As the Light Dims

Are compact fluorescents green?

As the Light Dims

Compact fluorescent lighting, or CFLS, appear to be an eco friendly lighting solution. But problems such as safe disposal make the CFL less appealing.

The light is dimming for some eco-conscious householders who believed they were doing the right thing for our environment by replacing their energy-guzzling incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent lighting (CFL).

Their consciences cleared, many do-gooders have been flocking back to the stores from which they purchased their new CFLs to demand refunds. It seems there are some drawbacks to the new kid on the eco-lighting block.

Not So Hot–In Cold

CFLs don’t operate well in cold temperatures, limiting their use for exterior lighting during Canadian winters. From the package of a CFL sold in Canada: “Reliable starting to -15 C.”
Other cold-temperature problems include reduced light output and a pink glow.

Not So Dim

Regular CFLs can’t be used with dimmer switches. Only those specifically designed (read: more expensive and harder to source) as dimming lights should be used. Even then, there is no guarantee these CFLs will work with all dimming switches.

In addition, CFLs have a narrower dimming range: between 20 and 80 percent of full light compared to almost no light to 100 percent brightness for incandescent bulbs.

Not So Hot

Because CFLs generally burn much cooler than the incandescent bulbs they replace, low-heat-emitting CFLs can actually be a detriment in cold-weather climates where energy is used to heat homes. The energy efficiency of CFLs has been based on their use in warmer climates, where the CFLs’ lower heat emissions save energy normally consumed by air conditioners.

Incandescent lights emit heat because of their inefficient use of power, while CFLs’ efficient design uses less energy. In colder climates such as ours, this trade-off necessitates a greater demand on the power grid to heat our homes.

Not So Long-Lived

Placing CFLs in areas such as bathrooms or closets where the light is turned on and off quickly will shorten the life of the bulb. This is because CFLs take up to three minutes to warm up to their optimum temperature, during which time they consume as much energy as an incandescent bulb.

In some situations, CFLs actually burn much hotter than incandescents. The CFL doesn’t do well when enclosed (in a globe) or when hanging down (as in a recessed ceiling fixture). The result of this overheating is a reduced light output, change in colour, and a shorter lifespan.

In some cases, CFLs are even failing in normal usage. A 2006 review by the Energy Star Lighting Verification Program in the United States found that one quarter of tested CFLs no longer met their rated output after 40 percent of their rated service life.

Not So Compatible

CFLs used in fixtures that are in close proximity to electronic devices operated by infrared remote control may interfere with their signals. These devices include televisions, radios, wireless computers, and mobile phones.

Electronic timers can interfere with the electronic ballast in CFLs and shorten their lifespan as well.

Not So Green

What happens to that eco-light when it no longer shines? Because CFLs contain mercury (less than 5 mg), they are considered hazardous waste in Europe. Though the same regulations have yet to be applied in Canada, distributors such as Home Depot Canada take back spent CFLs for recycling.

Brighter Light?

With the future dimming for incandescent lights (Canada plans to phase them out by 2012) and CFLs looking like a disappointing alternative, the light has become brighter for the manufacturers of high-brightness light emitting diode lighting (HD LED).

Already familiar to consumers as energy-efficient Christmas lights, this technology is now available in many applications for home lighting. The advantages of HD LED lighting over CFLs start with its greater efficiency (lasting up to four times as long as the best CFL) and its completely green design (no hazardous materials, such as mercury).

Though cost remains an issue, HD LED technology is poised to be the new bright light in our homes.

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