In case you haven't noticed, compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs, for short) have been in the news lately. Environmental Defense, along with scores of other environmental organizations, have been encouraging folks to switch their old-fashioned incandescent lightbulbs for CFLs. Australia has mandated that incandescents be phased out completely [PDF], and California is considering similar legislation. Here’s why.
When incandescent light bulbs were first invented, they were a technological marvel. Today they are a technological dinosaur. They work by heating a filament until it glows, and as a result are more akin to heaters that give out a little light, than light sources that give out a little heat. And all that heat is wasted energy.
CFLs don’t use a hot filament, so they require a lot less electricity. A 15-19 watt CFL will produce the same amount of light as a 60 watt incandescent. That’s a 75% savings on your electric bill, and a 75% cut in global warming pollution*. Using CFLs means saving money, as well as helping to save the planet.
Ok you say, but how much of a difference can using a CFL really make? A lot more than you might think! If every American household replaced just one 60-watt incandescent bulb with a 15-watt CFL, it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions as much as taking a million cars off the road!
Another comment I often hear is, "CFLs will make my home look like a warehouse." That may have been true in 1980 when CFLs were first released, but they've come a long way. Today the light from many CFLs is indistinguishable from the light we're used to. Extra small CFLs can fit in light fixtures that standard ones cannot, and you can buy 3-way and dimmable CFLs.
Another issue is mercury pollution. CFLs contain tiny amounts of mercury – about 4-5mg – and so need to be disposed of properly. (See information on CFL disposal.) But even so, CFLs are a better choice than incandescents. This is because so much of our electricity comes from burning coal, which releases large amounts of mercury into the atmosphere. Since CFLs use so much less energy, they causes less mercury pollution than incandescent lightbulbs.
If you’re convinced and want to go out and get some CFLs, first take a few minutes to learn what's available. There are a lot of CFLs out there. Some may be suitable for your needs, and others not. The most frequent mistake folks make is buying the wrong CFL and then deciding that CFLs are not for them.
My advice is to first visit our comprehensive guide to CFLs to find which CFL is right for you. Another site with great information is http://www.18seconds.org/ (18 seconds being the time it takes to change a light bulb).
*Editor's Note: The 75% cut in global warming pollution assumes that 100% of your electricity comes from the burning of fossil fuels. Nationally, only 70% of electricity comes from the burning of fossil fuels, so the cut in global warming pollution is 75% of 70%, or 53%.