How to Pick a CFL (Take The Curly One)?

by Erik North on January 20, 2012

How to Pick a CFL


The shortcomings of CFLs have been amply demonstrated (and I did my share of demonstrating in this article). The color of light is harsh, they’re more expensive than folks are used to, they don’t dim, they contain mercury, and incandescent bulbs are being phased out, forcing choice but limiting your options.

Ultimately, LED bulbs, ESLs or another as yet undiscovered acronym will surpass CFLs. But as an intermediate replacement for the ancient technology of incandescents, CFLs will be here for awhile. So, how can you make the best, most informed decisions when you pick CFL bulbs?

Where To Install: The first question is where do you want to install CFL lights. For the best energy savings, the most heavily used light fixtures are an obvious choice. Making sure the bulbs fit in their new home is important as well. The newer pigtail style CFLs fit better than early variations, but not always. Bringing the bulb that’s being replaced for size comparisons would be wise when you pick a CFL.

Matching Light Output: The bulb you select should come close to putting out the same amount of light as the bulb it’s replacing. A simple (and very approximate) rule of thumb is divide the current bulb’s wattage by 5. If you have a 100 watt bulb, the CFL replacement will be around 20 watts. The actual wattage of the CFL bulb and the wattage the bulbs is intended to replace are included on the packaging.

Dimming: For half a second I was going to say ‘dimmable,’ but I’m not sure that’s even a word. CFLs by their nature cannot be dimmed. Electricity is run through the mercury vapor in the bulb. Past a certain point, less electricity doesn’t mean less light in CFLs, it means no light. However, some bulbs are engineered so they can be dimmed. They’re called ‘bi-phase’ CFLs and they address that concern.

Mercury Content: All CFLs have small amounts of mercury. This is a real concern for some folks because of the toxicity of mercury. Be mindful on the proper disposal procedures (see this article on the details of CFL disposal) for broken or burned out CFLs. For folks who’re concerned about it, there are low-mercury CFL bulbs available. These bulbs contain less than 1 milligram of mercury, minimizing the potential risk.

Durability: High traffic areas in your home mean lamps and other light fixtures get beat up. Your raucous puppy or child who has found the Pop Tarts bomb around the house, wreaking havoc. The light fixtures take abuse and light bulbs installed there get broken. Because of the mercury concerns of CFLs, preventing bulb breakage should be on peoples’ minds. There are breakage resistant CFLs but as a rule, CFLs are just as fragile as incandescents.

Outdated incandescent technology has been due for an update. CFLs are a first step and while we wait for more advanced LED lights (or even sexier…organic LEDs), making an informed decision will help best pick a CFL.

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