Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A primer on Compact Flourescent bulbs -- you know less than you might expect, I bet.

It turns out I didn't know much about compact flourescent lamps (CFL's) -- despite being an electrician. For instance, I've long known that you shouldn't put compact CFL's in locations that switch on and off a lot, or aren't on for a long period of time -- but I had no specific guidelines. I had a vague notion that they had hazardous guts too, but didn't know specifics. I'll cover both these aspects of CFL's below, you may be surprised at what you learn. [here is the wiki on CFL's for you self-starter types]

First off, where to use them. In this Yahoo Green article, they make some recognizable guidelines.

Basically, if lights in a certain area aren't going to be on for at least 15 minutes at a stretch, don't use CLF's there. You can still use normal flourescent tubes or tungsten (normal) bulbs. Normal flourescents can be used in areas that are on for at least 5 minutes, and of course normal bulbs wherever you want a dimmer or have lights that aren't on much at all.

It's nit picky, but nit picky can be fun if you are geeky enough. Basically if you go outside these guidelines, the bulbs won't last as long or give you the stated energy efficiency -- in either case they won't payback the initial cost as well.

For more info on how and where to use CFL's, here is the Energystar site on them.

A note on the dark side of CLF's -- Mercury.

Overall, in the large scheme of things, CFL's appear to reduce mercury emissions and waste by humans -- but this is by no means absolutely certain. Less pollution is asserted because they reduce energy use (which, in turn, reduces all sorts of waste and pollution -- including Mercury), and they last longer (again, less landfill). This is not rock-solid fact, and is being debated wherever the assertion is made (like in the comments of this Popular Mechanics article).

I'll let you decide whether the jury is out on this one or not -- here is one graph, and another graph on the side of CFL's being a benefit in this regard -- you can see the numbers vary quite a bit.

CFL's do contain small amounts of mercury. Therefore, you have to treat them as a hazardous material when disposing of them, or dealing with a broken one in your home. There are some surprising precautions laid out in this fact sheet by energy star.

For Portland Oregon locals, PGE's suggestions for disposal are here -- basically, store them "safely" and when you have a good number stored up take them to the Haz Mat section of the waste transfer station. That's the same section you take old paints and thinners and whatnot.

Here are the EPA suggestions for CFL disposal and clean-up:

1. Before Clean-up: Air Out the Room
• Have people and pets leave the room, and don't let anyone walk through the breakage area on their way out.
• Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.
• Shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system, if you have one.

2. Clean-Up Steps for Hard Surfaces
• Carefully scoop up glass fragments and powder using stiff paper or cardboard and place them in a glass jar with metal lid (such as a canning jar) or in a sealed plastic bag.
• Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass pieces and powder.
• Wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes. Place towels in the glass jar or plastic bag.
• Do not use a vacuum or broom to clean up the broken bulb on hard surfaces.

3. Clean-up Steps for Carpeting or Rug:

• Carefully pick up glass fragments and place them in a glass jar with metal lid (such as a canning jar) or in a sealed plastic bag.
• Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder.
• If vacuuming is needed after all visible materials are removed, vacuum the area where the bulb was broken.
• Remove the vacuum bag (or empty and wipe the canister), and put the bag or vacuum debris in a sealed plastic bag.

4. Clean-up Steps for Clothing, Bedding, etc.:

• If clothing or bedding materials come in direct contact with broken glass or mercury-containing powder from inside the bulb that may stick to the fabric, the clothing or bedding should be thrown away. Do not wash such clothing or bedding because mercury fragments in the clothing may contaminate the machine and/or pollute sewage.
• You can, however, wash clothing or other materials that have been exposed to the mercury vapor from a broken CFL, such as the clothing you are wearing when you cleaned up the broken CFL, as long as that clothing has not come into direct contact with the materials from the broken bulb.
• If shoes come into direct contact with broken glass or mercury-containing powder from the bulb, wipe them off with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes. Place the towels or wipes in a glass jar or plastic bag for disposal.

5. Disposal of Clean-up Materials
• Immediately place all clean-up materials outdoors in a trash container or protected area for the next normal trash pickup.
• Wash your hands after disposing of the jars or plastic bags containing clean-up materials.
• Check with your local or state government about disposal requirements in your specific area. Some states do not allow such trash disposal. Instead, they require that broken and unbroken mercury-containing bulbs be taken to a local recycling center.

6. Future Cleaning of Carpeting or Rug: Air Out the Room During and After Vacuuming
• The next several times you vacuum, shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system and open a window before vacuuming.
• Keep the central heating/air conditioning system shut off and the window open for at least 15 minutes after vacuuming is completed.

After all the reading needed to write this post, I have to say I was surprised at how uninformed the public was of the hazardous aspects of this technology. And I was especially surprised at how rare it was to find the real information on how to property dispose of them. It's important information, and I hope it gets better disseminated.

Enjoy finding out more about products you are encouraged to be using all over your home, especially the poisonous bits,


[CFL image via Wikimedia commons, tungsten image credit in linked article]


One Mule Team said...

You can also dispose of them at certain home improvement stores, Jerry's in Eugene and Springfield immediately come to mind but I would suspect there are others.

Bpaul said...

Good info sir, thanks!

A.Stock said...

It seems scandalous to me that disposable glass cases with mercury in them are being sold as environmentally friendly. The average person has had these bulbs pushed on them by Al Gore and every green movement in the country. Hell, even my parents switched out all their bulbs.

Of course, they know nothing about *when* to use these bulbs and certainly have no idea that when one breaks you have to call out a Hazmat team. So, where do people like my parents put their broken bulbs...or bulbs that burned out fast because they were used in the wrong places???? Why, in the landfill of course. And if one breaks, how do they pick it up? With their bare hands, just like any other broken lightbulb.

So, instead of a bunch of mostly harmless Tungsten bulbs in the landfill, or broken pieces being picked up safely by my mother, we're instead substituting the new "green" technology to dump tons of mercury into the landfill, as well as in my mother's bloodstream. Nice.

Bpaul said...

My take is that "they" didn't want to sully the green image of CFL's with real information about how to dispose of them -- didn't want to tag them with the term "mercury."

So in the interest of good PR image, they left out vital information on how these should be used and especially disposed of.

Which, in turn, leads to them being just thrown away. Hell I've thrown them way, I didn't know.

I'll still use them, but I'll definitely dispose of them correctly now.

msherm said...

CFLs are a transitional technology in my opinion. LEDs will hopefully be the new lamp of choice. The color quality is getting so much better than CFLs (near incandescent light temperature) and they contain none of the risks of CFLs.

They are prohibitively expensive right now though, but that'll come down as production increases and the technology becomes more common.

Bpaul said...

I've seen trends leading that way too M. But yeah, for now, out the window expensive!

nolocontendere said...

Thanks for all the info.
I actually had the base one of these melt in a lamp for some reason.