Domes leak; CFL’s suck

The observation about domes was Stewart Brand’s (“The Whole Earth Catalogue”) summation of the failed “back-to-nature” movement by the late 60’s hippies. The conclusion about compact fluorescent bulbs is reported today by The New York Times.

SAN FRANCISCO — It sounds like such a simple thing to do: buy some new light bulbs, screw them in, save the planet.

But a lot of people these days are finding the new compact fluorescent bulbs anything but simple. Consumers who are trying them say they sometimes fail to work, or wear out early. At best, people discover that using the bulbs requires learning a long list of dos and don’ts.

Take the case of Karen Zuercher and her husband, in San Francisco. Inspired by watching the movie “An Inconvenient Truth,” they decided to swap out nearly every incandescent bulb in their home for energy-saving compact fluorescents. Instead of having a satisfying green moment, however, they wound up coping with a mess.

“Here’s my sad collection of bulbs that didn’t work,” Ms. Zuercher said the other day as she pulled a cardboard box containing defunct bulbs from her laundry shelf.

One of the 16 Feit Electric bulbs the Zuerchers bought at Costco did not work at all, they said, and three others died within hours. The bulbs were supposed to burn for 10,000 hours, meaning they should have lasted for years in normal use. “It’s irritating,” Ms. Zuercher said.

Irritation seems to be rising as more consumers try compact fluorescent bulbs, which now occupy 11 percent of the nation’s eligible sockets, with 330 million bulbs sold every year. Consumers are posting vociferous complaints on the Internet after trying the bulbs and finding them lacking.

Experts say the quality problems are compounded by poor package instructions. Using the bulbs incorrectly, like screwing low-end bulbs into fixtures where heat is prone to build up, can greatly shorten their lives. [like your recessed lighting and overheads – ed]

Some experts who study the issue blame the government for the quality problems, saying an intensive federal push to lower the price essentially backfired by encouraging manufacturers to use cheap components.

“In the pursuit of the holy grail, we stepped on the consumer,” said Michael Siminovitch, director of a lighting center at the University of California, Davis.

Compact fluorescents once cost as much as $30 apiece. Now they go for as little as $1 — still more than regular bulbs, but each compact fluorescent is supposed to last 10 times longer, save as much as $5.40 a bulb each year in electricity, and reduce emissions of carbon dioxide from burning coal in power plants.

Consumers are supposed to be able to protect themselves by buying bulbs certified under the government’s Energy Star program. But experts and some environmental groups complain that Energy Star standards are weak, permitting low-quality bulbs with too high a level of mercury, a toxic metal contained in all compact fluorescents.

“The standard essentially establishes a floor, which sorts out the junk, with the expectation that the rest is good,” Mr. Siminovitch said. “It’s not.”

The government, which will begin enforcing tighter specifications this year, [Congress has banned incandescent light bulbs, beginning in 2010 – ed] says it must seek a balance between quality and affordability to achieve its goal of getting millions of additional consumers to install the bulbs.

“Something that is perfect but not affordable wouldn’t serve the broad interests,” said Peter Banwell, the Energy Department’s manager of product marketing for Energy Star.

Here’s a hint for the idiot politicians who have banned them: there is already a product that is perfect and affordable and has worked successfully for over 100 years – it’s the incandescent bulbs. Voters may not revolt over paying high taxes, although I hope they will. When they have to deal with these Congressionally mandated bulbs, find that they’re junk and then discover that they can no longer buy incandescents, we may finally see the anger at Washington I’ve been dreaming of for years.

UPDATE: Don’t forget “Celebrate Civilization Hour” tonight at 8:30 PM! Turn on all your incandescent bulbs!



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6 responses to “Domes leak; CFL’s suck

  1. Flyover Girl

    Ever try putting a CFL bulb on a dimmer switch? Well, I have. I put one in a hard-to-reach stairwell fixture. If it’s at anything other than full power, the light flickers in the most annoying manner.

    It doesn’t strike me as being very energy savings friendly if you can’t even turn it down.

  2. Wally

    A related topic (re: government-mandated environmental stupidity) –

    I received a letter from my HVAC company last week. It seems the three-year old heating, air conditioning and hot water system they installed at my home (at a cost of approximately $25,000) will very soon be outdated due to an act of Congress – the refrigerant used releases unacceptable levels of hydrocarbons into the atmosphere, which of course contributes to “global warming”. Apparently the cost of the refrigerant (freon) has increased 500% in the past year and will be banned altogether after 1/1/2010.

    The HVAC company tells me that if I would like to “update” the system with one that will comply with the new rules (an that can be legally serviced with refrigerant after 1/1/2010), the government’s stimulus plan will partially subsidize a conversion.

    I don’t if a lot of people know about this yet (at least I didn’t). Next year homeowners won’t be able to get their furnaces fixed – another time-bomb waiting to happen.

    • christopherfountain

      Are you sure it’s freon in your system, Wally? The stuff was banned in 1996 and that impending ban was known about at least since 1993.:
      If someone sold you a freon-based system three years ago, I’d consult a lawyer and force the HVAC company to supply a replacement for free.
      On the other hand, it’s entirely possible, knowing our Congress, that whatever they mandated replace freon has now also been declared an environmental hazard and they’ve banned that, too. I’m going to go look it up, but you should go look up whether you really have freon in your system.

  3. Wally

    Thanks Chris. I’m not sure, except for the letter I received. This is a fairly large HVAC contractor that does business here in town. I will follow up on this on Monday.

  4. Stranger

    Thanks for the reminder to stock up on incandescent bulbs!

  5. INFJ

    Chris, I have had the same non-performance/price/toxic issues with these bulbs. More importantly I installed one in a drop light and I of course dropped it. What happened then was frightening. Flames about 2-3 inches long, shot out of 2 rods for about 30 seconds. When they subsided they turned into glowing rods and I waited about 2 minutes and finally unplugged it. I don’t know how long that would have gone on. Curious, I took apart the bulb and in the base there are an array of electronics, resistors, chips, etc. Question: How much pollution does it create making this bulb and who is going to dispose of this bulb…safely? It would seem as though the EPA and the Electrical Safety Underwriters should be investigating this before it’s too late to turn this around.