as that found in natural daylight and should only be a concern for those highly sensitive to UV rays.

CFLs contain a very small amount of mercury which could pose a hazard if they are recycled or break, so check with your local solid waste management agency before disposing of used bulbs. To prevent breakage, screw the bulb in by holding the base, rather than the glass, and avoid over tightening.

Should a bulb break, the government recommends opening a window and leaving the room for 15 minutes. Wear disposable rubber gloves when cleaning up the fragments, and use a piece of stiff paper to pick them up. Wipe off any residue with damp paper towels. Double seal the fragments and towels in plastic bags before properly disposing of them. Avoid using a vacuum cleaner or broom during clean up. More information about mercury and CFLs can be found in the ENERGY STAR’s CFL Mercury Fact Sheet (PDF 78kb).

Going Greener

Now that you’ve seen how easy and economical going green can be, maybe it’s time to consider taking the next step, such as replacing that old water guzzling toilet or installing extra insulation in the attic. Who knows, you might just find a tree in the backyard in need of a hug.


  1. Before switching to CFLs, figure out how you are going to dispose of the used bulbs. CFLs contain a significant amount of mercury, and cannot be added to the general waste stream to the local landfill (aka City Dump), nor can they be added to the regular recycling collections. The cost of safe disposal of CFLs decreases the value of the energy savings.

  2. Danny, one of the things I’m surprised about CFLs is that the total energy consumed (energy used during the lifetime of the CFL AND energy used to manufacture the CFL) is greater than that consumed by an incandescent lamp.

    I’m curious if you know is this because of the costs involved in manufacturing the base, or is this just for the bulb?

    I use CFLs, but I’m not thrilled with their greater total energy consumption vs. incandescent bulbs.

  3. Anthony,
    I don’t know of any CFLs that are recommended for use with digital timers. ENERGY STAR approved bulbs must put on the package any applications they’re not compatible with, and all the ones I’ve seen have included digital timers on that list. Here’s what the government website had to say about it:
    “While CFLs can be used with mechanical timers, electronic or digital timers may cause interference with the electronic ballast, and can adversely affect product performance. Typically, CFLs used on electronic or digital timers will fail far before their rated lifetime.”

  4. While CFLs do contain a very small amount of mercury (enough to cover the tip of a ballpoint pen), it is 100 times less than that found in a single thermometer. Though that doesn’t sound like much, it can add up when multiplied by millions of bulbs. Fluorescent tubes–which have been used for years in schools, public buildings, and businesses—contain a small amount of mercury as well. All fluorescent lights should be treated as hazardous waste and disposed of properly.

  5. CFLs can be used in recessed cans (check the box to be sure), and there are some available now that resemble traditional reflector bulbs. Just be sure that there is not a dimmer on your recessed or track lighting, as most CFL’s are not recommended for use with dimmers.

  6. So how come no one is talking about using CFL’s with home automation? After the initial learning curve I seem to have them co-existing quite well. In fact one of my favourite “blendings” is the use of H/A timers and motion sensors to eliminate or lessen the lag in turning on when cold.
    I am really surprised that there isn’t more discussion about this.
    Yes CFL’s have their problems, but at least some of them can be minimized.

  7. Now, I think CFL will be replaced by other lighting products(such as LED, CCFL) like CFL replace incandescent lamp, because CFL can’t dimmable, But now our CCFL can be dimmed like incandescent lamp and CCFL with more long life. I think in a short time , CCFL will be popular. for more info. you can visit our website:

  8. these bulbs are fantastic and i’m glad they started making the yellow outside ones, too. i was in peru several years ago and the entire country uses them. hopefully, we will eventually catch up with this third world country.

  9. While CFLs can be used with mechanical timers, electronic or digital timers may cause interference with the electronic ballast, and can adversely affect product performance. Typically, CFLs used on electronic or digital timers will fail far before their rated lifetime.

  10. It should be noted, that for an unfortunate small percentage of the population, whose brains pick up on the flicker in these lights. They do cause severe eye strain, migraine headaches, etc. So if you make the switch and begin suffering problems, your new bulbs could be the culprit. It’s worse in the uk, than the us, because of the frequency of the electricity.

  11. While it’s true that round (A-shaped) CFL’s are designed to work better with clip-on style lampshades, the problem is that round CFL’s typically cost about FOUR TIMES MORE than their spiral counterparts of the same wattage! A much more cost effective solution for consumers is a product called the Magic Toob Lampshade Leveler. At a cost to consumers of about $1.00 per shade, this product allows ANY clip-on shade to work perfectly with virtually ANY type of bulb. To find out more and see a demonstration please visit

  12. CFL’s as pertains to longivity is a scam. Most of them do not last six months in normal home use. Made in China so what else would you expect. Also note that they do not have a warranty.Very disapointed.

  13. I want to ask a question. I am a women and do not know much about these things. Can a energysaver of 11-watt burn a socket that takes a normal 60-watt bulb?

  14. The problem I am finding is they do seem to run at just a high a temperature as incandescence. I am having to change out my older bathroom and hallway fixtures that were enclosed fixtures because the heat was blowing the ballast in the CFL. So you have to consider the price of changing any enclosed fixtures to your price of CFL’s. Course, my other problem now is outside applications. I use to use incandescence bulbs to keep plants, pumps and even animals warm during the winter months. Course, I know that CFL’s do put out heat and a fair amount but now I will have to find out whether they will put out enough and stand up to outside use to keep these different things in even our milder winter months down south. I think the $5 or $10 a year savings of CFL’s should not have completely replaced incandescence bulbs.

  15. I read another article about LED dedicated vs. retrofitting your current lighting fixture. They claim that using an LED dedicated fixture or housing will make your LED bulbs last longer because of the way the electricity modifies for the LED fixture and LED bulb. Any truth to that concept/marketing spiel?


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