Picture of a Example of a blue-colored Compact Fluorescent Light Bulb in operation.

Compact Fluorescent Lamp Advantages and Disadvantages (CFL)




The energy-saving compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) has taken the home lighting industry by storm over the past two decades.



It’s a smaller version of the ever popular straight and circular fluorescent tube light bulbs.  Here we detail the compact fluorescent lamp advantages and disadvantages.

Picture of a blue-colored compact fluorescent lamp bulb in operation.
Example of a blue-colored compact fluorescent lamp bulb, glowing.

They make compact fluorescent lamps much smaller today.  They’re much brighter per inch of tube length too.  How so?  Electronic ballast technology replaces the bulkier magnetic ballasts drives the bulb more efficiently. Furthermore, advancements in phosphor technology yields more lumens per watt. Electrode materials, and improved mercury gas mixtures helped.  They’ve  all culminated in a highly efficient and affordable CFL bulb.

But while this more efficient electronic ballast approach costs less, it has its drawbacks.  Often, thunderstorms can take out the sensitive electronic ballasts in these CFLs.

The overall performance and affordability of compact fluorescent lamp bulbs has improved so much since year 2000.  As a result, manufacture of traditional household incandescent lamps has essentially stopped here in the US.  They still make specialized versions, but not the standard Edison bulbs.  As of this writing, stores still sell incandescent bulbs.  But that will stop when they exhaust existing stock piles.



Compact Fluorescent Lamp Advantages, Benefits, and Features

Compact Fluorescent Lamp Bulbs Save Energy

This 60 to 80 percent less power consumption makes CFLs a godsend for aging and over-taxed power grids worldwide.  By reducing energy consumption this much, we avoid or delay costly upgrades to municipal power distribution circuits.  These savings can also reduce dependence on foreign oil and overly rapid depletion of energy resources at home.

Compact Fluorescent Lamp Bulbs Offer Increased Reliability

CFL technology has come a long way in the past ten years.  They fail less, last  longer, and emit a more solid, flicker-free light.

CFL Lights Product Less Heat

Since the CFL converts more energy into visible light, it generates less wasteful heat. Therefore, this lowers air-conditioning costs in establishments and homes that replace many incandescent bulbs with CFL units.



CFL Light Bulbs Getting Cheaper

As the CFL technology matures, prices are falling. Indeed, you can now buy packs of two, three, or six CFL units in quantity for significantly less.  Discount CFLs have appeared at larger home improvement centers and stores.

Compact Fluorescent Lamps Boast Longer Lamp Life  

Though many CFLs fail before their time, they should outlast incandescent bulbs. They should light for several to as much as fifteen times longer if properly cared for.

Brighter CFL Bulbs Now Available

The first CFLs output much less light than equivalent wattage incandescent bulbs.  However nowadays, they market CFL bulbs that adequately substitute for the 75 and 100 watt incandescent lamps.

Better Color Choices

Unlike incandescent bulbs, CFLs come in several colors.  These include the 2700k (soft white), 3000 K (warm white), 5000 K (cool white), and 6500 K (daylight).  Manufacturers attempted this with incandescent lamps.  But they never got the colors above 3000 K or so, to work well.  Further, efficiency and life span of incandescent bulbs drop as you move their color output more toward blue.  CFLs on the other hand, are highly efficient regardless of color temperature output.



Compact Fluorescent Lamps Fit Same Fixtures as Incandescent Light Bulbs

You needn’t replace your standard light fixtures and lamps to take advantage of  CFLs.   With their lower heat output, a CFL can generally operate in any place designed for an incandescent bulb. Further, today’s CFLs integrate both the tube itself and the ballast into one unit. So, you needn’t retrofit your fixtures with any supportive electronics when deploying CFL lights.

3-Way Compact Fluorescent Lamp Now Available

The Utilitech #0346991 CFL unit for example,  replaces the 3-way i50 / 100/ 150 watt ncandescent bulbs, for under $19 apiece.

Improving Technology Over All

The electronic ballasts in a CFL bulb have improved in recent years; they generate less EMI, audible noise, and heat.



Compact Fluorescent Lamp Disadvantages, Problems, and Concerns

Overly sensitive electronics in CFL

At the base of most any CFL light is a clump of circuitry. This “electronic ballast” is  responsible for lighting the gas-filled tubes above.  However, this ballast contains sensitive solid-state components.   Common voltage spikes arriving on the power line can quickly damage them.  For example, lightning storms can create these spikes.  In fact, some storms that passed by here took out two of our CFL lamps.  Surge protectors provided power to these units as well. But sometimes, those pesky surges still get through.  Regular incandescent light bulbs burn out less when subjected to nearby lightning strikes.  But CFL lamps are improving noticeably.

Compact Fluorescent Lamp Glass is Still Quite Fragile 

A gentle bump or jolt still shatters the glass tubing.  Fragility and easy breakage thus,  still characterize. CFLs above incandescent lights.  Therefore, handle CFLs with care.

CFLs Can Generate Considerable Radio Frequency Interference

Due to the switching nature of the included electronic ballasts, CFLs may interfere with radio reception. AM radios experience this noise and hash most. So radio buffs should carefully consider the choice to switch to compact fluorescent lamp lights.  Neither incandescent bulbs nor most LED lights generate this level of RFI / EMI.



Compact Fluorescent Lamp Lights Still Cost a Little More

You can still get an incandescent bulb for under two dollars.  But CFL units can cost upwards of three times that much.  Yet often, they do not last upwards of three times as long as incandescent lamps.  We’ve yet to see any CFL last their advertised seven years.  Hopefully, they’ll become cheaper and more reliable in the next couple years.  But in the meantime?  That $15 we spent for them?  Gone!  And, the one was only several months old.

Compact Fluorescent Lamp Bulbs Not Dimmable Generally

Traditional light dimming controls do not work well with many compact fluorescent lamp bulbs. For that, you must buy a CFL that specifically supports dimming.  Practically all incandescent bulbs and most LED bulbs support traditional leading-edge dimmer switches.  Over the past few years though, more “dimmable” CFL: bulbs have appeared.  But they’re  not as cheap as their non dimmable versions.  Not yet.

CFL Sometimes Do Not Light In Cold Weather

Particularly in sub-freezing temperatures, a compact fluorescent lamp might not come on. Why?  Because the mercury vapor gas inside does not as readily conduct electricity when cold.  In contrast, both incandescent and LED bulbs instantly light up to full brightness, even in the deepest cold snaps.

Cold-weather CFL versions are available now, though for a bit more money.  These feature circuitry that adjusts the amount of current flow in the arc tube.  It senses the external temperature.  Then, when it detects cold environments, the electronic ballast applies more voltage initially, to create more light.  As the gas inside warms, it conducts electricity more readily.  At that, the onboard ballast lowers input voltages.  This prevents excessive brightness and shortened bulb life.  So, the CFL safely maintains a more uniform brightness level, over a wider range of surrounding temperatures.



Compact Fluorescent Lamps can Take Minutes to Reach Full Brightness

Again, this is especially true when the CFL bulbs are cold.  Neither LEDs nor incandescents exhibit this behavior, as they light to full brightness immediately.  This however, is fast becoming a non issue.  Why?  Advances in electronic ballast control allow for better regulation of bulb brightness.  The ones we tested recently achieve full brightness in under a minute, in average room temperatures.  Some CFL ballasts temperature-compensate for the initially cold gasses inside. Tis means less dim starting, and more uniform brightness during warmup.

Compact Fluorescent Lamps Need Recycled

Do not just throw away burned-out CFL lights. Why?  Because municipal authorities consider them hazardous waste.  After all, they contain trace amounts of toxic mercury.

Proper disposal of compact fluorescent lamp bulbs means find a safe spot to store them.  Then, locate a recycling center or event to turn them in.  You can still throw away spent incandescent bulbs however.

Compact Fluorescent Lamp Bulbs Less Environmentally Safe

Please recycle your spent CFLs if possible. But since appropriate recycling stations are not everywhere, then save your old bulbs until you find a place.  While in storage, the consumer may accidentally break the CFLs, adding small amounts of mercury vapor to the environment.  Indeed, large-scale CFL use raises the risks of mercury contamination in our air.  No mercury in either incandescents or LEDs.

CFLs Will Become Obsolete Soon

With the LED light bulbs fast approaching the technological horizon, avoid investing heavily in CFLs.  Compact fluorescent lamp lights are indeed more efficient than incandescent lamps.  But LED lamps are more energy-efficient, more rugged, and produce much less heat than CFLs.  Reading the tea leaves now, CFLs will fade in popularity presently. They will enjoy limited long-term widespread use.  Why?  Because CFLs no longer represent the state-of-the-art of high-efficiency lighting.  Thus, if you plan a lighting upgrade to CFLs, you may wish to rethink that.  Instead, go the extra mile, and replace your incandescents with LEDs, instead of CFLs.



CFLs Fail Early When Switched On And Off Too Often

As with traditional fluorescent lamps, cycling on and off quickly, can cause premature CFL failure.  So once you turn them on, it’s best to leave them on for at least two hours.  Of course, this means that you’ll use somewhat more energy to keep your CFL bulbs properly conditioned.  LEDs are not at all sensitive to this, and incandescent lamps are less sensitive to frequent on-off cycling.

Compact Fluorescent Lamp Bulbs Sometimes Flicker

Often, you see these compact fluorescent lights twinkling and “barber polling” in stores and homes.   Even when a CFL has warmed up fully, it still can flicker annoyingly.  This is due to shifting paths of gas ionization inside the tubes as the internal temperature fluctuates.  Improper design of the electrodes inside the glass, worsens this problem.  Flickering has been a long-running drawback of fluorescent light technology, that has virtually never plagued incandescent lights or LEDs.

CFLs Currently Mean Fewer Domestic Manufacturing Jobs

With the bulk of CFLs manufactured in China, the switch to CFLs means fewer jobs in the US.



Conclusion

Thus, considering all of this, our energy-savings strategy has, and will continue to incorporate SOME CFLs around the house here.  But we will not replace ALL incandescent bulbs with CFLs; particularly the outside lights. We’re still waiting for the LED lights to cheapen and increase in light output to match CFLs. At that time,  upgrades of all lights to LEDs will be completed.

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References

Revision History

  • 2018-03-03: Revised title and content.
  • 2017-01-18: Targeted CFL more and adjusted the tags accordingly.
  • 2016-12-20: Minor updates, typo fixes, and addition of a featured image.
  • 2015-09-22: Added more content and tags.
  • 2014-11-01: Added pictures and more content.
  • 2012-05-03: Originally published.