Down and Dirty on CFLs

We’ve all seen Compact Fluorescents before, those twirly-looking, little bulbs that are supposed to save the planet but so many people seem to have a problem with. I’ve spoken to a lot of people about these over the years and while they in and of themselves will not save the planet (well, the people on the planet more accurately), they will save you up to 75 percent on the power your bulbs consume and therefore can be a really good place to start when trying to limit your energy usage. Listed below are some of the things that I hear over and over and why they aren’t really accurate reasons for not installing these bulbs.

“I hear that they have Mercury in them and when one breaks I have to call a Hazmat team.” I love this one because it’s a classic example on an urban myth gone wild. There is a small amount of mercury in these bulbs, approx 4 mg generally speaking, and as a result, you do need to dispose of them at an e-waste facility. If they break, you don’t need to sell the house, but open the windows (mercury vapors aren’t your friend) and clean it up extremely carefully. While this may seem like a nuisance, how many bulbs are you breaking on a daily basis anyway, and since you are replacing them less often, isn’t the number even less with CFLs? Just stop playing LaCrosse in the house and you’ll be fine.

“Since there is Mercury in CFLs I don’t want to add that to landfills.” And neither do I which is why I send them to a proper e-waste roundup to be dealt with. That said, the mercury in these bulbs needs to be compared to the unchecked Mercury coming out of electric generating plants, specifically the amount put out by the extra power that an old fashioned Edison bulb would require. Then you’re comparing apples to apples and you’ll see that on the mercury front, it’s the lesser of two evils.

“They’re too expensive.”
Sure they’re more expensive, they last about 6 times as long, shouldn’t they be? Having said that, check out any one of these myriad CFL calculators. You’ll see that the average bulb pays for itself in 8 months and then you’re actually raking in the dough. Show me an Edison bulb that does that.

“They don’t come in the sizes or colors I want and they aren’t dimmable.” Wrong again. CFLs now come in generally three different color spectrums, in all sorts of sizes, and yes, even dimmable. I will agree that they don’t dim down all the way, but it seems like a small price to pay for all the positives that are associated with them. And for those of you who turn them on and don’t like the color right off, remember that these are fluorescent bulbs and may take up to five minutes to come up to full speed.

“They hum.” Some CFLs do hum and if anyone has one that puts out “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” I’m looking. That said, in my experience, I’ve found that the ballasts (that’s what is humming) in the cheaper brands tend to be the ones that do the most humming. If you accept that these bulbs may be pricey up front but will pay off in the long run, don’t cheap out and you should be fine. And while we’re on ballasts, they last longest if left on for 10 minutes or more, frequent turning on and off will limit the life of the bulb. That said, when compared to the bulbs they are replacing, either leaving these bulbs on a bit longer, or turning them off quickly and shortening the lifespan of the bulb will save you power and money over the long run, so if you don’t want to think about it, don’t.

There you have it, my top five excuses I hear explained and hopefully satisfactorily. I should add that occasionally I hear, “I’m just too lazy” and am still looking for a good comeback for that one. In addition, there is an email floating around about how exposure to these things causes cancer and internal bleeding, or some other horrific problem, but I have yet to see a reliable source on this. If anyone has any, please check in with us.

So if you are ready to jump on the CFL bandwagon and not sure where to start, I’d suggest the closets. Buy a few different shapes colors and sizes and try them back there. If they turn out to not be to your liking, no biggee. You’ll hone in on the type you like by the time you hit the living room and then you’ll be happy with what you have. And if you’re still not loving these, fear not, use them till they die and by then, LED bulbs will be ready for mass consumption and everything you’re still concerned about will be a thing of the past (but you’ll have saved a ton of money and energy in the meantime).

Dave Chameides is a filmmaker and environmental educator. His website( and newsletter are designed to inspire thought and dialogue on environmental solutions and revolve around the idea that no one can do everything, but everyone can do something. “Give people the facts, and they’ll choose to do the right thing.”


William C
William C12 days ago


W. C
W. Cabout a month ago

Thank you.

Fred Krohn
Fred Krohn6 years ago

Wish they would add more 'fluorescent light recycling collection' places so the mercury trace in spent fixtures could be recovered for use in new ones. Most people around here wrap them in a plastic bag or put them in a scrap container, then toss them in the trash because it's either difficult or impossible to find a recycling collector.

Other than that one Chinese brand that the ballast tends to catch fire on, the CFLs available to me have been successful replacements for tungsten lamps (they're not 'Edison' lamps using carbonised thread, they're from the same experiments that produced the portable lantern mantle and are better termed Osram or Tungsram lamps) everywhere except the ceiling fan lamp that's on a dimmer. The first time they're used, they take up to 5 minutes to reach full intensity, but after that they come up to full in just a few seconds. The spectra are acceptable and even the low-cost ones reduce the cooling load enormously during air conditioning season.

LED lamps are currently fit only for annunciators, night lights, small flashlights, car tail and marker lights, and bicycle headlights. Remember that arsenic and other toxic metals are used to 'dope' the silicon to create the junction that emits that pleasant glow, so they're not much better than CFLs in that regard. When we finally settle down to geothermal and fusion nuclear power with wind and solar 'boost' to the grid, we'll have plenty of time to quibble over lighting.

Cynthia Johnson
Past Member 8 years ago

I learned about using CFL's from my mother who has them all over her house. I now use them as well but I don't burn lights often anyway.

Janice Bernath
Janice Bernath8 years ago

They're only good if you don't want to see much of anything. We tried them until they burnt out (thank god) and went back to incandescents. They're only good in places like lighting hallways, ambient lighting, etc. But if you actually want to see what you're doing, they pretty much suck. That's been our experience.

Erica G.
Erica G8 years ago

I replaced 90% of the bulbs in my apartment with CFLs about 1 1/2 yrs ago, and only one "globe" type was a dud. I agree that one "100 watt" CFL isn't quite as bright as an incandescent, but knowing that I'm saving energy makes it ok. I tend to leave lights on all over the house anyway, so I guess I'm doing ok with the CFLs. I also found that they take a minute to brighten up, but I'm used to that now. It's nice to not have to buy bulbs at the grocery any more.

janine k.
janine k8 years ago

Candles anyone? Listen, mercury is bad. Sunlight is good. Turn off the lights, look at the stars and relax already. You know poison is bad, don't use it.

Alex R.
Alex R8 years ago

I may be bending the whole point here, but if you'd like to keep mercury out of your physiology, first off, don't get a flu shot and don't imbibe or ingest anything containing high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

As for the solution to the lighting issue, I'm pathetically hopefully at least some of us will be able to live like the hard enough (physically) that you'd love going to bed when the sun sets ~

Shannon Mc
Shannon Mc8 years ago

Instead why not use LED's? they are the upcoming new way to light your home and they have warm light tones as well as bright white. they may be more expensive, but they last SO much longer!!

Jeffie Freedom
Jeffie F8 years ago

Supporting the corporate cash grab that's pushing the PR campaign for these bulbs is environmentally irresponsible. YOU might dispose of your CFLs properly, but the majority of people are not, they’re going to throw them in the garbage. Do a quick calculation yourself: Avg. 45 bulbs per home x 100,000,000 American homes x 4 mg mercury then convert to pounds. That's about 40,000 pounds of mercury going into landfill, and our water table. You know you can’t just pee mercury out once it’s in your system, it gets stuck in you kidneys and your brain. How many bulbs have you broken in your life time? Do you want each one of those events to be an exposure to mercury vapor? How many lucky pregnant women are going to break a bulb?

If you want to save the environment push or wait for LED bulb technology. CFLs are bad.