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Common complaints, misconceptions about new standards for light bulbs

Marek Luce of Lightbulbs Unlimited in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., featured a display of old and new light bulbs in his showroom. Incandescent bulbs are in front and CFLs, or compact fluorescent lamps, are in the back two rows. New rules will require bulbs to be more energy efficient.
Marek Luce of Lightbulbs Unlimited in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., featured a display of old and new light bulbs in his showroom. Incandescent bulbs are in front and CFLs, or compact fluorescent lamps, are in the back two rows. New rules will require bulbs to be more energy efficient. MCT

Few topics get people more lit up than light bulbs, as evidenced by response to congressional discussion this year about the product.

In sum, it's been a messy transition from 130-year-old incandescent technology to more energy-efficient bulbs, the earliest of which were expensive compact fluorescent lamps, or CFLs, that provided bad light. Some experts predict CFLs, with all their drawbacks, are simply a transitional bulb, soon to be overtaken by LED and other technologies.

In an effort to shed some light on light, here are answers to a few of the most common complaints.

"The U.S. government is banning traditional light bulbs and requiring use of CFLs." False. The government is requiring bulbs to be more energy-efficient. New bulbs can be incandescent, CFL, LED or any other technology that comes along. But they must be 25 percent more energy-efficient, a standard traditional incandescents can't meet, although some new-generation incandescents meet it.

As a practical matter, CFLs save more energy than incandescents, even the new ones. And, at least for the moment, CFLs are today's most likely choice because they are generally the cheapest alternative.

Consumers may continue using the old bulbs, but eventually they won't be able to buy more. Specialty bulbs are not subject to the new standards. The rules are being phased in, starting in January with 100-watt bulbs, followed by 75-watt bulbs in 2013 and 60- and 40-watt bulbs in 2014. The requirement is part of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which became law under President George W. Bush.

Good news for CFL haters, however: A slew of new LED bulbs are likely to come on the market this year, said John Drengenberg, consumer safety director for product-testing company Underwriters Laboratories, which tests bulbs from many manufacturers before they come to market.

LEDs act more like traditional incandescents, with instant on, and offer longer life spans and greater energy efficiency than CFLs.

"I've tried CFLs, but they don't even last as long as incandescents, let alone 10 years." Consumers have tried CFLs, even recently, and found that some burn out quickly, nowhere near the decade-long lifespan promised on the box. They feel lied to and cheated.

"I would not dispute those people at all," Drengenberg said.

The problem is heat can damage the electronics in the base of the CFL, he said, likening it to leaving a camera in the car on a hot day. So, enclosed CFLs, especially near the ceiling, can die long before the advertising on the box says they should.

Terry Drew, director of energy efficiency and sustainability for CSA International, a certification organization for light bulbs, agreed that CFLs that are enclosed and in "can" ceiling lights present a problem.

"From a performance perspective, it is acknowledged that CFLs, when used in a base-up position, in a recessed can, may experience a shorter life due to higher operating temperatures," he said in a statement.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends buying Energy Star-certified bulbs, which are the highest quality and must have a minimum warranty of two years from the date of purchase. For recessed can lights, use CFLs marked "indoor reflector."

Energy Star-qualified indoor reflector CFLs must pass a high-heat test to ensure more reliable performance in recessed can lights, the EPA says.

"The mercury in CFLs is a health hazard. Just look at the extraordinary measures the EPA suggests for cleaning up a broken CFL." CFLs have a small amount of mercury in them, enough to cover the head of a pin. They need mercury to operate. You'll never be in contact with the mercury unless the bulb breaks.

If it does, the EPA suggests evacuating the room and letting it air out by opening a window. Shut off central force air heating and air conditioning. Clean up bulb debris manually and place the materials in a sealable container or bag. Place the debris outdoors until trash collection.

"CFLs are too large for my light fixture. They don't fit inside the harp, a metal frame that goes around the bulb." CFLs come in a variety of shapes and sizes for indoor and outdoor use, and they are getting smaller every year. That said, it's true you might have a tough time finding one that fits, especially among higher-wattage CFLs, which tend to be larger, experts say.

"CFLs are a fire hazard." CFLs might have an end-of-life pop, smoke and smell. That's just how some CFLs burn out, similar to the sudden flash incandescent bulbs display before dying.

UL has done extensive testing of the CFL phenomenon, investigating more than 100 reports, Drengenberg said. The primary concern of consumers is that the CFL will cause a fire and burn down the house.

"Under almost every circumstance, we found it is not going to result in a house fire," Drengenberg said.

Further good news is that far fewer of the new CFLs go kaput so dramatically.

"CFLs give some people headaches." Although fluorescent lights have long been blamed for causing or intensifying migraine headaches, technology improvements have largely addressed this issue, the EPA says.

Magnetic ballasts run fluorescent lamps at about 60 cycles per second, which causes the lamps to flicker noticeably and might cause headaches and other irritations. The new generation of energy-efficient fluorescent lamps use electronic ballasts, which operate at a minimum of 40,000 cycles per second. This rapid cycling eliminates the perceptible flicker associated with health complaints.

"I can't use CFLs with light timers." Mechanical timers work fine with CFLs, while most electronic controls such as photocells, motion sensors and electric timers probably don't. Always check with the manufacturer of the control for compatibility.

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