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Compact Fluorescent Light Bulb Basics

By Bruce of Stone Marmot

July 7, 2008

Lights account for about 10% of the electricity used by a typical private residence. Most of these lights presently use incandescent light bulbs. Fluorescent bulbs use about one quarter of the electricity of an incandescent bulb with the same light output. Compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs are roughly the same size or slightly larger than incandescent bulbs and can frequently screw into the same fixtures as incandescent bulbs. CFL bulbs also typically last about 10 times longer than typical incandescent bulbs. Yet few consumers have switched from incandescent to CFL bulbs. This article tries the address this issue and explain the characteristics of light bulbs, particularly compact fluorescents.

A major reason people have been slow to move to CFLs is because of their initial cost. When CFLs first came out 20 years ago, they cost about $15 to $20 a piece, compared to incandescent bulbs which are typically four for a dollar. But CFLs have dropped significantly in price in recent years so that, if you shop around, you can get them for under $1.50 each. Many state and local governments and power companies are also offering rebates for purchasing these bulbs.

CFLs also pay for themselves in savings on your electric bills. If a light bulb is used an average of four hours a day, a CFL will save enough in electricity in typically five months to offset the initial purchase price difference compared to an incandescent bulb. My article "Over 300 % A Year Return On Your Investment For Saving Energy" discusses this in more detail.

Many people also don't understand how light output is specified. They think light output is specified in watts and a 26 W CFL puts out a lot less light than a 100 W incandescent bulb. The watts listed for the bulb specifies the typical power used by the bulb. The light output is specified in lumens and a 100 W incandescent bulb and a 26 W CFL both put out about 1700 lumens of light. Look for the rating in lumens on the package to compare the light output.

Many people complain that the light from fluorescent bulbs is more "harsh" than that of incandescents. But the "whiteness' or "yellowness," or "coolness" or "warmth," of a light is defined by its "color temperature," which can be tailored in fluorescent bulbs. Color temperature ratings vary from 2700 to 5000, with the lower numbers being warmer and higher numbers being cooler. Many people actually feel most comfortable and perceived the light to be brightest when the color temp is around 4000, which is between incandescents (typically in the low 3000s) and lights advertised as "cool white," "daylight," or "full spectrum," which are closer to 5000 in color temp. Though the actual color temp rating is difficult to find on many packages, if present at all, you can check out the various bulbs in the displays in some stores and choose the bulb with the light color that you feel most comfortable with.

Some people complain about the 60 cycle flicker of fluorescent bulbs. This flicker was present in most older standard size fluorescent bulbs, but not in CFLs. CFLs had to go to electronic ballasts to reduce the size to approximately that of incandescent bulbs. These electronic ballasts switch the electric current in the CFL at a many, many times higher frequency than the 60 Hz power line frequency, and much higher than what your eyes or even the phosphor coatings inside the fluorescent tubes can respond to. So this 60 cycle flicker is not present in CFLs.

Fluorescent bulbs do take longer to reach full intensity than incandescent bulbs. CFLs have been improved so that they achieve about 70% of maximum intensity within a couple of seconds of turn-on and full intensity within a minute.

CFLs also have more limited operating temperature ranges than incandescent bulbs. Consequently, you probably don't want to use them in refrigerators and DON'T EVER use them in an oven.

Since CFLs use one quarter the power of an equivalent incandescent bulb, they generate a lot less heat. Consequently, CFLs as less of a fire hazard.

CFLs also save on air conditioning bills. All the extra power that an incandescent bulb uses is converted to heat, which is heating up your house.

Give CFL another chance. Many of the past problems have been solved in the new bulbs. You'll be saving lots of money and the environment in the process.


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