Shedding Light on Compact Fluorescent Light Bulb Mania

compact fluorescent light bulbsFor the last few months, everyone in Ontario could get a pretty good deal on compact fluorescent light bulbs, thanks to coupon rebates sponsored by the Ontario Ministry of Energy’s Conservation Bureau. I bought a bunch of the twisty bulbs myself because I like the light they give and I like their long working life. But I’m also worried. These light bulbs have been promoted in a way that oversells their real-world conservation value. Given the media messages we’ve seen lately, you might end up thinking that switching from regular, incandescent bulbs to fluorescent ones is going to make a significant difference in our collective energy plight. I wish progress were this easy, but the laws of physics and finance tell a different story.

Before you start throwing rotten fruit at me, let me unveil some facts about compact fluorescent light bulbs that can’t be shoehorned into a feel-good commercial in a movie theatre.

3 Important Compact Fluorescent Light Bulb Packaging Numbers:

  1. A big price sticker
  2. Prominent claims for handsome energy savings
  3. Long bulb life specs

These CFL Numbers Naturally Lead to 2 Questions:

  1. Does the long working life of compact fluorescent light bulbs outweigh their higher price?
  2. Does the energy savings of these bulbs translate directly into real-world savings considering your household energy budget as a whole?

Incandescent Light Bulbs vs Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs

  • Cost – Let’s crunch some numbers based on an ordinary 100-watt incandescent bulb and its compact fluorescent equivalent. Depending on where you shop, an ordinary 100-watt bulb costs about $1.15 (with a working life of about 1000 hours). A compact fluorescent that puts out the same amount of light costs between $5 and $15 (with a working life of 6,000 to 12,000 hours, depending on the brand). This means that compact fluorescents last 6 to 12 times longer, but they cost 4 to 13 times as much. Is that a good deal? Yes, I think so, though only because it saves me the trouble of changing light bulbs as often.
  • Disposal – Trash reduction is an issue, too, though there’s a catch. Although you’ll throw out far more dead incandescent bulbs than fluorescent ones, at least one brand of fluorescents that I’ve seen contains enough mercury that it affects how you can safely dispose of the failed bulbs.

Energy Savings – So what about the most important attribute of compact fluorescent light bulbs, their much-touted energy savings? While there’s no doubt that compact fluorescent light bulbs use substantially less electricity than incandescent bulbs putting out the same amount of light, does lower electricity use at the bulb really translate to overall, household energy savings?

To answer that question, you need to realize that energy never disappears, it simply changes form. Every single watt of electrical energy that goes into a light bulb gets converted into either light or heat.

Fluorescent bulbs are only more ‘efficient’ because they put out less heat and more light. But is heat always a bad thing? Is it really waste? Not in December it’s not.

In fact, given the Canadian heating season that extends from October to May, the so-called ‘waste’ that’s inherent to incandescent bulbs is actually put to extremely good use heating your home. For every kilowatt of electricity you save by switching to fluorescent bulbs you’ll have to make up for by a corresponding increase in heat output from your furnace or baseboard heaters.

All the advertised energy gains offered by fluorescent bulbs evaporate during fall, winter and spring because these ‘efficient’ bulbs heat your home that much less effectively than incandescents.

Want to really save energy? There are lots of good ways to do it.

Drive less, for instance. If you burn just one less 60-liter tank of gasoline every two months, that saves the same amount of energy consumed by a whopping thirty incandescent 60-watt bulbs burning 5 hours a day, seven days a week for two months straight. And these savings are all real.

To be completely fair, summer is a different story. We don’t want extra heat when it’s hot outside, so the cooler a bulb runs the better. But how long is the air conditioning season in Canada? A couple months, maybe three at the most? And how often do you switch on lights when it stays bright outside until 9:30 pm during July and August?

The bottom line is simple. While compact fluorescent light bulbs do give a whiter light and a longer working life, don’t congratulate yourself too much on their environmental benefits.

In our northern climate the energy savings realized by switching from incandescent bulbs to fluorescents is largely offset by a corresponding increase in the load placed on your furnace or baseboard heaters during our 7 or 8 month heating season. What we save with Peter we give back to Paul.

I’m always the first to stand up and preach the message of energy conservation. It’s vitally important. We really need to do much better. But true progress requires more than just phantom gains. Go ahead and use fluorescent bulbs. They look great. They give nice light. They last a long time. They even reduce household energy consumption a tiny bit. Just don’t consider the twisty bulbs to be a sign that you’re actually ‘doing your part’ for energy conservation.

Posted on November 19th, 2010

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