Thursday, February 22, 2007

Incandescent vs fluorescent light bulbs

See also: Klaus: hoard Edison's light bulbs before EU bans them on Sep 1st, 2009
This topic was recently discussed by James Annan and Clifford Johnson, among others.

Two years ago, Fidel Castro switched his communist island from classical incandescent light bulbs to more efficient fluorescent light bulbs. The reason is simply that electrical blackouts are common on this island plagued by the criminals and the leader has the power to dictate similar things to the whole nation. Needless to say, Hugo Chavez, the most active communist rock star of the present world and a Stalin who returned from a fattening station, is planning something similar in Venezuela.

But would you expect that the government of a decent and wealthy country such as Australia would promote a similar policy as the losers above? It's kind of surprising but it's true. ;-)

Figure 1: Spectrum of "cool white" fluorescent light bulbs. It doesn't look like a natural black body curve, does it? Well, blacklight lamps are worse.

As a generic consumer, I find the classical light bulbs based on the black body radiation somewhat superior. They resemble the actual spectrum of the Sun more closely - the full interval of visible frequencies is represented. They don't blink 60 times a second. (These two problems are solved by the newest fluorescent models.) You don't have to be afraid that they're constantly emitting a lot of UV rays with unpredictable health consequences. In general, their environmental impact is more predictable.

Figure 2: Count the number of light bulbs in the clip "eSeMeS" by Lucie Bílá, a Czech singer.

Fluorescent light bulbs are more efficient energetically but they don't share the advantages of the incandescent light bulbs explained in the previous paragraph. The photographs taken under these light bulbs don't look great. Moreover, they use mercury. Most people discard them in uncontrollable ways and mercury is a poison that pollutes unpredictable places of the environment. The mercury from one fluorescent light bulb pollutes, according to some activist groups, 6000 gallons of water beyond levels safe for drinking. In 43 U.S. states, it is legal to dispose fluorescent bulbs as universal waste.
Update February 2008: The New York Times about the real and growing dangers of mercury in the fluorescent light bulbs - a call for a better system of recycling
There are positive features and negative features of both of them. The incandescent light bulbs have not disappeared and there are very good reasons why they have not disappeared. All the aspects - energy consumption, friendliness of the color spectrum, difficulties with recycling etc. - have been considered by the market and the result is that both technologies have survived. The energy consumption is already accounted for - because people do pay for energy. The energy consumption is simply not a big problem which is why people use both types of light bulbs. In fact, the heat produced by the conventional light bulbs is not lost: especially during winter, it's often useful to add some extra source of heat to your living room.

It's unjustifiable if someone wants to double-count and pretend, for purely ideological reasons, that the energy consumption is more important than it is - while he bravely neglects other issues such as the difficulties with recycling.

As these blinded people promote hysteria against a perfectly innocent gas called carbon dioxide, people suddenly start to forget about some threats that are somewhat more real. Once again, one teaspoon of mercury can contaminate a 20 acre lake forever: the U.S. companies still emit roughly 30 tons of mercury a year. Be careful: I can't independently verify these numbers and I was told that this quantification of the toxicity of mercury is a myth.

The government may buy efficient fluorescent light bulbs for various public places in order to save energy and taxpayers' money. But I just find it scary to imagine that a government would get the right to effectively ban an innocent and popular technology from usage by general consumers for no good reason - unless you consider the megalomanic propaganda of global warming to be a reason and a magic tool that can defeat any rational argument.

For me, such brutal plans to cripple the freedom of civilized countries are just way too serious, and I would immediately join anyone who would start to fight against these shameful communist tendencies. ;-)

And that's the memo.


  1. One issue left out of the incandescent vs flourescent issue is its relation to cancer.

    Flourescent light DESTROYS vitamin D. Defficiency in vitamin D has adirect relation to prostate cancer in men and brest cancer in women.

    By destroying vitamin D in our bodies, and this daily, we would need to take mor eof this vitamin to compensate. Has anyone consider the energy and financial cost of that?

    Unless you can get a full spectrum flourescent bulb, you may be harming yourself, and there are various forms of so-called full spectrum flourescent -- some for growing plants, others for art illumination, and so on. But those bulbs are much more expensive, making the energy savings rather moot.

    As for trying to save energy by changing light bulbs, it should be kept in mind that clothes dryers use far more energy; the total combined use of clothes dryers in the USA alone is equivalent to the total amount of nuclear power produced in the entire world; yet all we would need to do is hang our clothes up! So the world is not dying because of lack of energy or governments, but because we, all of us, want our convenience, and are unwilling to do that much for our so called loved environment! Let's stop blaming governments, and get to the point were we are response-able (not to be confused with blame) and then it's on a right footing.

  2. So... are you saying that global warming is a marketing campaign for fluorescent light bulbs?

    Did Philips, GE and other manufacturers go out and manipulate prehistoric rock and ice for scientists to find evidence of previous global warming events? Did they ensure that these rocks and ice cores would show that the maximum ppm of CO2 that has ever been in the atmosphere prior to the rise of man was just less than 400 ppm, and then use this fixed data to base a marketing campaign around when the CO2 concentrations surpassed 400ppm?

    Wow. I never knew that Philips, GE, and other fluorescent light bulb manufacturers were so cunning. Thank you for your elucidation!

  3. I sell light bulbs for a living and completely agree with a lot of what you've said here, particularly with regard to the mercury and heat issues. I live in a place where it is fairly cold a lot of the time and I had thought that my halogen bulbs can't be that inefficient because if they aren't putting off heat, then I'm just using my 1000 watt heater instead. It's not as though they swallow energy and make it disappear, it's pretty much all light or heat, so if you need both then there's not much of a problem. I'm also a little leery of mercury so I would prefer to avoid light bulbs that have a lot of it in them.

  4. I saw this, and was intrigued, as this was an issue that was put forth as a Persuasion on the college Speech/Debate circuit.

    You need to realize Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs have been around since 1973, long before Global Warming became a "hot" topic.

    Furthermore, it is not as difficult as you think to recycle a Compact Fluorescent Lightbulb. Every Ikea store in the country recycles them free of charge. In addition, people can check for options based on their zip code. And before you state that it must be governmental controlled, in fact is a collaboration of media, corporate, and organization partners who work together to give consumers a neutral, non-biased, and nongovernmental user-friendly source. Sanitation companies can also provide recycling options, and there are for-profit companies who sell recycling kits that can cost as low as $1 a bulb.

    Also, Compact Fluorescent Bulbs are not the only ones to contain mercury. All Fluorescent lamps do, not just the ones that look like twisty cones.

    In reference to the fact that incandescent can "heat your home". The amount of heat energy released is negligible in its ability to raise the entire temperature of your house by any noticeable amount. If you believe that to be the case, than that same heat generated in the summer means that the money you save in the winter on heating is spent in the summer on cooling, and cancels each other out. Experts recommend lowering your thermostat to save money on energy, just 2 degrees in fact (a difference so small its almost imperceptible). Also, if you are using CFLs and you are cold, you can always throw on a sweater. Not only is good for the environment because it doesn't require creating energy, its free too!

    CFL bulbs are by no means the best options, LEDs are far better (100% more efficient than the Fluorescent, completely toxin free and nearly indestructible), however, CFL bulbs are in fact better than their incandescent counterparts, duh to their energy savings, as well as their longevity (6 years).

    They aren't great, but they aren't the devil either.

    Oh, and before I forget, you might have an issue with photos taken in fluorescent lighting, but that's what flashes and Photoshop are for, undereye circles and to make up for bad lighting.

  5. It's also worth noting that flourescent lights cost ten times as much as their incandescent counterparts, yet only last four times longer. Assuming frugality of energy use (say, by only turning on lights when necessary) the monetary savings from incandescents can outweigh the energy costs.

    Additionally, many flourescent lights produce more lumens than are necessary (primarily because most older buildings are designed around luminescent lighting) and although they may be producing more light for less energy, consumers may be paying for light that they don't need (not that this is any better than paying for heat that they don't need, but to say that flourescents save money because they produce more light is not entirely accurate in and of itself).

    Furthermore, because incandescents can safely be disposed as normal waste, they do not require special recycling or waste-disposal plants, nor do they need independent transport to such places, thereby greatly reducing the total energy used (and pollution created) in their disposal.

    Any cost/benefit analysis that fails to take disposal costs (including monetary, energy, and environmental costs) into consideration when comparing flourescents to incandescents is making a very grave mistake.

  6. Incandescent versus energy saving bulbs is a no-brainer: the latter last ten times longer, use only a fifth of the energy, and have become much cheaper to the point that they are almost the same price as incandescent bulbs (indeed, most of the bulbs in my house I got for free one way or another).

  7. CFLs contain more mercury than incandescents, but over their lifetime they release significantly less mercury into the atmosphere than incandescents because of the mercury released by coal-fired power plants. From Popular Mechanics:

    "Over the 7500-hour average range of one CFL, then, a plant will emit 13.16 mg of mercury to sustain a 75-watt incandescent bulb but only 3.51 mg of mercury to sustain a 20-watt CFL (the lightning equivalent of a 75-watt traditional bulb). Even if the mercury contained in a CFL was directly released into the atmosphere, an incandescent would still contribute 4.65 more milligrams of mercury into the environment over its lifetime."

  8. This arguement is sure to continue for many a year. There are those that remain loyal to the old incandescent bulb and there are those who believe that CFLs are the future.

    Wether you prefer CFLs or incandescents, you will find all you need at

  9. I cant wait for LED lighting to be a little more affordable. I do not really trust fluorescent. LED is the future. I started using some LED spots above the kitchen counter and for lighting exterior door. Places where lot of lumen is not a must. I love the result.

  10. I have a question;
    Is the relative efficiency of fluorescent bulbs affected by the frequency with which they are turned on and off?
    I was told once that a lot of their total energy cost is used just to start them up each time.