April 25, 2007

my lightbulb moment

So the other day my little guy was helping himself to sippy cup in the kitchen drawer. Suddenly, ooops! he had broken one of the fluorescent tube (under counter) light bulbs I had stashed away for recycling. At first I was just worried about the broken glass bits and then it occurred to me, the reason those bulbs go to the recycling center is because they contain mercury. (Sign me up for mom of the year, I know).

I got everything safely cleaned up, but it got me thinking about mercury in fluorescents. If there is mercury in them, why are the compact fluorescents all the rage for energy savings? As the EPA says, mercury is "A toxic metal known to cause brain, spinal cord, kidney and liver damage in humans—does not break down easily and, once airborne, often finds its way into groundwater, rivers and the sea, where it can cause a host of contamination issues for wildlife and people alike."

I did some reading about it and it seems that the CFLs are still better than incandescents. In the US at least, energy is most commonly produced by burning coal. Burning coal is one of the highest sources of mercury being released into the air. The EPA says that if you look at the total mercury in the bulb and the mercury produced while generating electricity to light the bulb, the CFL is a better choice. CFLs use so much less energy and last much longer than a traditional incandescent bulb, so it will draw much less electricity in the long run from the coal plant.

The EPA has a pdf document outlining the specifics. They also offer some good tips on how to dispose of the CFL bulbs.

Which brings us back to the original dilemma. What happens when you break one? Where are you supposed to dispose of all your new CFLs once they finally stop working? They advise that the bulbs are not legally considered hazardous waste. However, try to recycle them locally if you can. I know my local light bulb supply store accepts them. If you cannot recycle them, "place them in a sealed plastic bag and dispose the same way you would batteries, oil-based paint and motor oil at your local Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) Collection Site. If your local HHW Collection Site cannot accept CFLs (check Earth911.org to find out), seal the CFL in a plastic bag and place with your regular trash."

I would imagine as CFL usage catches on (and I bet it will with the way other countries are already banning incandescents) disposal options should get simpler.

Personally, I had not yet switched to CFLs throughout our home because almost all our wall switches are dimmers. However, in the course of my research today I found that there are now actually dimmable CFLs available!

Nothing is as convincing to make the switch than these facts from the federal Energy Star program:

"If every household in the U.S. replaced one (standard incandescent) light bulb with an Energy Star-qualified compact fluorescent light bulb, it would prevent enough pollution to equal removing one million cars from the road."


"If every American home exchanged the five most frequently used bulbs with Energy Star-qualified bulbs, one trillion pounds of greenhouse gases would be kept out of the air over the course of the bulbs' lives (a lifetime range of five to as many as eight years or so). That's equivalent to the annual emissions of 8 million cars, the annual output of more than 20 power plants, and $6 billion in energy savings."


Tom Gooden said...

Enviromnetal Defense has a great online tool to finding the right kind of bulb: Find an Energy-Saving Light Bulb

The site publishes reviews, feedback and even the color temperature.

Personally, I'm also excited about LED lights. They offer focused light, and are extremely bright. Here's a sample.

Tom Gooden said...

oops, here's the right link for the LED bulb - damn kids are wrecking my brain:

mom go green said...

Thanks for the great links, Tom! I am excited to find an LED that fits our recessed fixture size (PAR 20).

Yesterday I installed some PAR 20 CFLs and they are really different than our PAR 20 Halogens. I knew the coloring/temperature would be a change, but the direction of the light is a big issue. I plan on taking some photos at night to show the difference.

The halogens would light the countertops in the kitchen. The new CFLs light the area between the top of the kitchen cabinets and the ceiling - leaving the counters dark.

I am ordering the PAR 20 LED to see if that is an improvement (I expect it is!)

Also, the dimmable CFLs I was so excited about do not come in PAR 20 yet, so I cannot use them in our many recessed fixtures as I'd hoped.

Someone is going to have to make up a new version of the joke about how hard it is to change a lightbulb!

justin said...

You are absolutely right about needing to change the lighbulb joke. I have spent days researching and hundreds of dollars in experimenting. I am attempting to change the lighting at our hotel http://www.hvq.com and it is a huge task. Trying to find a CFL that is less than 2700K is difficult. 'They' say that 2700K is like an incandescent but 2250K is closer. 2700K is a colder bluer white.
There are dimmable Par20 but I have not tested them yet.
I have a delivery of a new LED MR16 on its way but LED are very expensive. More than I can justify in power bill savings If that does not work I will switch the socket so that they will take PAR20 instead of MR16.
I saw a news report yesterday and they discussed studies that showed how the magnetic field from Fluorescent lights were negatively affecting peoples health.

Good luck.