The BC government is phasing out the old inefficient incandescent light bulbs, as a way to help us save money and become more energy efficient, but as a result, there’s a lot of myth-making going on about the compact fluorescent bulbs. Here’s a quick guide to help you discuss them with a disgruntled workmate or neighbour.
Myth #1. The old incandescent bulbs have been banned.
This is simply not true - the new regulations simply govern light bulbs in the 75-100 watt range. Philips has a range of Halogena Energy Advantage bulbs that are dimmable, contain no mercury, and meet the new standard.
Myth #2. The waste heat from the old bulbs helps heat my home, reducing the amount of natural gas I need to burn.
It is true that the old incandescent bulbs produce waste heat - this is why they are so inefficient as lights. If you’re burning gas for heat, the argument goes, removing the bulbs means burning more gas, increasing your greenhouse gases.
But let’s pause to think. Electricity in North America is constantly traded across borders. BC Hydro imports between 5% and 15% of its electricity, depending on the depth of snowpack, mostly from coal and gas-fired power in the US. When we use less power, it’s the imported power that we reduce, so even if the new bulbs increase the use of gas, this is balanced by the decreased use of imported coal and gas fired power. Also, since most bulbs are close to the ceiling, the waste heat rises, where it’s neither useful nor near the thermostat that regulates gas heating. In warmer months, it’s just waste heat, plain and simple.
80% of British Columbians are already using CFLs, resulting in 600 gigawatt hours of electricity savings per year, the same as the electricity consumed by more than 50,000 homes. If this came from a mix of imported coal and gas-fired power, it would generate 400,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases (GHGs) a year.
The belief that using the new light bulbs will cause BC’s GHGs to rise comes from measuring our GHGs as a strictly provincial affair, excluding our imported power. As soon as BC is 100% self-sufficient in green power, the energy saved by using the new bulbs will allow more green power to be exported, helping to reduce the need for coal and gas-fired power outside BC.
Myth #3. They contain mercury!
Yes, they do contain a tiny amount of mercury. Tuna contains mercury too, which comes from the air pollution that coal-fired power plants produce. Francis Rubinstein from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that if you broke a bulb and did a good job of cleaning up, your mercury exposure would be like taking a tiny nibble of tuna. If you closed all the doors and smashed the bulb with a hammer, it would be like eating a can of tuna, since fish absorb the mercury in air pollution from coal-fired power.
So it’s no big deal, unless you make a daily habit of smashing the bulbs. If you do break one, open a window, leave the room for 15 minutes, and then brush up the waste - don’t vacuum it. For more safety details, see www.bit.ly/CFLsafety, and the Environmental Working Group’s Guide.
In 2009, the US-based Environmental Working Group produced a Shopper’s Guide to Light Bulbs, and recommended seven bulbs which have the lowest mercury and also last the longest: the Earthmate Mini-Size, Litetronics Neolite, Sylvania Micro-Mini, Sylvania DURA-ONE, Feit EcoBulb, MaxLite, and Philips with Alto.
Myth #4. They produce a sickly flickering pale light.
Yes, it’s true - some do. So don’t buy those ones! Buy quality bulbs! If you want warm yellow light, look for ones labeled with a lower colour temperature (Kelvin) around 3,000. If you want a white light, look for bulbs marked “daylight, with a high colour temperature around 5,000. Here is another useful guide to buying a CFL bulb, which also has lots of good advice from on-line readers.
Myth #5. They don’t work with dimmers.
True in 2007, but not today. If you want a CFL bulb that works with a dimmer switch, they’re more expensive (and waste more energy), but you can buy one.
Myth #6. They don’t last as long as promised.
In California, the utility PG&E found that instead of 9.4 years of useful life, the reality is closer to 6.3 years, with a faster burn-out rate in certain locations such as bathrooms and recessed lighting. But a regular light bulb burns out after 1,000 hours, so the new bulbs still last six times longer.
Myth #7. They don’t come on immediately.
No longer true in most cases. In my home, all but two of our 47 CFLs come on almost immediately.
Myth #8. There’s no safe disposal mechanism.
For sure there is - recycling programs for residential CFLs are mandated by provincial regulation. You can find the nearest recycling drop-off at www.productcare.org/lights
Myth #9. They produce “dirty electricity”.
This refers to the myth that the new bulbs produce harmful electromagnetic radiation, and the experience that some people have a bad reaction to the UV light. It does appear that some people who suffer from lupus and certain skin conditions can be negatively affected by some bulbs, in which case they should buy a bulb marked as low UV, with a glass cover. For the vast majority of people, who have been using billions of bulbs all over the world for many years, there are no negative health effects.
Myth #10. They don’t work in really cold weather.
This is generally true - so look for ones with a special cold cathode weather ballast, which are good down to -23ºC.
How Much Will I Save?
BC Hydro says that if the average household replaced all its incandescent bulbs with CFLs, it would save 830 kWh a year, which comes to around $60. BC Hydro’s CFL Fact Sheet says that replacing one incandescent bulb with a CFL will save $52 in electricity over the life of the bulb. BC Hydro says that 80% of British Columbians are already using CFLs, that we are already realizing 600 gigawatt hours of electricity savings per year, the equivalent energy consumption of more than 50,000 homes.
For more good information about the new light bulbs, see BC Hydro's Guide.
What about LED lighting?
LED (light emitting diode) bulbs are more efficient than CFLs - but they are still very expensive ($20-$40), and their light is still very focused and limited. Prices will fall, and the technology will improve; in ten years they may well be the #1 bulbs.
So remind me - why are the old inefficient bulbs being phased out? They use four times more energy than the CFL bulbs, so making the switch plays a small but important role in helping us save energy, save money, reduce the use of coal-fired power, and protect our children’s future. And that has my whole-hearted support.
Guy Dauncey is President of the BC Sustainable Energy Association. www.bcsea.org