CFL vs. Incandescent: Who’s the winner?

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Dear Heather and Ivy,

What’s all the hoopla about these new-fangled light bulbs? Can I use them in any lamp / fixture that I have? How much do they cost? Will they really save me money? What makes them different than the bulbs I’m using now?

In the dark

Ivy says:

Ah, CFLs vs. incandescent bulbs. CFLs are the greener option, and they do save you money even though they do cost more up front. I generally try to wait until I find a sale and often, you can find your local power company giving them away. My first CFLs were from a giveaway at a local festival. Here’s a good post from Get Rich Slowly about the cost and cost savings of CFL bulbs. Also, here’s one sponsored by a power company that has some good info.

My biggest concern about the bulbs was, what if I break one? Grace is not my middle name, so I was pretty concerned about this. CFL bulbs contain mercury, so I wondered if I’d need a hazmat team to come out and clean up every time I broke one. Fortunately, Not Martha learned how to deal with this because she’s apparently as graceful as I am.  She links to the EPA’s guidelines for disposal where the key factors include properly ventilating the area, not running any central heat or conditioning during clean up, and following your local guidelines for disposal of the waste once it has been contained.

I’ve installed CFL bulbs in most of my light fixtures and I have to say, I like them. Make sure you’re getting the right type for your light fixtures, and stick with the warm light CFLs whenever possible. I’ve noticed a nice savings from mine.

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20 thoughts on “CFL vs. Incandescent: Who’s the winner?”

  1. They are OK in most places in the house but we have a place in the family room where we sit and read every evening and we have yet to find one that is bright enough ….. suggestions???? Pam, South Bend

  2. I would also suggest that you not try and replace every bulb w/ CFLs all at once. I’ve been replacing my bulbs as they go out throughout the house. I’ve replaced about 3/4 of my bulbs so far. And of all the CFLs I’ve installed, not one has gone out yet. Not even the few “used” ones we got from my brother-in-law a couple years ago when they were moving out of their house.

  3. @Pam there are CFLs that have the same light output as 120W incandescents available (they’re rated around 23W or so I think). I have 4 of them in the ceiling fan in my living room and the wife is always complaining that it’s too bright in there.

  4. We’re doing a CFL crash course in our house. The difference between the light colors is shocking–I’d recommend sticking with one tone (white light vs yellow light) as much as possible. It’s also hard to get used to the slow light-up time, though it is kind of easier on the eyes.

  5. you also may want to check with an electrician if you have an old home. they’re supposed to last five years but they burn out in a month or two in our older fixtures thus we’ve actually been saving money with regular bulbs.

  6. On thing that should be noted is that you should NOT use CFLs on circuits with dimmers.

    A CFL contains a ballast in it’s base that provides the voltage to illuminate the gas in the tube. Most light dimmer controls will cause damage to the CFL and shorten it’s life. You should only use it in lamps/devices that are switch on/off.

    3-way CFLs work fine in 3-way lamps, as the lamp properly powers the 3 light intensity levels.

    • Marie: The emissions of mercury from a coal burning power plant far exceed the mercury in the one CFL bulb. The savings between the incandescent to the CFL (even with the mercury) is still worth it. If you are still uncomfortable go with the LED lights. They are mercury free and EVEN MORE efficient than the CFLs!

  7. We replaced all the incandescent bulbs, when we moved into this place 3 years ago; got another 4 pack each time we went to Costco.

    There are a number of different sizes out now too. We don’t have any dimmers, where you can’t use them, and we’ve replaced them everywhere in the house, even in the bedside lamps!

    Personally, I don’t have any issue wiht warm up times, or them being too dim to read by or anything.

    We have to replace one (of of a total of 33 here) since we installed them all.

    Greener or not? Perhaps the jury is still out, but they certainly save money in the long term

  8. Marie brings up a very good point. CFLs are great for reducing the amount of electricity we use and therefore reducing our electric bills. However, you can’t just throw them in the garbage when they do burn out. I’m sure the commenters here are well aware of that. I’m just concerned that most people have not be properly educated on how to dispose of these bulbs. They have to be taken to specific recycling centers. I know in Nashville there is only one place. I have seen some of the neighborhood recycling areas host “Household Hazardous Waste” days where they collect things like batteries, CFLs, paint, etc and then take it to the Metro recycling center later that day.

    • You can recycle an old CFL at any Home Depot Store! They have a recycle stations near the service desk, if you don't see it, ask at the desk!

  9. There are several light fixtures where you either shouldn’t use a CFL or your should use a specialized one.

    * Light fixtures with motion (ceiling fans or on a garage door opener). I know that there are ones designed for ceiling fans, I don’t know about the garage.
    * Light fixtures with dimmers. I know GE makes a CFL that can be used in a dimmer switch.
    * 3-way lamps. Again, there are special CFLs out there for these, don’t use a CFL unless the package says that it is for a 3-way lamp.
    * Closed and recessed lights (like in a ceiling) should never have a CFL in them.
    * lights with timers or light fixtures that turn on when it’s dark out. For this use, you should find out from the fixture manufacturer if the fixture is compatible with CFLs.

    Uses of CFL that will shorten their life and thus not save you money:
    * Places where the lights will be turned on and off frequently or where the light won’t be on for more than 15 minutes. The CFL needs 3 minutes to warm up, and should be on for at least 15 minutes. If it isn’t given that time before it’s turned off, the life is significantly shortened, which doesn’t give you the cost savings. So CFLs are not good in closets, bathrooms, laundry rooms, etc.

  10. Silver, those are excellent tips, what will happen though if the incandescent bans go through since they are not compatible with all situations?
    Are lawmakers just assuming companies will have figured out solutions by 2012?

  11. There are several of silver’s suggestions, that look a bit dated.

    Recessed lighting fixtures have used Flurescent lights for years (though not CFL’s obviously), so I am at a loss as to why this may be.

    Some other warnings like not on a timer, or only when lit for 15 minutes or more applied to older generation CFLs, but I don’t believe thanks to the improved ballasts that this is the case any longer (obviously that probably varies from manufacturer to manufacturer).

    To answer your question Heather, I believe that there is much hope going forward that by 2012, that Light Emitting Diode (LED) light fixtures will be in place at an affordable level to solve many of the current issues with CFLs. The lights are already there, but they are currently to expensive (outside of Xmas lights) for widespread use.

  12. Bramble,

    If your cfl’s are burning out in a couple of months, I strongly suggest having your electrician check out the wiring in your home. It sounds like there’s some kind of short or surge problem in the wiring — if so, it could be a fire hazard.

    Our home is 107 years old – We have yet to have a cfl burn out.

    Since lighting is “usually” about 20% of your electric bill, they can give you a substantial savings.

    If you want to keep track of your energy savings, cost savings etc. check out
    they have user reviews and a bunch of other stuff as well.

  13. Jay,

    Older generation CFL’s used to overheat in enclosed fixtures.

    In later versions, that’s rarely an issue – just read the back of the packages.

  14. Tink,

    Thanks for the info, it pretty much proves what I was saying in that most of silver’s “warnings” about CFLs were dated.

    I have also seen people complain about CFLs causing headaches. But this also is dated as the newer bulbs no longer have the flicker that the old bulbs have (probably back when they caused overheating).

  15. Silver’s claim regarding 15 minute cycle times is demonstrably incorrect. I wish people would stop spreading this kind of disinformation.

    Let’s take an example. A 23 watt cfl replaces a 100watt incandescent and costs $1.90 (US) at Walmart. (4 bulb pack for $7.58) The bulb is rated at 10,000 hours with a 3 hour cycle time. That means it has at least 10000/3 starts. (In reality, if you cycle it more frequently you would get more starts than that. But we can take 3333 as a worst possible case.)

    This means that each start costs you a maximum of 0.057 cents, or about an 18th of a penny. At 10 cents per kwh, 0.057 cents represents 0.0057 kwh or 5.7 watt hours. While on, the bulb is using 77 watts less than a 100 watt incandescent, and at the 77 watt savings would make that up in 4.4 minutes. Keep in mind that 3333 starts was a worst case scenario. It would not surprise me if the actual break even point were more like 2 minutes.

    And, of course, at a 3 hour cycle time, it would take 13.3 standard GE 100 watt 750 hours bulbs, which would cost $3.43 at Walmart, or almost double what the cfl costs. So you could actually afford to cut the life of the cfl in half and still come out ahead of the incandescent on bulb costs alone, even without considering the energy savings.

  16. As an addendum, I have found some more relevant info. Relative to a 3 hr cycle time, a 15 minute or 5 minute cycle time reduces the life by about 70% and 85% respectively. Based upon this new information, my revised estimate for the break even cycle time would be about 51 seconds.

  17. LED lamps are the right choice for those who are looking for energy savings, and hopes in a more “green” world, led lamps are not longer cold and technology objects , but they are beginning to be beautiful objects suitable to decorate your homes. We are working on this project for a couple of years, for example, we are very satisfied with the results of the desk lamp “Asymmetric” completely built in glazed ceramic, it use as light source 8W LED. (like 70w traditional bulbs).
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