House & Home

CFL: A Bright Idea for Going Green

Posted May 15, 2008
Updated May 22, 2008

So you want to go green but aren’t sure how to take that first step without cleaning out your wallet in the process? Well look no further than the lighting aisle of your nearest home improvement store. There you’ll find a wide selection of compact fluorescent light bulbs, or CFLs, that will actually save you money while helping the environment at the same time.

Perhaps you tried compact fluorescents years ago when they first came out, but after a few days of being bathed in their harsh blue light that made your family resemble extras from Night of the Living Dead, you banished them to the attic or basement where they’re probably still burning brightly today. CFLs have come a long way since those early days and are now available in a wide range of styles that are suitable for many different applications. Even better, their formerly ghoulish glow has been replaced by warmer shades that effectively mimic traditional incandescent bulbs.

CFL Facts

First a few facts to get you motivated. According to the federal government’s website,, compact fluorescent bulbs:

  • Use 1/4 the electricity of regular light bulbs to produce the same amount of light.
  • Give off 3/4 less heat than incandescent bulbs, which result in additional energy savings on air conditioning during the hot summer months.
  • Last up to 10 times longer than regular light bulbs.

Helping the Environment

But what about the big picture? Could changing a light bulb really make much of a difference to the environment? According to government statistics, if every household in the United States replaced just one incandescent bulb with a CFL, the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would be equal to taking over 800,000 cars off the road and would save more than $600 million a year in energy costs.

Energy Savings

I know what you’re thinking, how much difference can one light bulb really make? Depending on the size of the bulb, it is estimated that each CFL will save from $30 to over $100 in energy costs over their lifespan. Multiply that by the dozens of bulbs found in the average home and the savings can really add up. Even though it might seem wasteful to replace perfectly good existing bulbs with compact fluorescents, the savings in electricity for most bulbs will make up the difference in a matter of months.


So what’s the catch, you ask? Well, CFLs do cost more than traditional bulbs, but prices are now down to as low as $2 each if you buy in bulk. Most CFLs can’t be used with dimmers, nor should they be controlled by digital timers, though mechanical timers work fine. Also, they may have to be moved away from radios or computers if they cause interference.

The spiral shape and larger size of many CFLs can make them hard to fit into some fixtures. For lamps with clip-on shades, traditional “A” shaped bulbs are available, as are flood lights for recessed fixtures and torpedo bulbs for chandeliers, though these are not as efficient as their spiral shaped cousins. While harder to find and more expensive, three-way and dimmable CFLs do exist and are available online.

Living with CFLs

Compact fluorescents can take a little getting used to since there’s usually a slight delay when they are turned on. Also, it can take several minutes before they reach their full brightness.

It’s best to start by installing compact fluorescents in fixtures that are on the most. This not only maximizes your energy savings, but turning them on and off frequently can shorten their life. For this reason avoid putting them in places like closets and refrigerators where they won’t be on long enough to warm up properly.

Since they use less electricity and produce far less heat than traditional bulbs, you can use a brighter CFL in a fixture than the incandescent bulb it is replacing as long as the actual wattage being used by the compact fluorescent is less than the maximum rating for the fixture. That means you can use a CFL that produces as much light as a 150 watt incandescent bulb in a fixture rated for 60 watts, since the fluorescent actually only uses 40 watts of electricity.

Buying CFLs

Now that you’ve decided to take the plunge into the wonderful world of compact fluorescents, how do you choose which ones to buy? The first step is to find bulbs that meet your needs regarding shape, application, and wattage (or lumens if you prefer to think in terms of the light produced rather than the electricity consumed).

Next you have to make the all important decision as to the color of light desired. Isn’t all light white, you ask? Not by a long shot. Light has a color signature which ranges from the red end of the spectrum, found in most incandescent bulbs, to the harsher blue tones of natural daylight. This color is expressed using the Kelvin temperature scale, with the more familiar warm tones falling around 2700K-3000K while the harsher bluish light is at 4000K or higher.

Since temperature information is often omitted from CFL packaging, look for bulbs that are labeled “soft” or “warm” white if you prefer the soothing yellowish glow usually associated with incandescent lighting. Those with a brighter more unforgiving light are known as “cool” white (3200K-4000K), while “daylight” bulbs (400K+) produce the harsh bluish tones often associated with fluorescents. Temperatures and other details for specific bulbs can be found at the government website under product search.

Finally, be sure the compact fluorescents you choose carry the ENERGY STAR label which assures that they meet federal government standards for energy efficiency and performance.

CFL Safety

While compact fluorescents produce more ultraviolet light than incandescent bulbs, it is not nearly as high as that found in natural daylight and should only be a concern for those highly sensitive to UV rays.

CFLs contain a very small amount of mercury which could pose a hazard if they are recycled or break, so check with your local solid waste management agency before disposing of used bulbs. To prevent breakage, screw the bulb in by holding the base, rather than the glass, and avoid over tightening.

Should a bulb break, the government recommends opening a window and leaving the room for 15 minutes. Clean up the fragments with a piece of stiff paper then wipe up any residue with paper towels. Double seal the fragments and used towels in plastic bags before properly disposing of them. Avoid using a vacuum cleaner or broom during clean up and wear disposable gloves. More information about mercury and CFLs can be found in the ENERGY STAR's CFL Mercury Fact Sheet.

Going Greener

Now that you’ve seen how easy and economical going green can be, maybe it’s time to consider taking the next step, such as replacing that old water guzzling toilet or installing extra insulation in the attic. Who knows, you might just find a tree in the backyard in need of a hug.


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  • drnc May 22, 2008

    I find that CFLs don't last as long as stated in fixtures that are used for short periods of time. I also have a very expensive lamp that was damaged by a CFL back in 2004. The lamp held the CFL horizontally, rather than vertically. The bulb overheated and burned the lamp socket. I called the manufacturer and they replaced the bulb with a newer version and paid me for the lamp repair.

  • BuggerOff May 22, 2008

    What they don't tell you about CFL's is that you have to use them for a certain amount of time before you save energy. This means if you have one in your hallway or bathroom, or some other place where the light is on for less than 5 minutes, you might actually be losing money.