5 On Your Side

CFLs save money, but require caution for disposal

Posted March 3, 2008
Updated April 30, 2008

Compact-fluorescent light bulbs are great energy-savers, but there are some safety issues that consumers should consider, too.

Changing just five often-used regular bulbs to CFLs can save about $25 a year on your electric bill. Benefits like those have helped double the sales of CFLs in the past year.

However, CFLs contain small amounts of mercury, so they can't be thrown away like regular light bulbs. They also require some extra caution if they break.

"Used appropriately, CFLs are a great way to save money and energy," Consumer Reports tester Jim Nanni said. But, he warned, "There are some important safety guidelines that consumers should follow in their use."

Nanni was recording video of a CFL when it died – and it looks a bit scary, with the base glowing and looking hot.

"This bulb was flashing and making loud noises. From a distance or behind a shade, it might appear like the bulb was on fire," Nanni said. "But that wasn't the case. It was the bulb coming to the end of its life."

CFLs are not a fire hazard, according to Underwriters Laboratories, which investigates electrical products for safety. However, when a CFL does burn out, you need to be careful how you handle it.

"Turn off the power to the bulb. Let it cool, and then remove it by grasping from the base and not the glass part of the bulb," Nanni said.

Manufacturers say they are making circuitry changes to keep CFLs from smoking or flashing when they burn out.

You also should never simply put a dead CFL in the trash. They need to be recycled properly because of the mercury in them. Check with your local sanitation department for recycling information.

Click here for information on Wake County's household hazardous waste services.

"Another concern consumers have is what to do with a broken CFL," Nanni said. "They should follow the guidelines of the (U.S.) Environmental Protection Agency, because CFLs do contain mercury."

Under EPA guidelines, if a CFL breaks, you should open the windows and leave the room for at least 15 minutes.

On hard floors, do not use a vacuum or broom to clean up the broken bulb. Instead, the EPA recommends wearing disposable rubber gloves and scooping up pieces with stiff paper or cardboard. Next, wipe the area clean with damp paper towels.

On a rug, a broken bulb requires even more care. Use sticky tape to pick up the broken pieces and powder. Then, put all the pieces and cleaning materials in two sealed plastic bags, one inside of the other.

For answers to frequently asked questions about CFLs, click here .


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  • solly93 Mar 5, 2008

    "Last but not least - fluorescents operate at a frequency in which will trigger Epileptic Siesures in people. Why? Because Compact Floresents flash."
    Incandescents flash at 120Hz - what frequency do the CFLs flash at?

  • gt705 Mar 5, 2008

    That suggestion by Mimi29 is simple yet brilliant. And it would be easy to have similar boxes for spent batteries. And how about an example of something that is already tremendously effective? I always change my own oil, then take the old oil to AutoZone or Advance Auto. Done. The same concept could easily apply to CFLs and batteries.

  • Mimi_Harley_Goddess Mar 5, 2008

    Someone made a reference to no disposal requirement for the 4 foot flourescent tubes. Businesses are required to send the tubes for proper disposal and broken tubes are essentially treated as hazardous waste. All consumers should be required to do the same.

    I think the stores that sell the the tube and compact flourescent lights should be required to have a recycling box. That way we can take them back the next time we go to that store and not waste gas finding a recycling center.

  • Rolling Along Mar 4, 2008

    Raleigh Rocks...that was a tongue in cheek comment. If they are installed correctly they shouldn't leak. I used several on my last home to light closets and other dark corners. FWIW that house was built in 1921 and even the closets had windows...imagine that.

  • colliedave Mar 4, 2008

    From my experience, you get what you pay for - buy cheap and you'll get a bulb that lasts a few months at most. Remember, these bulbs are more complex than an incandescent - quality of manufacture will determine how long the components will last.

    So environmentalists care not one whit for the poor. They have to live with poor lighting, take mass transit, and pay ever increasing food costs due to the move the ethanol. And all is based on "chicken little" science.

  • thefensk Mar 4, 2008

    Thank you for this story. I mentioned this drawback in an article about the move to make incandescent illegal a while back.

    This mercury issue is an example of extreme short-sightedness on the part of the government and energy companies in pushing this CFL agenda. People have been just tossing away burned out light bulbs for over a hundred years ... they aren't even going to think about it if you don't hammer home this message.

    They need to set up a process to deal with these effectively NOW!

  • RaleighRocks Mar 4, 2008


    Why are Solatubes not great at 2 in the morning? I assume you are referring to the lack of light? (I am not the brightest bulb!)

    Are they easy to install? Any leakage problems with them?


  • gt705 Mar 4, 2008

    Thanks, Admiral Bias.
    My issue with the story is that it could have easily provided disposal directions. These bulbs do last as long as they say. There will always be exceptions, but those are anecdotal outliers in statistical terms. The energy wasted in the form of heat production by conventional bulbs is incredible. My main issues with CFLs are that they are still relatively costly, and at initial activation they do not have 100% brightness, but that comes in about 2 minutes.

  • aquamama Mar 4, 2008

    And all those things are why I use regular light bulbs.

  • DurhamDude Mar 4, 2008

    Just like the early days of CFL, LED bulbs will come down in price and improve and will be the way to go. CFL isn't the answer.