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CFL: A Mercury Time Bomb?

Many people are touting CFL's (Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs) as being a small but good way to start "going green". What they usually DON'T tell you is that CFL's usually have significant amounts (5 mg on average) of MERCURY in them. In case you've been living under a rock, Mercury (Hg) is toxic to the human body. So, how is this helping us "go green"? CFL's use less electricity than standard bulbs, and that's good. The average lightbulb buyer won't keep the ubiquitous non-recyclable blister-pac PLASTIC packaging after they install the bulb, and therefore they'll miss the TINY print on it that says "Do not throw this product in the trash, take it to a Hazardous Waste Recycling Facility for disposal". I REPEAT, THE HAZARDOUS WASTE RECYCLING CENTER. Plastic = petroleum by the way, which of course greatly diminishes the "greeness" of the bulb. When the consumer tosses the bulb in the trash instead of recycling it, the mercury often ends up in the groundwater or in the ocean, which in turn ends up in our bodies. SO, Every time you buy a CFL, you are bringing Mercury (Hg), a hazardous and potential lethal chemical into your home or business. You wouldn't bring a rabid snarling dog into your home would you? You wouldn't bring a pestilent dead rat into your home and rub it like a dishrag over the kitchen counters, would you? Though that might be fun, most of us are smart enough not to do it. Can you tell I'm not a fan of CFL's? I have one minor exception in my rant against the CFL manufacturers: The folks at EarthMate Lighting. They package in post consumer cardboard and their mini-CFL's(and only the mini-CFL's) have 75% less mercury than standard CFL's. Why couldn't ALL their bulbs be low Mercury? I'm guessing it has something to do with the dimming ability in some of the bulbs, and for the full spectrum bulbs, something to do with the extra phosphors needed to produce full spectrum light. Hey, they're far from perfect, but they're better than a lot of their competitors. EarthMate's biggest downside? They appear to only be distributing to the east coast of the U.S. DOH! Oh well...

"Ok smart guy, what's the alternative?" I'm glad you asked. There's NOT a lot of good alternatives. Currently, using lower wattage incandescents is an option, though they don't last as long as CFL's are "claimed" to last. Subjectively speaking, my CFL's seem to burn out (and I've been writing the date I install them on the bulb) at about the same frequency that the incandescents did. This could be because of faulty wiring or old fixtures, but I digress. CFL's cost more initially and they cost more to clean up (Mercury is expensive to deal with). They use less a lot less energy during their life, which should give them a slight overall environmental edge. Durability of CFL's may have a lot to do with how often they are cycled on & off. The inital "lighting" of a bulb (just like a car) is the part of the cycle that's the hardest on it. If you turn your lights on & off a lot (like I do: to save ENERGY!), then you cycle the light a lot. My impression is that if you turn a light on and leave it on for the duration of the time you would have used it, it will last longer. I have no evidence to back this up, though the data is surely out there. The ballast required for the CFL's is likely what wears out first, and since most (if not all) of the CFL bulbs being sold in the U.S today are made in China (who has notoriously poor environmental controls), there's no guarantee of bulb quality or diligence to environmentally cautious manufacturing.

One of the few good alternatives to incandescents are LED Bulbs. Many people still assume that LED's are at best used in weak penlight flashlights or more commonly for indicator lights on stereos, computers, and power supplies. In the past 10 years, household LED's have increased exponentially in output while experiencing only modest increases in electricity required to power them. I recently bought a couple of PAR 30 LED bulbs from The Green Fusion center in San Anselmo, CA. Green Fusion gets them from C.Crane company. About 4-5 years ago, I got an early version of C.Crane's LED bulb. It's not NEARLY as bright as the new ones, but it's still going strong, and I expect it will be when my son turns 25 (he's nearly 4 now). LED's contain no mercury and they are solid state, so they only break if you hit them hard and direct with a big hammer or other similar object. Drop one and you'll find it unscathed as long as it's potted in place correctly. The bulbs I've bought from C.Crane are high quality and it's one of the few companies I have a lot of confidence in. If it's not right, they make it right.

With the advent of Luxeon Star emitters and just recently, the new CREE bulbs, LED Bulbs have gotten SIGNIFICANTLY brighter than they used to be. I recently purchased a flashlight for my bicycle that features the new CREE Q5 XR-E bulb, and I'm damn impressed with the power of this bulb. I got my Fenix L2D Premium Q5 Cree XR-E LED Flashlight from the guys at EliteLED. I'm using it as a helmet mounted light and much of the time I run it in it's low mode. In darker areas, I'll run it in medium or for high speed descents in the dark, I'll use the Turbo mode. It's a little like wearing a search light on your head, though it weighs a fraction of the weight. EliteLED offers the CREE LED's in household bulbs as well. I haven't tried any yet b/c of budgetary restrictions, but I look forward to trying some of THESE for lighting my entire living room. With a 20,000 hour life, I'm guessing... that's about 8 hours a day, 365 days a year for 6.85 years, or 5 hours a day, 365 days a year for 10.96 years or 5 hours a day, 200 days a year for 20 years. It's a lot of light (300 lumens) for only using 7W! By the way, most LED manufacturers are rating their bulbs to their HALF-LIFE (when driven to spec), which means the bulbs dim to half their original brightness. LED's can last functionally forever, though their brightness does diminish at some point to negligible levels.

I figure if I replaced the 13 PAR 38 bulbs in the ceiling canisters (10 of which are on dimmer circuits and all are 60 watt bulbs) with THESE ones from C.Crane, I'd spend $662.48 up front. If I had every single LED PAR 38 running full tilt, I'd be using just slightly more (48.75W) than just ONE of the ones I'm using now (at full blast)(45W). So.. the energy savings would be $326.44 / bulb over the course of 60,000 hours (listed life of the bulb). For 13 bulbs (the number of PAR 38's in my house), that adds up to a savings of $4243.72. Wow. It also amounts to 32,175 kWh of energy saved. WHOA. According to the math done by C.Crane,

"If every U.S. household replaced just one standard 60 watt bulb with a CC Vivid LED bulb, we could save 24,184,400,000 watts or 24,184.4 mega (million) watts per day.

National savings information based on 103,000,000 households with an average use of 4 hrs per day per house. Based on gross watts.

One of the largest power plants in the U.S. could be eliminated as a result of each U.S. household replacing just one standard 60 watt bulb with a CC Vivid LED Light bulb."

C.Crane is just one company selling LED Bulbs: here are 4 more (with varying prices for similar products):
The LED Light

I guess I know where that cash rebate the government is talking about giving every american is going...

Finally, the way to properly recycle your CFL's when they break is to take them to a proper recycler. You can FIND ONE HERE.

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