Compact fluorescent light bulbs, or CFLs, are packaged with promises of energy savings that have prompted the federal government to dictate their use, but consumers of the new technology are finding the product doesn’t always live up to the promise.

As WND reported, the federal government’s Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 phases out Thomas Edison’s incandescent bulbs in favor of the newer CFLs beginning in 2012 and culminates in a total ban on the older technology by 2014.

“I’m pro-choice – on light bulbs” – Bumper sticker sends Congress message over its banning Edison’s invention

Advocates say the new bulbs, though they cost more initially, save over the long haul by using up to 75 percent less energy and lasting years longer than incandescent bulbs.

Consumers, however, have found cause for complaint in both faulty bulbs and unexpected side-effects – including problems with pets and serious safety concerns – that may cancel out the bulbs’ benefits.

Faulty bulbs

In a New York Times article titled, “Do New Bulbs Save Energy if They Don’t Work?” a San Francisco couple that replaced nearly every bulb in their home with the CFLs discovered some of the bulbs wore out early.

“Here’s my sad collection of bulbs that didn’t work,” said Karen Zuercher, displaying a cardboard box of worthless glass. Of 16 CFLs she purchased at Costco, Zeurcher reported one didn’t work at all and three died within hours – not the 10,000 hours the package promised.

“It’s irritating,” she told the Times.

According to the Times, experts cite two reasons for poor bulb performance: insufficient packaging instructions on proper use and the government’s demands for lower bulb prices, leading manufacturers to use cheap components.

“Somebody decides to save a little money somewhere,” said Victor Roberts, an independent researcher who tests CFL reliability, “and suddenly we have hundreds of thousands of failures.”

“There was great pressure by agencies, by retailers, to bring the cost down on this technology so that we can get big market penetration,” Michael Siminovitch, director of a lighting center at the University of California, Davis, told Green Inc. blogger Tom Zeller. “Unfortunately, given the lack of really good, understandable specifications, what happened was when you reduce price you inevitably compromise something. In the case of compact fluorescents, we’ve compromised on quality.”

The Times also cited tests conducted by The Program for the Evaluation and Analysis of Residential Lighting at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., on bulbs certified with the Energy Star status, which is supposed to ensure consumers of quality and savings.

In the program’s 2007-8 tests, however, 5 of 29 models failed to meet the promised lifespan, luminosity and on-off cycling, prompting their removal from Energy Star’s list of qualified products.

“In the pursuit of the holy grail, we stepped on the consumer,” said Siminovitch. “The [Energy Star] standard essentially establishes a floor, which sorts out the junk, with the expectation that the rest is good. … It’s not.”

Robert Markovich of Consumer Reports magazine also warns that not all sockets should be filled with the CFLs consumers find on store shelves.

Though the technology is improving, Markovich reports, standard CFLs aren’t a good fit for places like closets where the bulbs will be turned on and off frequently and aren’t going to be lit for at least 15 minutes. It shortens the bulb’s lifespan. Likewise, installing a CFL in an enclosed light fixture, where heat is likely to build up, also takes a significant bite out of the bulb’s longevity.

Few consumers realize fully outfitting a home with CFLs may require specialized bulbs – of higher quality and cost – for certain light sockets.

Pet problems

Online, a number of consumers also complain that their pets react adversely to the new bulbs.

On the U.K. Yahoo! Answers forum, posters complained of dogs barking at the ceiling and growing agitated in rooms that use CFLs.

“When the ‘low energy’ lamp is on, the dogs are not very happy and will not go to the room by choice,” wrote Stellar Meg. “Put the lamp back to a normal light bulb, or switch the low energy one off, the dogs are quite happy.”

Florida resident Brian Hetzman told WND of similar problems with his dog.

“My wife and I put a new fluorescent bulb in our ceiling light, and our 10-year-old dog literally jumped up off the floor and starting screaming,” Hetzman said. “She was moaning and
growling and barking and looking up at the ceiling.

“I figured out what was happening and took the bulb out,” he continued. “Then I put it back in a second later to test the theory. Again, she started making noises I’ve never heard her make and running around in a circle moaning and whimpering.”

Popular CFLs use an electronic ballast to send a current through the gas within the bulb, which then excites the bulb’s phosphor coating to produce light. The electronic ballast is supposed to be an improvement over the flickering, slow starting magnetic ballasts used in older fluorescent bulbs, but some believe the electronic technology also produces an ultrasonic noise that disturbs animals.

The University of London’s David Pye wrote in Physics World Magazine in 2007 that a tunable ultrasound detector found the low energy bulbs emitting acoustic signals audible by dogs and especially cats, but WND was unable to find any other studies confirming Pye’s results.

Safety worries

Compact fluorescent light bulbs have long been known to contain the poisonous liquid metal mercury, which even in the small amounts contained in the bulbs requires special instructions for cleanup following breakage.

As WND has reported, however, a study released last year shows the level of mercury vapor also released from broken bulbs skyrockets past accepted safety levels.

Following a story reported by WND about a Maine woman quoted $2,000 for cleaning up a broken CFL in her home, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection studied the dangers of broken CFLs and the adequacy of recommended cleanup procedures.

The results were stunning: Breaking a single compact fluorescent bulb on the floor can spike mercury vapor levels in a room – particularly at a child’s height – to over 300 times the EPA’s standard accepted safety level.

Furthermore, for days after a CFL has been broken, vacuuming or simply crawling across a carpeted floor where the bulb was broken can cause mercury vapor levels to shoot back upwards of 100 times the accepted level of safety.

Following the study, the Maine DEP made eight new recommendations for usage and cleanup of CFLs, including the recommendation to not even use the bulbs in carpeted rooms where children, infants or pregnant women live. The likelihood of breakage, near impossibility of cleanup and risk of prolonged exposure, the study concluded, are just too great.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences website acknowledges that Brown University published a similar study confirming the Maine results: Breaking a fluorescent bulb sends mercury vapor levels to unsafe levels for the elderly, pregnant and young – and those levels remain elevated for days.

Concerns about the bulbs, whether it be safety worries or other complaints, have prompted some U.S. legislators to ask Congress to reconsider requiring consumers to make the switch to CFLs.

As WND reported last year, 25 U.S. representatives – including nationally-known figures such as Rep. Ron Paul and Rep. Tom Tancredo – attempted to pass H.R. 5616, the Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act, which would have repealed the ban on
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incandescent bulbs until specified concerns about CFLs were definitively answered.

“I just don’t think it’s a good idea for Congress to jump on board fads every time a fad comes along,” said bill co-sponsor Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., in a televised MSNBC interview. “I think we can trust the intelligence of the American consumer to make the choice that they’d like to make.”

H.R. 5616, however, was referred to a House subcommittee without further action. There is no pending legislation to renew the effort.


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