Compact fluorescent lightbulbs

Performance and price have greatly improved since our last test of CFLs.
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04.Alternatives and safety

Alternative lighting options

Tubular fluorescent lights have been around for decades and are functionally similar to CFLs. Relatively inexpensive, long-lasting and efficient to run, but aren’t always an aesthetically suitable choice for the home.

Halogen are a more efficient type of incandescent bulb. They have a tungsten element in a small amount of halogen gas, which prevents the evaporated tungsten depositing on the bulb wall so the bulb doesn’t dim over time. They’re about 30% more efficient than standard incandescent bulbs and longer-lasting (typically about 2000-5000 hours) and are available for most types of light fitting. While less energy-efficient than CFLs, halogens are good for accent lighting, and are likely to be found in homes as low-voltage downlights. Don’t assume that low voltage means low energy consumption; a typical low voltage halogen downlight uses about 50W plus another 10W for the transformer for a total of 60W, the same as a normal incandescent bulb. These downlights can be a fire hazard, so gaps must be left in the ceiling insulation around the top of the fitting. These gaps reduce the effectiveness of the insulation.

LED Light-emitting diodes are the newest player in energy-efficient lighting, and may take over from CFLs in the medium term. Extremely energy-efficient and long-lasting (up to 10 times longer than CFLs) and activate instantly. Commonly found in bicycle lights, torches, garden lights and traffic lights, and are now available as downlights, but haven’t made significant inroads yet into commercial or home lighting. This is likely to change over the next few years as LED technology improves and becomes cheaper.

Mercury and CFLs

Concern has been raised over the level of mercury in CFL bulbs and whether this presents a danger when a CFL bulb breaks, or comes to the end of its life, and must be disposed of. The simple answer is no; there is no significant risk to you or the environment, though you should still follow some precautions when cleaning up a broken CFL bulb.

  • All fluorescent lamps and tubes, including the long fluorescent tubes that have been around for decades, contain a small amount of mercury - typically around 5 mg of mercury – by comparison, an old mercury thermometer contains around 500 mg.
  • Coal-fired (particularly brown coal) power stations actually put significant amounts of mercury into the atmosphere. Because CFL bulbs are so much more energy efficient, a power station needs to produce only a fraction of the electricity to power a CFL compared to an equivalent incandescent bulb, so over the life of the bulb, the overall amount of mercury put into the environment is greatly reduced, even allowing for the small amount of mercury in the CFL bulb itself.

Nevertheless, a broken CFL bulb can release mercury into the air. The health risk from occasional breakages is very low, but it’s still important to treat the broken bulb safely.

  • Open windows and doors to ventilate the room for 15 minutes before cleaning up the broken bulb. \
  • Wear disposable gloves and sweep up the pieces with a disposable brush if possible. Put the broken pieces in a sealed container.
  • Use sticky tape or a damp cloth to pick up any dust and small pieces. If vacuuming is still needed (such as on carpet), dispose of the bag afterwards, or empty and wash the collector bin.
  • Dispose of the clean-up gear and broken pieces in your regular rubbish, not in recycling. Likewise, dead (unbroken) CFL bulbs should be wrapped and put in regular rubbish, unless your local council has different rules.

Use "mercury" to search for more information on mercury in CFLs and correct disposal.


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