October 2007 Issue
Swapping compact fluorescent light bulbs for incandescent bulbs is one of the simplest ways to save money and energy. Lower prices and better performance have eliminated many of the common complaints about CFLs.
Though prices vary depending on where you buy them, table CFLs cost only $2 to $3 per bulb, compared with $9 to $25 in 1999. Our tests confirm that each CFL will save you about $5 a year in electricity costs over a regular bulb, assuming it’s on 3 hours a day.
Because these fluorescent bulbs require less energy, power plants don’t have to produce as much electricity to power them. This could lead to a reduction in nitrogen oxides, which cause smog; substantial quantities of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas; mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants; and other pollutants, explains Noah Horowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Energy Star-qualified CFLs must meet tough standards for start- and warm-up times, brightness, color, bulb life, and energy use. They also can’t hum or buzz. That’s why we recommend only Energy Star bulbs. We tested 200 fluorescent light bulbs from five major brands working closely with an outside lab. We also sent 120 bulbs home with 20 panelists. The results:
CFLs last longer. A typical incandescent lasts 1,000 hours. As we went to press, the spiral bulbs were still on after 3,000 hours. We cycle them on for 3 hours, off for 20 minutes, until they burn out.
CFLs aren’t right for every situation. Incandescent bulbs take less than a second to come close to full brightness. The fluorescent light bulbs we tested took between 25 seconds and 3.3 minutes. So they shouldn’t be used in areas where you need full brightness immediately, like a staircase. Spirals were the quickest, flood lights and covered outdoor bulbs the slowest. And don’t use CFLs in lights that are on for less than 15 minutes at a time, like closets. Frequent cycling shortens their life.
Recycling efforts lag. The fluorescent light bulbs we tested contain about 5 milligrams or less of mercury, a neurotoxin, or about 1 percent of the amount in an old-fashioned thermometer. Even so, those bulbs should be recycled so that the mercury isn’t released into the environment. Most municipalities don’t have residential CFL recycling programs. Nor will most of the stores that eagerly sell CFLs take the spent bulbs back.
Contact your sanitation department to find out if recycling is an option in your area. You can also go to www.epa.gov/bulbrecycling to find recyclers. While Ikea sells and collects used fluorescent light bulbs for recycling, it doesn’t sell Energy Star bulbs. Sylvania has a mail-in program, but it’s pricey. See The bulb is in the mail.
Check whether your local Household Hazardous Waste Collection Site recycles CFLs. As a last resort, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends sealing fluorescent light bulbs in two plastic bags and putting them in the trash.