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Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Myths Behind CFL Bulbs

The other day my co-worker and I got into a discussion about compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). I’m a big fan of these energy-efficient bulbs, but she isn’t. My co-worker said she had all her CFL bulbs replaced after her electrician told her they were hazardous and more susceptible to short circuiting and causing a house fire. The electrician’s advice seemed a bit farfetched to me and sounded more like a green myth.CFLs aren’t fire bombsOver the past few years, CFLs have been all the rage since eco-friendly living became mainstream. But these ice cream swirl-shaped bulbs have many people scratching their heads. In the United States, lighting accounts for 5 to 10 percent of the total energy use in an average home and costs $50 to $150 a year in energy bills, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute. Compared to general service incandescent lamps that emit the same amount of visible light, CFLs use less power and have a longer rated life, but they generally have a higher retail price.CFLs are a type of fluorescent lighting, designed to replace an incandescent lamp and can fit in the existing light fixtures formerly used for incandescent bulbs. In the U.S., a CFL can save more than $30 in electricity costs over the lamp’s lifetime, compared to an incandescent lamp and save 2,000 times its own weight in greenhouse gases. But be weary of cheaper CFLs, because the quality of lighting may lack the same kind of illumination as an incandescent and can burn out a lot faster.According to National Geographic’s Green Guide, CFLs are perfectly fire-safe to use in homes:Although a melted plastic base near the coil of the bulb might lead you to believe the CFL is a fire hazard, it is just the opposite. In fact, the melted plastic and burn marks are a sign that the bulb was working just as it should.If you look at the plastic base, or ballast, of the light bulb, you should see a symbol indicating that the ballast is UL certified, which means that the plastic on the exterior can safely function during bulb operation and at the end of the bulb's life. The fact that the plastic on your bulb's ballast melted and turned black is totally normal, says John Drengenberg, consumer affairs manager at Underwriters Laboratory (UL), the company that evaluates plastics for, among other things, flammability characteristics. A CFL generates light from an electric current that runs through glass tubing filled with gases.The electrified gases emit ultraviolet radiation, which then comes in contact with a phosphorous lining on the glass, thus creating light. Bulbs burn out when the ballast overheats and an electronic component, the Voltage Dependent Resister (VDR), opens up like a fuse in your home's fuse box, shutting off the circuit and generating heat and possibly a small amount of smoke. This might sound dangerous, but the VDR is a cut-off switch that prevents any hazards. The melted plastic you're seeing where the glass coil connects to the ballast is simply a sign that the heat is escaping as intended in the design of the bulb.Handling CFLsAccording to fellow blogger and home inspector Frank Schulte-Ladbeck, the chemical inside fluorescent bulbs does contain a small amount of mercury, so if the bulbs do break and you handle them, you need to wash your hands right away.“I have read no studies which indicate that CFLs are more likely to short circuit or pose any other hazard,” says Schulte-Ladbeck.Carefully cleaning up a broken CFL will help avoid spreading any powder, glass or mercury into the home. It’s recommended that you should open the windows in the room where the bulb broke and allow it to air out for about 15 minutes. Never use a vacuum to clean up the broken bulb, and always wear rubber gloves if you have to handle the broken glass. Put the broken materials in a plastic bag, then double bag it and dispose of it. If there’s no disposal or recycling places near you, you can throw it away in an outdoor trash bin.As more energy-efficient and eco-friendly products become integrated into our homes, it’s important to ask questions and do your own research on how to best handle these new gadgets.Got hot local housing tips or a story you want to share? Contact Amy Le at
The Myths Behind CFL Bulbs
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