Yes, You Pay More For CFLs, But Are They Worth It?

Earth911’s “Ask The Editor” series tackles your toughest environmental and recycling dilemmas.

Q: I’ve been switching to the CFLs but find that, in some cases, they don’t last any longer than the incandescent bulbs I’m replacing. I thought they were supposed to be cheaper to operate and longer lasting – thus justifying their higher cost. Am I confused or is there a problem with the bulbs? – Karllynn

A: The thing to remember about replacing your standard incandescents with CFLs is to evaluate your frequency of usage. These bulbs work better in lights that are kept on for longer periods of time, such as your porch light or a bedside lamp you keep on for hours.

When talking about CFLs, it’s also important to remember that each bulb contains a trace amount of mercury, meaning that proper disposal is a must. Photo: Flickr/Karin Bell

When talking about CFLs, it’s also important to remember that each bulb contains a trace amount of mercury, meaning that proper disposal is a must. Photo: Flickr/Karin Bell

You’ve probably noticed that CFLs need a little more energy when they are first turned on. A CFL’s ballast helps “kick start” the CFL and then regulates the current once the electricity starts flowing. So, if you’re constantly turning the CFL on and off and on again, that energy has to kick up once again to power the bulb.

CFLs can cost up to 10 times more than an incandescent bulb, and the even more energy-efficient light-emitting diodes (LEDs) can cost up to $50 for a single bulb.

However, an ENERGY STAR qualified CFL will save about $30 over its lifetime and pay for itself in about 6 months. Plus, it uses 75 percent less energy and lasts about 10 times longer than an incandescent bulb.

If you’re not a fan of CFLs, start thinking about investing in LED lighting. While 74 percent of Americans have switched to an energy-saving lamp, such as a CFL or LED, in the past year, many consumers are still largely unaware of the impending federal phase-out of incandescent light bulbs will begin with the 100-watt bulb in 2012.

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  1. I must say I am not a proponant of the CFLs! It seems to me though they may be energy efficient they certainly are not Earth friendly when they contain the highly toxic mercury. That means when one is broken or burns out the fumes they send off are highly toxic. The Fire Department in my county suggests turning off all air conditioners and heating, open all windows should a bulb burn out and pick up any broken bulb pieces with duct tape and proceed to vacuum with subsequent vacuuming with all air/heat off and windows open!! Honestly are we poisoning ourselves in the process of being energy efficient? Please look into this and the seriousness of the toxicity of mercury!
    Is it true there is legislation to replace all bulbs to CFLs in the near future?

  2. Coal fired power plants emit mercury into the environment so if you are using something using less energy even if it does contain small amounts of mercury it reduces the overall mercury exposure. Yes cfl’s contain mercury but as long as they are handled with care and disposed of properly the overall mercury exposure is less. I do not believe cfl’s are the permanent answer because of the mercury but they are definitely a lesser of two evils. Also we have had florescent bulbs in our homes for years, the long tubes most people have in their kitchen are florescent and contain mercury as well. No one has really complained about these and people throw them in the trash all the time, I see them in the dumpster at my apartment complex all the time.

  3. CFLs do contain mercury, but significantly less than the old familiar fluorescent tubes. A common CFL contains less than 5 milligrams of mercury whereas a fluorescent tube may contain 10 milligrams or more. It is important to carefully clean up shattered CFLs and to recycle used CFLs at the proper facility, but they are no more dangerous than the fluorescent tubes which light all our schools, grocery stores, and factories.

    The U.S. government is currently in the process of phasing out most incandescent bulbs. Eventually, LED lights will be even more efficient and less toxic than CFLs. But, for right now, CFLs represent the best compromise between energy efficiency and cost.

  4. When I bought my first CFLs, thinking that I was being so “earth friendly,” I admit I was dismayed to discover that they contain mercury. (I wondered how anything containing mercury could be considered “earth friendly”?) Anyway, I DO like them. They give a very pleasant light, and they last a heck of a lot longer than incandescents, at least in my experience.

  5. I’ve had CFL bulbs blow out quickly in 2 different lamps (one my overhead kitchen light, the other a side table lamp) If I understand correctly, it is because the lights are turned on and off frequently? Then-
    1) How long should a light be kept on to be considered an appropriate candidate for a CFL bulb?
    2) With the phase out of incandescent bulbs, am I going to have to replace all my lamps/lighting, including my beautiful alabaster lamps inherited from my relatives?

  6. I HATE these cfl’s . The light they give off is harsh, even the so called “daylight” type, they are expensive to prchase and look like khell in alot of my fixtures. The amount of electricity they save is not even noticeable!! You can get an incandecent bulb 4/1.00 at the dollar store. CFL’s range from a MINIMUM of 2.00-4.00 APIECE and like I said look horrible. Incandecents give off a nice , warm , yellowish tint, CFL’s a harsh greenish tint. Definitely NOT the same. I for one am getting damned tired of these environmentalists making life miserable for the rest of us by forcing their tree hugging attitudes on all of us in an effort to “save the spotted frog” or some other such nonsense.
    As far as disposal of fluorescents, I have my own way of doing it. They go in a large trash bag and I back over them with the car. Instant compaction. Then in the trash bin they go. I’ll be go to hell if I’m going to turn my house into a “transfer station” storing stuff till “hazardous waste” day comes around every 6 months, nor am I going to be driving 15 or more miles to take the stuff someplace. Hell , we used to PLAY with mercury when we were kids and we are fine.

  7. Additionally, the LED nonsense is going to cost even MORE than the CFL’s do now. People should still have the personal choice as to what kind of lighting they want, NOT the government telling them what kind they have to use. And coal fired power plants ARE NOT the boogie man that everyone makes them out to be. They are our most abundant form of energy and we should be using them more fully than we do now.

  8. I agree with the disappointment of ofttimes short life and disposal. in this day and age, cant a lighting source be made that isnt ugly and toxic?

  9. The disposal is hazardous as Bill describes, allowing mercury to contaminate the environment and our drinking water. The only safe disposal is to take them to a mercury recycling center listed on Each CFL contains 4-5 milligram of toxic mercury and should be prohibited. The long tube flourescents are typically used commercially and disposed of commercially to a mercury recycling center. You will have more neurotoxic effects in addition to more autism!

  10. To Bill:
    The only reason ‘environmentalists’ and ‘tree huggers’ propose what they propose and fight for it is because the Oil/Coal Companies and governments have constantly failed ‘mother earth’ by lying and deception. You are abusing people (hundreds of millions btw) who are fighting for all the life forms on the earth and the womb (earth) that sustains that life. Compare that with the people who fight ‘for’ coal/gas ONLY for economic reasons.
    What you don’t realize is that the cost of doing it the ‘wrong way’ (short cut) is less in the short term but excessive in the long term. This is true with everything – including the products we buy, the contractor we use and so on. When people decide to contaminate the land and streams, there are detrimental consequences to the living beings and food supply that results in higher cost of health care (as well as casualties), recalls etc, thus bringing the cost at par to what it would have been doing it the ‘right’ way.
    And looking at your rant, I do believe you got contaminated while playing with Mercury – you just don’t know it.

  11. If you bought as many LEDs as you do incandescents, they’d probably cost about one tenth of what you pay for an incandescent…you vote with your wallet….for inefficiency if you buy incandescents. Of course, if you bought more CFLs and LEDs, there would be more competition for the market, and quicker breakthroughs in light quality and life expectancy, and more of a recycling infrastructure to keep mercury out of the landfills because recyclers would have more materials to work with when they did eventually burn out. By your logic, whale oil would be better for all of us than petroleum oil and coal. The whales are right there for the taking, and the whale oil burns a lot brighter than that nasty stinky black stuff you have to drill into the ground to find….and who needs a finicky expensive car when you can just hitch your wagon up to a nice reliable horse.

  12. I am very concerned that the best we can do in an attempt to reduce the amount of energy we use is to switch to Mercury containing CFL light bulbs. After reading how Bill disposes of fluorescent lights we must face the fact that if incandescent lights are phased out and CFLs are one of the only alternatives there will likely be billions of Mercury containing light bulbs making their way to the landfill every year. Certainly many people will be responsible and ensure that the bulbs are recycled at the end of their life but there are many people who simply could not be bothered. This will result in untold amounts of Mercury being released into our environment. To say that this is acceptable because it is the lesser of two evils, due to coal fired power plants producing more Mercury than CFLs contain is ridiculous. We need to look at ways to reduce our energy consumption AND ways to reduce or eliminate the Mercury emitted by coal power plants into the environment. As intelligent, informed individuals we need to work together to come up with solutions that make sense, and not just just rely completely on whatever product the research and development or marketing departments of various corporations tell us to use.

  13. I tried using a CFL in my porch light, but found that in cold winter weather (Colorado), the bulb comes on with a very faint, dim light and takes about 20 minutes to warm up enough to get a decent amount of light. Pretty useless if I want to flip on the porch light when someone comes to the door. I got rid of it and used a halogen bulb instead.

  14. > CFLs can cost up to 10 times more than an incandescent bulb,

    Really? Not sure where you are buying your (grossly overpriced) CFLs… but they are under $1 at Costco and Meijer… and many other stores.

    50 cents each, on sale, at Costco.

  15. I have experimented with CFL and LED lighting for a long time. First you have to look at the packaging for a CFL or LED bulb. More often than not you will be shortchanged on the amount of light. A CFL bulb I am using in my dining room is listed as a 60 watt replacement. The incandescent bulb puts out 870 lumens, while the CFL puts out 800 lumens. (This is like buying a package of coffee and finding out that the package has 11 ounces rather than 13). As others have noted, using a CFL for short periods will cause it to burn out quickly. LEDs have different characteristics altogether. The LED diode has a directional distribution of light that makes it well suited for task lighting, but poor for general lighting. The LED diode produces heat that must be conducted away to prevent burnout. This is why LED bulbs have aluminum fins on them and why the cost is so high. So far, I have not seen a LED bulb that is made to be put into an enclosed light fixture. As for hallways and storage rooms, I still use incandescents, and will stock up on them as 2012 approaches.

  16. Both LED and CFL bulbs contain hazardous materials.

    Good old Thomas Edison bulbs do not.

    Plus if you turn off and on lights as you move around the house, the CFL bulbs burn out soon, take 3 minutes to come up to full brightness, and waste energy.

    I’m going to hoard 100 watt bulbs while they are still 25 cents apiece.

    I had switched my house entirely to CFL lamps and noticed NO energy saving at all.

    And the darn things burned out anywhere from 6 weeks to a year.

    Not one lasted the advertised time, and they cost 5 times the price of good old incandescents.

  17. Both LED and CFL bulbs contain hazardous materials.
    Good old Thomas Edison bulbs do not.
    Broken glass itself is a hazard to anyone handling it, playing nearby and animals. Even the good old Thomas Edison bulbs require proper disposal.

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