Compact Fluorescent Lighting (CFL) has gained widespread acceptance around the world for its low cost and “supposed” environmental friendliness, but it’s not quite the sustainable alternative to incandescent lighting that the marketing messages would have us believe.
According to Andrew Brunning, former Junior Partner and National Account Manager at National LED Direct, CFLs are inefficient as light sources, in part because of the power factor, which is the ratio of real power to apparent power within an electrical circuit. Power utilities only charge for real power consumption, but “apparent” power (energy that gets lost in the distribution system as current flows back to the load) also draws energy from the grid. CFLs suck almost 50% more current from the grid than incandescent lights, due to their additional apparent power usage. And even though residential customers are not charged for apparent power usage at time of posting, this could change. “I feel that, as more people switch to CFLs, there will be more and more of a combined strain on the power grid,” Brunning says. If enough people were to make the move to CFLs, power utilities may start charging for this additional apparent power usage.
Some major airlines in the USA have been changing fluorescent cabin lighting to LEDs, because of the 2-3X spike in amperage that CFLs draw when turned on, which consumes extra power and fuel. This and other similar discoveries have led some to believe that CFL surges cause the bulbs to draw significantly more energy than other light bulbs, although evidence shows this increase to be negligible or non-existent.
According to Brunning, CFLs are troublesome when installed in rooms where the lights get switched on and off regularly, because the built-in electronics quickly wear out. Since the bulbs are only rated for a certain number of on-and-off surges, with repeated use they have a short lifespan.
When accounting for a CFL’s entire life cycle, another problem presents itself—disposal. Compact fluorescents contain mercury, plastic and lead, and the glass is coated with phosphorus. Recycling them with other standard recyclables is not an option. At some point, cleaning up this heavy metal and plastic mess will take loads of energy, presenting yet another problem for future generations to take care of.
CFLs work less efficiently in extreme temperatures, too. For most home applications this isn’t a concern, but if using high wattage CFLs in recessed fixtures, the bulbs can cause a buildup of heat too great for the bulbs to handle. Compact fluorescents are also sensitive to vibrations. If used in applications such as garage door openers and ceiling fans, they will fail more quickly than other options. Of course, the quicker a bulb goes out, the quicker you have to replace it. And since CFLs require more energy to manufacture than incandescent lights, they should have a longer life to be considered efficient.
Looking beyond energy efficiency, CFLs present health hazards due to their production of dirty electricity; high frequency transient spikes in the electrical current that have up to 2,500 times more energy than a typical 60 Hz electrical signal. According to the research done by Trent University professor Dr. Magda Havas, people with diabetes who were exposed to dirty electricity experienced raised blood sugar levels. When placed in a cleaner environment, their blood sugar dropped. It was also shown through testing that patients with multiple sclerosis have worse neurological symptoms when exposed to dirty electricity, and asthmatics can experience worsening symptoms.
You get what you pay for. While CFLs may be cheap, they don’t live up to the energy-efficiency hype. They are not much more than a bridge technology, filling the gap between incandescent lights and LEDs. LEDs are a truly energy-efficient option. Their lifespan is about four to eight times that of a CFL. They use half the power of compact fluorescents, are mercury-free, produce half the CO2 emissions, and do not emit harmful EMF radiation. With prices dropping and the technology improving, LEDs are the best bet for those wanting to improve their home’s energy efficiency.