CFLs: When and where NOT to use them

I’m going to annoy a lot of good people with this post.
I’m a big fan of CFLs in most places throughout the home. The energy savings they offer is tremendous, and they pay for themselves in very short order.
A few years ago purchasing CFLs was hit or miss. Some would start right up and give a good bright light, some would not. The “special” bulbs such as bathroom globes, dimmable spots, and others could be hard to find and expensive to purchase. Today, while there are still occasional crummy bulbs to be found, most will give you a good bright light and last a long time. You can find, with relative ease, candelabras, spots, exterior-rated, dimmable, globes and many more.
Here’s the part where I annoy a lot of good people: Not every bulb in your home should be a CFL.
CFLs contain a small amount of mercury (something less than 1/100th that of a  thermometer.) They’re perfectly fine while intact but if they break, 4 micrograms or so of mercury can be released. That’s not much, and most people (including me) don’t get particularly concerned about it, but why not avoid the problem in locations most prone to risk of breaking?
I’ve never knocked over a table or floor lamp, but I know it happens. Especially in homes with children, I encourage people to keep CFLs out of these types of fixtures. Other places in the home, like clip-on lamps, low-hanging basement lights (usually just a bulb in a socket with no protection) can become an issue as well.
Fixtures throughout the rest of the home, including bathroom lights, recessed lights, enclosed hanging fixtures, etc. are perfect for CFLs. Also, LEDs are coming down in price and contain no mercury at all.
If you do break a bulb, here are the EPA’s official instructions on how to clean it up:
Finally, I was recently made aware of an email making the rounds about CFLs catching fire. Given the way CFLs work (very different than incandescent bulbs) and their significantly lower heat, it made no sense so I investigated. I quickly came upon this article at which put the issue to bed – there is no fire hazard and the email is erroneous.
UPDATE: One of the great things about this blog and the Arlington community is the wealth of knowledge. Two things have been pointed out to me that merit mention.
1. Only CFL bulbs specifically labeled as “dimmable” should be placed in fixtures that use dimmer switches.
2. Buy only CFL bulbs labeled as “Energy Star.” Why? Aside from energy consumption issues, in order to gain the Energy Star label the bulb must meet certain safety requirements. Non Energy Star bulbs do not have certain insulative properties that prevent overheating and fires.
3. CFLs have a hard time, and potentially create a safety hazard, in enclosed fixtures such as ceiling fixtures. CFLs put out very little heat and don’t like heat. In an enclosed fixture they can overheat and burn out faster than their expected life span.
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2 Responses to CFLs: When and where NOT to use them

  1. Mark Kaepplein says:

    Non Energy Star CFLs are not missing “certain insulative properties”. What they are missing is the more expensive and efficient electronic balast parts. The cheaper components near the base of the bulb generate more heat there, leading to premature failure, especially in a base-up, reflector or sealed enclosure that heat can’t easily escape from. The claimed life of a CFL is only true when it gets good cooling, is burned base down, and not turned on and off so much.

  2. Jeremy says:

    Fair enough. “Non Energy Star bulbs do not have certain insulative properties that prevent overheating and fires.”

    While many sites and studies say that CFLs do best when not turned on and off rapidly, I can tell you that some of the first CFLs I installed, in my kitchen, about five years ago, are still bright and going strong. They’re turned on/off dozens of times each day. There are also some small tube fluorescent bulbs (under cabinet lights) on the same switch. I’ve replaced each of the tubes several times each in that same time period.

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