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Shedding light on the bulb decision


Last updated 12/6/2007 at Noon

Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) have been on the market for several years now. They use dramatically less energy to produce the same amount of light as an incandescent bulb – 15 watts/hour for the light of a 60-watt bulb; 23 watts for the light of a 100-watt bulb – and save 2,000 times their weight in greenhouse gases over the life of the bulb.

CFLs reduce your electric bill, your carbon footprint, and your out-of-pocket expenses, because they last three to five times longer than incandescent bulbs. Yet they still haven’t caught on the way I’d expect.

I know even committed environmentalists who have not switched.

Being off the grid, I am a big CFL user.

Nearly every light in my house has CFLs, and I seldom turn on those that do not.

In looking at the pros and cons of fluorescent vs. incandescent, I found that many people were making decisions based on outdated information, or outright misinformation. It’s time to set the record straight, so you can at least make your choice based on the straight scoop.


Yes, it’s absolutely true that CFLs contain mercury and should not be disposed of in landfills. But incandescents contain lead, and they shouldn’t either.

Both can, and should, be recycled through hazardous waste programs. San Diego County has a great Web site that lets you find the nearest recycling sites to your home for light bulbs and virtually anything else you can think of (see the resource section at the end of the article for the link and phone number).


Because they last longer, CFLs used to be priced higher than incandescent bulbs. But utility companies have begun subsidizing CFLs, and you can often find packages of multiple bulbs for as little as a dollar on special displays at grocery and home improvement stores, even pharmacies.

Bulb size and special uses

When CFLs first came out, the lamps were significantly larger than the average incandescent bulb and often did not fit in standard lamps. There are many more sizes to choose from now.

I seldom have to use an incandescent purely because a CFL won’t fit.

Until recently, CFLs were not recommended for use with dimmers, in touch lamps, with photocells, or with electronic timers.

However, dimmable CFLs are just entering the market, so some of these limitations will soon be overcome. Three-way CFLs are also available.

Color of light

Some people just don’t like the color of the light produced by CFLs. It is cooler than incandescent, closer to daylight in tone.

I notice it more in ceiling fixtures than in table or floor lamps with shades, but I’ve gotten used to it. It still remains a negative for some folks.

If you haven’t looked at compact fluorescents in a while, check them out. They are worth a try in some of your lamps, if not all.

If you decide to switch, consider recycling your incandescents even if they are not burned out yet. They may cost you more on your electric bill than you lose by replacing them with CFLs.

Find out how and where to recycle almost anything in San Diego County at or call the Recycle and Hazardous Waste hotline at (877) R-1-EARTH.

Riverside County Waste Management recommends the following site to find your nearest recycling center:

For more information on recycling visit and click the “How to Recycle Everything” link on the right hand side of the page.

Laura Silver is a lifelong environmentalist who works from her off-the-grid straw bale home as a Web designer, business copywriter, and more.


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