CFL bulbs: shedding light on misleading performance claims

Many of the performance claims about CFL bulbs have turned out to be false or misleading.

CFL bulbs: shedding light on misleading performance claims

By Kirk Myers

This article, the second in a series, focuses on the misleading performance claims surrounding the “more energy efficient” compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs now replacing traditional incandescent bulbs. These potentially harmful mercury-filled lamps (see my previous column describing the dangers) are being forced on consumers by the U.S. congress with support from the Green Lobby and light-bulb manufacturers like GE, Sylvania and Phillips. These and other manufacturers stand to make huge profits selling the more expensive CFLs (more on that issue in my next column).


There is a growing body of evidence undermining claims of the EPA, environmental lobby and light bulb manufacturers touting the performance advantages of mercury-laced CFL bulbs.

Exaggerated lifespan

Real-world reports from the home front show that the claimed extended lifespan of CFLs is often greatly exaggerated. There is ample data indicating that the frequent switching on and off of CFLs greatly shortens their life. A study by H. Sterling Burnett, senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, and co-author Amanda Berg concludes:

“Unfortunately, except under a fairly narrow range of circumstances, CFLs are less efficient than advertised. Manufacturers claim the average life span of a CFL bulb is 10,000 hours. However, in many applications the life and energy savings of a CFL are significantly lower.

“Applications in which lighting is used only briefly (such as closets, bathrooms, motion detectors and so forth) will cause CFL bulbs to burn out as quickly as regular incandescent bulbs . . . When initially switched on, CFLs may provide as little as 50 percent to 80 percent of their rated light output and can take up to three minutes to reach full brightness.”

According to a story in the Wall Street Journal, Pacific Gas & Electric originally estimated the useful life of CFL bulbs at 9.4 years. But based on real-world results, the company was forced to lower its estimate to 6.3 years, meaning that it had overstated bulb life by 49 percent. “The early burn-out rate, along with several other factors, meant that the actual energy savings were 73 percent less than the 1.7 billion kilowatt hours projected by PG&E,” the Journal reported.

Less bright, more dim with age

As many consumers have noticed, CFL bulbs grow dimmer as they age. In a 2003-2004 study, the U.S. Department of Energy reported that one-fourth of CFLs, after only 40 percent of their rated service life, no longer produced at their rated output.

And according to Wikipedia: “CFLs produce less light later in their lives than when they are new. The light output decay is exponential, with the fastest losses being soon after the lamp is first used. By the end of their lives, CFLs can be expected to produce 70-80% of their original light output.”

After conducting its own tests on bulbs from several manufacturers, The Sunday Telegraph in London “found that under normal conditions, using a single lamp to light a room, an 11W low-energy CFL produced only 58 percent of the illumination of an ‘equivalent’ 60W bulb – even after a 10-minute ‘warm-up.’”

The European Commission, which led the effort to ban incandescent bulbs in Europe, said that claims by manufacturers that CFL’s shine as brightly as old-fashioned bulbs are “not true.”

Posted on its website for consumers was the warning that “exaggerated claims are often made on the packaging about the light output of compact fluorescent lamps.”

Higher heating bills

Go-Green advocates like to complain about the fact that 90 percent of the energy from incandescent lights is given off as heat, with only 10 percent providing illumination. But they ignore one important fact: The extra heat given off during the winter months can actually lower energy bills.

According to a study by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, “The heat of incandescent lights – more than 341 Btu per bulb per hour – can help to warm a room. Therefore, if the cost of electricity is low relative to the cost of home heating fuel, there may be an economic case for changing to incandescent bulbs in colder seasons.”

In other words, on a cold day when you’re running your electric heater, it makes sense to flip on all those incandescent heat sources. Of course, the contribution of incandescent bulbs to lower heating bills is conveniently missing from pro-CFL literature.

Unsuitable for outdoor lighting

What about the use of CFLs for outdoor lighting? Forget it. Most do not operate well in low temperatures, a performance shortfall that makes them virtually useless for home-security lighting, including as lights in motion detectors. By signing the incandescent bulb’s death warrant, congress has effectively rendered useless outdoor lighting systems that keep away intruders and discourage home break-ins.

Myth of mercury reduction

One of the most misleading arguments advanced in defense of CFLs is the assertion that they reduce harmful mercury levels (a dubious proposition given that the bulbs themselves are laced with mercury).

Case in point: In a letter to the Wall Street Journal in December, CFL advocate Nicole Lederer claimed that “coal-fired power plants produce about half of all mercury.”

In his Jan. 5 response, Charles Battig of Scientists and Engineers for Energy and Environment-Virginia called the statement “scientifically vacuous and misleading.”

Battig cited data from an op-ed (“The Myth of Killer Mercury” by Willie Soon and Paul Driessen) that broke down mercury contributions as follows: “U.S. coal-fired plants, about 41-48 tons per year; forest fires, about 44 tons per year; Chinese power plants, 400 tons per year, while recurring geological events such as volcanoes and geysers emit 9,000-10,000 tons per year.”

“With these missing pieces of information, wrote Battig, the U.S. power plant contribution of mercury is closer to a 0.5% value than the “half of all mercury” claim by Ms. Lederer.”

Battig then offered this advice:

“Would that Ms. Lederer and the Environmental Entrepreneurs expend an equal amount of environmental anguish over placing compact fluorescent lamp bulbs indoors in homes, schools and factories. These mercury-containing, stealth-pollution bulbs bring the mercury threat right into your living room and nursery.”

No good reason for switchover

The fact is there is no good reason for consumers – even energy-conscious go-green enthusiasts – to replace their old incandescent bulbs with the much-overhyped and potentially dangerous CFL lamps. The sole beneficiaries of the forced switchover are light bulb manufacturers who stand to make huge profits selling CFL bulbs whose shelf price has been artificially lowered (but still is higher than incandescent bulbs) through hefty subsidies paid to them by taxpayers.

In light of the facts, the switchover to CFL bulbs has become a real consumer turn-off.

Thanks to Kirk Myers for this link

19 thoughts on “CFL bulbs: shedding light on misleading performance claims”

  1. I meant CFLs. Still the point stands. You can’t cherry pick. Either you believe Mercury is harmful or it is not.

    • No one is saying Mercury isn’t harmful, even though as a kid, I used to play with the stuff. What is being pointed out is that we might be adding some to the air by burning coal, but it is small compared to what is put into the air by natural sources. Look at the amount of Mercury that is put into the air by forest fires. That Mercury wasn’t put into the trees by man, it was put there by natural processes. Just like it is in plants that you eat. I personally think that things are blamed on things like Mercury, as an example, that may have nothing to do with Mercury. Many times we have seen where products running out of patent protection suddenly are found to be bad for the environment so that we are forced to use something else that is still controlled by patents. It would not surprise me to find out Mercury thermostats fell out of patent protection thus we suddenly made Mercury an environmental problem so that cheaper thermostats couldn’t be made. Profit drives everything now.

      • one report mentioned dental amalgam containing mercury being vapourised on cremations was a Huge source of aerial pollution also.
        and they’d be right:-)

  2. Left out of this fine article is the simple fact that light isn’t necessarily light. The color spectrum of the CFL is different from the incandescent bulb that mimics the Sun’s light. Eyes evolved under sunlight, and thus see better under something that look closer to natural sunlight. CFLs, like the more familiar fluorescent tube, do not give off the same spectrum of light, thus we see differently, and may be a contributor to the overall need for corrective lenses.

  3. Money money money money, money! This is why the GE CEO slobbers over The Obama and His Merry Band of Liberal Liars. This is why CEO’s in so-called green corporations get that tingle down their leg everytime The Obama speaks, because when The Obama speaks they make millions. The only environment they are concerned with is their environment of abject greed…

  4. I agree with everything this article has to say, but with these additions; the CFL bulbs have cut my power bill quite a bit, but they burn out much faster than this article indicates. I believe they are highly susceptible to brown outs and power surges. My table lamps, which are plugged into surge suppressor power strips almost never burn out, but ceiling lights burn out with alarming regularity. I have replaced several CFL bulbs with LED bulbs, which so far have not had the burn out problem. The first lights that come on in the living room, bedrooms,family room and library are all table lamps, controlled by wall switches, where as the foyer,dining room,hallways,Kitchen and den are all ceiling lights.

  5. A followup, if you will. The same goes for LED lights and the current rage, blue headlights. The eyes evolved with a different light source, and because of that, they don’t see as well with blue lights. Remember the blublocker glasses? That’s what they did, block blue light so the eyes could focus better. And now we put them in as headlights on automobiles, and nearly every LED flashlight is of the “blue-white” light variety. We destroy ourselves for profit!

    • Aha! That’s why I always have to flip the rearview mirror in my car to its dimmer setting whenever someone comes up behind me with those blasted blue lightbulbs! I wish I could do the same thing with the front windshield. 🙁

      • Get glasses with yellow lenses. They make a huge amount of difference when driving at night, and also when it has snowed, because they reduce the amount of blue light reaching the eye. Much more relaxing.

      • no, BUT there are good halogen incandescent bulbs available at the reject shop for under $2 a bulb:-) various wattage and sizes and it’s sooo nice to be able to see clearly and read again:-)
        dont get ripped off for up to 7$ a bulb, they are around cheaper, and Stratco also had them on special for $2 .
        my very first mercury bulbs cost $5 ea were crap and one almost burnt the house down, the ballast had started to discolour and melt, when I realised an “on” light wasnt..if I hadnt been observant(I had wooden cielings) it would have very nasty.

        how they could possibly be enviro? nice? when apart from mercury -theres electronic circuitry and plastic that cant be recycled either, and special requirements for disposal. ridiculous conjob is what they are.
        and the old bulbs meant you could warm ill animals ie birds, or puppies etc if needed, the cfl are useless and too toxic to have near animals.

      • I can still buy incandescent bulbs. I even bought an 8 pack of 100w bulbs today along with a pack of 75w. The cost was .50 per bulb and a little sales tax.

        Anybody need them I can get them!

    • You can buy halogen incandescent globes at great expense but they are bright. If you move them or place them at any other angle apart from vertical, they blow early.

  6. Facts are facts. Maybe (and that’s a big maybe) there is some advantage to cfls. For example I had a cfl bulb in my kids bathroom that was on almost constantly for over 7 years. I have a couple of light fixtures that use the little bulbs shaped like flames. Incandescents were constantly burning out in them. I switched to cfls two years ago and they haven’t burned out yet. That said, I have seen no decrease in my electricity usage. I have seen no reduction in my monthly bill. I know there are many who say cfls are safe, but I KNOW incadescents are. There should be room in the market for both, but the market should decide that, not some high minded ideologue politician.

  7. One more thing – the fellow in charge of the facilities for our department would love to get hold of some serious information documenting the health-related problems with CFLs. I know when they installed the new pink CFLs overhead (tube-style), most of the people in the front office developed health issues at the same time. After a discussion with one of them, I decided not to use the overhead lights. I got some table lamps and incandescent bulbs, and that’s what I use. People often comment on homey my office is. It’s more relaxing than being under those other lights.

  8. When we moved into this house in 2009, we remodelled and replaced every light fitting and bought “Instant On” CFC’s. It has to be said that we installed 23W lamps to replace a 75W lamp.. they certainly are not a 100W equivalent as they claim. In almost three years we haven’t lost a lamp yet. However, back in the UK using the earlier designs, we started to get failures after only two years.

    When we had to install strip lighting in the new garage and greenhouse here, I found LED strip lights. A 4 ft LED striplight giving off “natural” light uses only 16 Watts. It was a leap of faith to go out and buy 4 of these without knowing how good they were but the quality of light is absolutely amazing.. far better than incandescent, and the fitting is MUCH brighter than a regular mercury strip light. This comes from someone who has gotten migraines from regular strip lighting. So much so that I have taken folks out to the garage at night just to show them these beauties! They may seem expensive.. a 4 ft tube with complete housing and fittings costs $58.00 but if you have an area that you use for work, or for hobbies, or for food preparation for example, where you need a really bright, zero flicker, natural light that won’t strain your eyes, this is the light you need. They offer a cool and warm white. They were out of warm so we cautiously opted for cool.. and it is just like working in natural daylight. It does not have that blue hue that you get with many LED’s.

    We have successfully replaced all our 7W deck lights (halogen) with 0.25W LED’s, and replaced the waterfall (35W) floods with 3 Watt LED’s. 7 Watt Path lights have been replaced with 1W LED’s that are far brighter than the originals. The bottom line for me? The 7W replacements were only twice the price of the halogens that burnt out every couple of months. The 3 Watt LED’s were three times the price.. but they are VERY long-lasting and dirt cheap to run! I would love to replace every CFC with LED lighting eventually.. probabaly starting with those that we use most, but will wait until there is a wider range of products available before deciding.

  9. It’s a sad day when politicians need to prove that they aren’t totally useless by mandating the kind of lightbulbs we can use. Sadder still when that kind of bulb they replace is not only inferior, but harmful to the very environment they promised to love, honor, obey, preserve, protect and defend.

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