Sunday, September 27, 2009

Other “Green” Initiatives – Compact Florescent Light Globes - Part 4

In parts two and three on this section we have looked at the mercury issue with regard to CFL bulbs and the techniques for cleanup and disposal. In this next section we will examine the other issues that are caused by CFL bulbs.


CFL’s installed in a dimmer are a risk because they don't work in dimmers, and can eventually catch fire. CFL’s could not be used in track, recessed or dimmer fixtures either as they are not designed for these fittings.

Now, even in ordinary light fittings, increasing numbers of people have discovered their CFL energy-saver bulbs smouldering or on fire.

But according to the experts, get used to it. That's exactly what CFLs are supposed to do when they reach the end of their tether, burn out in a pall of acrid plastic smoke and carcinogenic fumes.

The problem seems to be that 90% of the world's CFLs, including big name brands, are ultimately manufactured in China, where quality control has been somewhat of an issue across the board in recent years.

Ideally, CFLs should have some kind of sensor that detects overheating and blows an internal fuse before the lamp starts to melt or smoulder. Many, however, do not. Burnouts have been reported to the Energy Safety Service in Wellington already, along with reports of acrid smoke.


One of the biggest selling points for energy-saver bulbs has been the claim that they last far longer than incandescent bulbs. The average incandescent will last about a year (1,100 hours, being 365 days @ 3 hours a night). On the other hand, CFLs are claimed to last at least 6,000 hours, and some are claimed to last up to 12,000 hours (11 years).

This, claim manufacturers …, well and truly offsets higher cost of buying the bulbs. But a briefing paper prepared for the Australian government (New Zealand and Australia are implementing the switch to CFLs simultaneously with the same standards), reveals the Aussies are pitching a lifespan standard of only 2,000 hours. That's because most if not all the CFL bulbs are manufactured in China, where production standards vary considerably and what‘s
on the box doesn't necessarily equate to real performance.

Part of the problem, it turns out, is that the "lifespan" of a CFL bulb has been artificially measured. International standards currently require a manufacturer to run the bulb in three hour cycles in the lab, only switching it on at the beginning and off at the end. In other words, the bulb burns for three hours straight with no interference.

In the real world, things are very different. Many householders, particularly in these energy-conscious times, switch on and off lights frequently as they enter and leave rooms. Many modern CFLs are not built to withstand short switching cycles (although Ecobulb [Ecospiral in the USA] claims theirs are). One recent study shows the lifespan of a CFL can be shortened
by a massive 85% under normal domestic household use conditions. In other words, if the lab lifespan was 2,000 hours, you might get only 300 hours (four months) out of that CFL if you were unlucky.
A 6,000 hour bulb (five years) would give you only 12 months or so of light before dying unceremoniously.

The Australian Government, which is jointly introducing CFLs with NZ, acknowledges the problem.

"Frequent switching on and off will shorten the life of most CFLs. However, as an adjunct to the incandescent phase-out initiative, the Australian Government will introduce MEPS for CFLs that will include a basic standard for switching. This standard requires over 1000 switching cycles per 6000 hours of lamp life."

Before you get excited, however, that's a standard that only allows one switching cycle (on/off) during a six hour stretch.

Another key to the short life spans of many CFLs is that, despite what they promise on the box, they are not ideal for all light fittings, including some overhead lights.

Unlike a normal bulb, which screws into the ceiling and hangs down, CFL lights actually work best (and are lab tested this way) pointing up, not down. That's because the "ballast", the unit at the base of the light, contains complex electronic components that normal light bulbs don't have. When CFLs hang down, particularly the 100 watt equivalents or greater, the heat generated in the bulb travels back up to the base and slowly fries the electronics, bringing on early failure and/or physical burnout.

Another problem is that they get dimmer with time:

CFL technology, … shows the fluorescents start to lose power. Under the new standards being proposed for New Zealand lights next year, CFL bulbs will be required to still burn at 80% of their original brilliance once they reach 40% of their claimed lifespan. Overseas tests have revealed however that the CFLs can quite quickly slide after that, dropping to just 66% of their original brightness once they're past the halfway mark.

Then there's the cost associated with a short lifespan.

Figures from a Dutch study in 2001 suggest a CFL light bulb requires 1.7kW of energy to manufacture, compared with only 0.3kW to make an ordinary incandescent bulb. So a CFL is already nearly six times more expensive in turns of energy consumption to make. Nor did the study take account of the energy and carbon footprint generated by mining to obtain the
rare earth phosphors necessary for fluorescent tubes. And what about the cost of recycling the CFL lights?

Like New Zealand and Australia, the Labour Government in Britain is also pushing to ban ordinary light bulbs in favour of CFLs. Recognising the toxic waste problem, Britain is examining recycling schemes. The cost, however, is prohibitive. One environmental agency report suggests it could cost US$1,300 to recycle one wheelie-bin full of CFL light bulbs.


The problem centres around what is known as "harmonic distortion". Because of the way fluorescent lights operate – igniting a gas (rather than heating up a wire as electricity passes through as conventional bulbs do) – the new lamps place an uneven load on the electricity grid, setting up harmonic distortions in the power lines and power stations.

the widespread introduction of CFL lights could collapse the grid, causing power cuts and equipment failures.

The cheapest CFLs on the NZ market have what is called a "nominal power factor" (NPF) rating. They certainly deliver energy savings to consumers, and they can even outperform more expensive bulbs in other areas. But they're a power company's nightmare.

"The high harmonic currents inherent in nominal power factor bulbs pose a major primary risk to power distribution companies and system users in terms of a negative effect on power quality," PB Associates have advised the Electricity Commission.

"A New Zealand study," they continue, "aimed to estimate how many CFLs per household would cause the THD limit of 5% to be reached. The study results indicated that the THD…reached 5% at a load of…14 lamps per household."

In other words, making CFLs the mainstay in every house could certainly push the national grid to its limits.

So once again we have a “cane toad” solution to a problem that may no longer even exist.

Government’s are again ignoring the safety of their constituents to silence or placate a vocal “green” sector, who has used good propaganda to get these policies introduced. In turn potentially creating a major ticking environmental and health time bomb in the community. Not to mention the strain on already poorly maintained and aging electrical infrastructure.

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