CFL (Compact Fluorescent Lamp) Review: Pros and Cons

Are CFLs right for you?

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Introduced in the mid 1980s, CFLs (compact fluorescent lamps) are screw-in versions of the fluorescent light tubes that are often used for fixtures in workshops, garages, and other utility areas. As screw-in bulbs, CFLs can be used in replacement of standard incandescent light bulbs, using up to 75 percent less energy and generating very little heat.

CFLs also proved to be much longer-lived than incandescent light bulbs, making them a very economical choice for general residential lighting. Early complaints focused on the somewhat unnatural greenish color of the light generated by CFLs, but technology advancements gradually produced CFL bulbs that produced light nearly indistinguishable from the warm light of incandescents.

For a couple of decades, CFLs increasingly became the lightbulbs of choice for environmentally conscious consumers concerned about energy consumption, But beginning in the early 2000s, new technology offered by LED (light emitting diode) lamps steadily eroded the popularity of both incandescent and CFL lightbulbs. As new energy standards and regulations are initiated, LED bulbs are becoming the only lightbulb design that meets those standards.

As a result, both incandescent and CFLs are falling by the wayside. Today, in the lighting section of a big box home improvement store, you may even have trouble finding the CFLs and incandescent bulbs among the vast array of LED bulbs.

In fact, some major lightbulb manufacturers, such as GE, have ceased the manufacture of CFLs altogether. Still, it's likely that CFLs will continue to be available for some time after incandescents have become obsolete.

Before continuing to use CFLs in your light fixtures, consider the pros and cons of this design.

Pros
  • Produces about 70 lumens per watt of electricity (almost 5 times as much as incandescents.

  • Bulbs last for up to 10,000 hours of use (incandescents, only about 1200 hours).

  • Energy savings over incandescent translates to less carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.

Cons
  • Not as efficient as LEDs, which produce about 89 lumens per watt

  • Not as long-lived as LEDs (25,000 to 50,000 hours of use)

  • Contains toxic mercury, requiring special disposal methods

  • Most types cannot be dimmed

  • Not well suited to outdoor use

Cost

At one one, CFL bulbs were considerably more expensive than standard incandescent bulbs, and quite a bit cheaper than LED bulbs. However, supply and demand now makes incandescent bulbs somewhat harder to find and thus more expensive, while LED bulbs are now sometimes the cheapest of all. A recent survey of online retailers shows these comparative prices:

  • 60-watt incandescent bulbs: $!0 to $15 for a six-pack
  • 13-watt (60-watt equivalent) CFL bulbs: $20 to $25 for a six-pack
  • 8.5-watt (60-watt equivalent) LED bulbs: $10 to $15 for a six-pack

The purchase cost of the bulbs is only one factor when considering economy, however. It's also important to consider the cost of operation. A sample calculation, using an energy cost of $.10 per kWh and an average of 3 hours per day of use, shows the following annual operating costs for different bulb designs:

  • $22.67 per year for a 60-watt incandescent bulb
  • $4.91 per year for a CFL (13-watt) bulb
  • $2.64 per year for a LED (8-watt) bulb

Thus, while CFL bulbs are clearly more economical to operate than incandescent bulbs, they are considerably more expensive than modern LED bulbs.

Maintenance and Repair

CFL bulbs can provide up to 10,000 hours of life before burning out, compared to about 1,200 hours for incandescent bulbs and 25,000 hours or more for an LED bulb. Thus, while you'll change CFL bulbs less often than older incandescents, LED bulbs are clearly superior when it comes to the frequency of changing out bulbs.

CFL bulbs used in outdoor applications (porch lights, etc.) can be notoriously fickle, especially in colder climates. While there are CFLs designed for outdoor use, your service life will be considerably shorter when using CFLs outdoors.

CFL bulbs contain a small but significant amount of toxic mercury, which poses complications when it comes time to dispose of burned-out bulbs. Consult your local authorities for advice on how to get rid of hazardous waste.

Design

At one time, there was a notable drawback to the color of light produced by CFL bulbs, as they produced the same blueish-green light of older tube-style fluorescent lighting. This drawback was gradually eliminated, and the CFLs available today offer a quality of life that is almost indistinguishable from the warm-white light of the typical incandescent lamp.

However, not all CFL bulbs work with standard dimmer switches. If adjustable lighting is important, make sure to look for packing language that confirms the bulbs are dimmable. Using a standard dimmer switch with a non-compatible bulb can cause the bulb to overheat, which will greatly lessen its life of the bulb. There are also special dimmer switches that are designed for use with CFL and LED bulbs. Do not expect a dimmable CFL bulb to offer the same range of adjustable illumination as an incandescent bulb. At the lowest dimming range, you will get about 20 percent of the full illumination.

CFLs vs. LEDs

Today's reality is that CFLs are inferior to LED light bulbs in almost every way. The combined cost of purchasing and operating LEDs is much better than other designs, and LEDs do not contain the toxic mercury found in CFL bulbs.

There is now virtually no reason to prefer CFL lightbulbs over LEDs—unless you have light fixtures that are specifically designed for use with CFL bulbs.