Home / I’m Sorry, But I Refuse to CFL

I’m Sorry, But I Refuse to CFL

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I’ve been on a marathon shopping excursion, one that I thought I could complete in ten minutes in the U-Scan aisle of the local grocery store, but no, I was sadly mistaken.

Am I talking about something as elusive as a jar of pickled ume (Noble Fish in Clawson), a slice of Kobe beef ($69.95 a pound at Papa Joe’s Market, and yes, I passed) or coyote urine (Bordine’s Nursery – need it to discourage the squirrels and other rodents in my yard)? No, I’m talking about a product as simple and ordinary as a light bulb.

And I’m not talking about the new-fangled CFL (compact fluorescent light) bulbs that are everywhere. I want a genuine incandescent bulb, the plain old round-topped standard of the Good Old Days.

Supposedly, just like superheroes, CFLs will save the world with their energy-saving capabilities. Sure, they take up more energy when first turned on, but the theory is that they use less with extended use. (It’s recommended they be left on for at least 15 minutes to get the maximum savings.) With their twisted bodies, CFLs are certainly the new kid on the block.

What they don’t tell you is that CFLs are a rather fickle means of illumination. According to the EnergyStar web site, you can’t install them like a regular bulb. Instead of using the glass, one must grasp them by the plastic ballast, and who does that? The website also tells the user not to turn the lights on too quickly. They are also incompatible with many timers and motion detectors. They can’t be used outside where they may be subjected to the elements, and when inside, there has to be flowing air around them or they will get too hot. CFLs can only be used in temperate climates, and as we know from fourth grade geography, Michigan does not fit in that category.

And of course, there’s that issue of calling in HazMat should a CFL happen to break. There’s enough mercury in one of those bulbs to sicken and kill my entire office staff. This leads to the question of how one disposes of used CFLs that aren’t broken. I can see the potential environmental hazard in a few years' time outweighing what little savings we are now realizing in electricity.

My biggest complaint with CFLs is that they don’t seem to last as long as an incandescent bulb. It feels like I am buying light bulbs every month instead of every six months. Also, they may be trendy-looking, but they do not accept traditional light shades like an incandescent. If you have an older home such as mine, CFLs may be too long to fit into vintage fixtures. In addition, the quality of light is not conducive to close work or for reading.

Since CFLs are produced by GE, I’ve decided to boycott that corporate giant whenever possible. It’s easy enough not to watch their TV networks (the NBCs) since I despise TV. As soon as my appliances die, I’m going to buy some other brand.

The last straw came when my husband replaced the bulbs in the bathroom with CFLs.

My friends know I’m no diva. I don’t spend much time in the bathroom. I’m not big on makeup or long steamy showers. I get in, and I get out. I spend five minutes blowing out my hair, and it is three and a half minutes too long for me. However, when I’m in there, I would like to be able to see myself in something stronger than a sickly, diffuse yellow light.

This growing dissatisfaction with CFLs led me on a long journey to find a normal, ordinary light bulb. They are not sold in stores anymore. They’re not in Home Depot; they’re not even in specialty lighting stores. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to buy a regular incandescent bulb these days. Incandescent light bulbs are going the way of the dinosaur and the drive-in movie, and will be permanently phased out.

I also heard on a radio program that incandescent light bulbs are going to be increasingly hard to find. People all over the country are beginning to hoard them. This news quickened my resolve.

The Internet is a wonderful thing, particularly when it comes to shopping. With just a few clicks, I found LightBulbDirect. Of course, I had to buy a case of each desired wattage (60 and 100), meaning my shipment will include a total of 240 light bulbs, more than enough bright light for the rest of my life.

For all of your pseudo-environmentalists who are spewing steam at this very moment, I’m making up for my carbon footprint in other ways. I have a jungle’s worth of houseplants, recycle everything, and am beginning to compost. I drive a hybrid and walk when it’s not raining. We use the back sides of used copy paper and shred the double-sided stuff for package stuffing.

This is the real world. I need real light, even if it means stockpiling a lifetime’s worth of light bulbs in the basement.

Perhaps my kids can eBay what’s left over after I’m gone.

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About Joanne Huspek

I write. I read. I garden. I cook. I eat. And I love to talk about all of the above.
  • I don’t know where you’re buying CFL’s, because mine have lasted for YEARS. Despite temperature changes, mine come on when I come in the house due to my detector on my door. They work, like really well. Craziness, I love them. It’s saved me countless dollars. Perhaps it’s a weather thing?

  • I think thou dost protest too much… while the CFLs do have some disadvantages, we’ve been using them throughout our apartment for a couple of years and have adjusted completely – except in the bathroom, where there are special fixtures that won’t take them. And they last a LOT longer than incandescent bulbs, not shorter (although I’ve read that the longevity claims may have been somewhat exaggerated). It’s funny that you describe them as yellowish, too… one of the adjustments I had to make was the whiteness of the light, as compared to the warmer yellow quality of incandescents.

  • Ted

    Waa waa waa, kids these days and their damn CFL light bulbs!

    I’ve used CFL light bulbs and I’ve never noticed anything different about how they function and perform other than they look like a small intestine.

    I don’t know what you’re talking about.

  • DW

    Are they really full of toxic stuff like mercury?

  • My experience with CFL’s is somewhere between this article and “OMG! They’re great!” I’ve had the same CFL in my bedroom lamp for over two years and up until recently, that light was on for many hours a day. I don’t notice too much of a difference between CFL’s and incandescents personally, but my mother is more sensitive to light color and hates them.

    I look at them like every other light bulb: some uses are more appropriate for them than others. It took two consecutive bulbs blowing out in our kitchen fixture to realize that they aren’t suitable for that use. However, they are perfect for normal, high-use lamps/lighting.

    As for the note in the article about not being able to find an ordinary light bulb anymore…really? I can easily still find normal light bulbs at Walgreens, Target, the dollar store, and so on.

    Ultimately, CFLs (like everything) actually have some drawbacks and they’re not for everyone. Fortunately, with the way lighting technology is going, they won’t be the only energy-efficient choice for long.

  • Joanne,

    I agree with you, except about how long they last. I find myself wishing that one of the damn things would burn out.

    So far we’ve only used them in a couple of places – in our hallway back to the bedrooms and in our garage.

    But I hate em. I’ve also heard about the mercury problem. But my main gripe is the quality of the light. While they have attempted to make them warmer, the best of them don’t come close to the light of an incandescent bulb.

    I was a theatre major in college and had to take an obligatory stage lighting class. Among other things I did learn a bit about light – the difference between color in light as opposed to color in pigment. Improper lighting on stage can make an actor look like they’re about to puke, or just blot them out altogther. The fellow who taught the course hated flourescent lighting.

    As I recall there were in years gone by a number of studies done regarding the effect of living and/or working day in and day out under flourescent lighting. I remember that it was at least suggested that overexposure to flourescent lighting could make some people ill. Some have had doctors prescribe or at least recommend that their patients should buy and use lights that mimic sunlite at least a few hours a day, expecially during winter or if you live like in Finland.

    If you were to walk into my garage and turned on the light, you’d swear you were in perhaps a morgue or some other ghastly place that you wouldn’t want to spend any time in.

    I admit that I have become a hoarder of incandescent bulbs. I have, perhaps seventy five or eighty 60 watt bulbs and maybe twenty five or thirty 100s plus a relative handful of 40s and 75s. I will continue to buy more as long as I can find them, which so far at least down here in Indy has been no problem.

    Of course, there is another hitch I’ve discovered in that we have a couple of ceiling fans and other ceiling lights that require the smaller bulbs made espressly for that use. They are more expensive and generally come packaged just one or two to a pack – and they seem to burn out with great regularity.

    Yes, this rush to replace the great old time tested incandescent bulbs is, IMHO mis-directed. Energy conservation is important, but so, too, is the environment in which we live, work and play. And the quality of light is solidly connected to the quality of life.

    On another light related note. When I was in the Army at Ft. Hood, TX, some fellow GIs and I rented a house off post in the town of Belton. It was an old house and had what looked to be an equally old light bulb in the front porch ceiling fixture. It had a point at its top like old blown glass. One of my friends studied the bulb for several seconds and suddenly declared that it still had Edison’s hairs in it! This was back in 1967. The bulb was working when I got out of service, and, as far as I know, it may still be lighting the way to the front door of that old house.


  • STM

    Joanne, the government in Australia gave them to us for nothing. It must have cost a squillion. Basically, they got teams of people to go around to your house and take your old bulbs and give you new CFC ones.

    Two old Indian ladies came to my place, and my wife ended up doing the lightbulb changing while they held the step ladder.

    They DO save electricity. Our bills have been less, despite a recent increase in electricity costs.

    The two old Indian ladies left us a bunch of spares, too, and stayed for a cup of tea with my wife!

    I love Australia. It’s the land of opportunity for just about anything.

    Of course, I also love getting stuff for free – it wasn’t compulsory to make the change, more a PR exercise as the old bulbs are being phased out anyhow, but apparently they did door-knock all 20 million of us Aussies, or handed them out at shopping malls – but I’m also a sceptic, in case you hadn’t noticed.

    If a Hell’s Angel had’ve turned up offering free bulobs, I’d have pretended no one was home and muzzled the dog.

    However, in my yard, I have multi-coloured large old-fashioned bulbs for our southern-hemisphere White Hot Christmas and New Year festivities.

    I’ve stocked up on those, and the bastards will never stop me using them.

    I also went to Target and Woolworths and a few smaller hardware outlets every time I went for a drive and grabbed a whole bunch of old-fashioned lightbulbs and now have a cupboard full of fresh ones that will take me 20 years to use.

    The proble with CFC bulbs is that you can’t use them with a dimmer. You have to use a halogen light or an incandescent bulb.

    Still, I’ve been pretty happy with my freebies. This was nearly two years ago when we got the free CFCs, and we’ve only had one go on us.

    The ones in ourn lounge are nice and dim, but we recently put one in the study and it’s like walking into a summer’s day: the light is bright, bluish green. But they do come in different levels of brightness.

    However, you have to be careful disposing of them. They do contain a bit of mercury so disposing of them properly is key; no more wrapping them up in newspaper and tossing them out with the rubbish.

    Try every hardware store you see for the incandescent bulbs. My experience in Oz is that they go from the supermarkets and department stores, but many hardware stores will still carry them.

    I assume American buying habits are identical to ours (in fact I know they are), so that’d be your best best, even if you have to drive out to the country a bit to stock up.

    That’s what I did 🙂

  • Michael

    Is this article supposed to be sarcastic? Almost none of these points is true, and the ones that are stretch that truth pretty wide.

    Claiming that there’s “enough mercury in one of those bulbs to sicken and kill my entire office staff” is particularly ignorant: somehow, offices and elementary schools have survived fluorescent light breakage for decades, despite the fact that “tube” fluorescents have up to 5 times the mercury in them.

    And you dispose of them with all your other household hazardous materials, like old batteries, cleaning fluids, and remnants of non-latex paints and stains. (You DO properly dispose of those, right?)

    If you need something else, try a halogen fixture. Or the new LED bulbs. There’s no reason to spread fear just because you thought you didn’t look hot in the CFL light (obviously not a full-spectrum bulb).

  • zingzing

    are you sure you got a cfl light? you might have gotten something else. i’ve had one in my room for about 2 years now, and i don’t know how long ago it was installed before i got here. every other light in my apt has gone out since then, but we have a ton of bulbs around for some reason, so i haven’t replaced them with cfls, but when that day comes, i’ll surely do so. unless i leave this place. then screw them, i’ll leave them with normal old bulbs that go out in 6 months. it’s just nice not to have to go out to buy light bulbs all the time.

    resistant to change much? good god. progress is a shocking thing. time to enter the 21st century.

  • Jordan Richardson

    Damn CFL and their three downs…

    Who do those Canadians think they are!?

  • Joanne,

    I gotta agree with Melinda. The small fluorescents seem to have lasted forever – at least in the sockets where I could get them to work. They worked best in the States. Here the sockets are too iffy and the electric work is not high quality at all.

    But the light they give off is colder than the incandescent bulbs – in the aesthetic sense as well as the temperature sense.

  • The quality of the light that CFL bulbs gives off did jar when we first switched over to them, but you get used to it; and with the right shade, you can make just about any light source do whatever you want.

    I’m sure when the electric light was first introduced into homes people complained that the quality of light was harsher than candles and gas lamps. Whatever. People adapt, and eventually so does the technology.

    We started replacing our incandescent bulbs with CFLs about three years ago. The only ones which’ve blown so far have been in the bathrooms, and that may have more to do with the dodginess of the fixtures in there. There’s one bulb in particular which likes to fail while I’m in the shower and can’t do anything about it, then come back on again as soon as I get out.

    And unless Michigan has a particularly zealous set of environmental laws in place, I agree with other commenters that Joanne is mistaken about the continuing availability of incandescents. They’re still freely available in any hardware store/department here in California – especially certain types for which CFLs aren’t (yet) suited.

    I can’t be having with halogen bulbs, though. They’re fine for car headlights, but unless you think corneas are overrated or want to wear sunglasses indoors they’re not really the thing for domestic lighting.

  • Hello, everyone,

    As someone who has spent nearly two decades researching CFLs and other lamps, perhaps I may offer some clarifying FACTS?

    * CFLs aren’t “filled” with mercury, but they do contain an average of 5 mg (can vary widely, especially in cheap lamps, tests have found variations from 0.9 to 18 mg).

    * All CFLs need to be recycled properly or the mercury will end up in landfills and eventually in us.

    * If one breaks, it won’t kill everyone in sight, but it may harm those with already compromised health, cause brain damage to the fetus if someone is pregnant, and contaminate the room for a long time unless all carpets and textiles are ripped out and properly disposed of as hazardous waste (not covered by insurance). There are no safe limits or inhaling vapourised mercury.

    * The colour of the light HAS improved, at least in some models of leading brand CFLs, of which some look incandescent-like enough to please some but not others, while cheap CFLs still come in the strangest colours.

    * All CFLs – except the ridiculously expensive full-spectrum special type (which do NOT have special healing properties according to Canadian research) – still have lower colour rendering capacity (CRI around 82) than incandescent and halogen lamps (CRI 100). Check any manufacturer catalogue or with the back of a CD and see if you can see the whole spectrum or not.

    * All CFLs turn dimmer with age. So do incandescent bulbs, but not as much, and will usually be replaced before you notice.

    * Most CFLs are incompatible with timers, sensors and dimmers, except the new extra expensive new ones that are dimmable.

    * CFLs are sensitive to heat, cold and moisture. If you want to use one outdoors it has to be a CFL designated for the purpose, used in a closed luminaire.

    * Most don’t function well in downlights or closed luminaires, as they get overheated.

    * If CFLs burn out sooner than promised, you’ve either got a bad bulb, or you’re using the wrong lamp in the wrong place. Turning them on and off too often can shorten their life with up to 85%, so not recommended for bathroom or closets.

    * There are now smaller CFL models with an outer bulb onto which traditional lamp shades should fit. These give a softer light but are slightly less efficient, lose more output with age and don’t last as long due to heat build-up.

    * For those who are not happy with CFLs, there are Halogen Energy Savers that save 20-50%. Halogen is a form of mini incandescent bulb, stuck in a regular bulb, so they give exactly the same light as a standard incandescent, not an artificial attempt at copying it by mixing various phosphors like in CFLs or LEDs.

    * LEDs could also be an alternative if you don’t mind the varying colour quality, as of yet not-so-bright light and high price. At least they last a very long time and don’t contain mercury. The reflector types give you most light for your money.

    See my site for references and more details.

  • Jason

    You do realize that CFLs come in three different light colors (soft white – traditional, bright, and daylight) as well as numerous designs? You probably used the wrong type of CFL in the wrong place. The spiraled ones aren’t for every room. For instance, they aren’t for vanities. You have to use a special globe style CFL for the vanity.

    I spent $160 changing out the lights in my house (about 60 lights) and all the lights look fine. I even bought an extra box of bulbs. The only problem was that they don’t seem to work in my ceiling fan light fixture. Apparently you need a special dimmable kind of light for that. I’m going to hold off on getting CFLs for the ceiling fan because the vibrations aren’t good for CFLs and the dimmable ones are about $10-$15 a bulb.

    I think it’s worth it to spend $160 in intial costs and save three times that much over the life of the bulbs. I really don’t care about the environment. It’s all about the other kind of green (money). To each his/her own I suppose.

  • Dennis Toff

    I’ve had a fir share of problems with them, and I find that I’d rather not go there again.