Not All CFLs Are Created Equal

I’m assuming you know the basics – CFL light bulbs use significantly less electricity than traditional incandescent light bulbs.  They’re somewhat more expensive, but they save you money on electricity and they are supposed to last longer.  You should recycle them when you are done with them and if they break you should clean it up carefully – if you’re not sure what to do, the EPA has directions.

However, not all CFLs are created equally.  When I walked into my mother’s house this weekend I realized that the light in some rooms was awful.  I asked her why she had bought the wrong light bulbs and she said,

“Because you told me to buy these horrible light bulbs! We HATE them! The color is miserable and they keep burning out.”

I immediately realized that my mother didn’t realize that CFLs come in a variety of color choices and that some of the less expensive brands really are cheap.

Mismatched, burnt out and too long CFLs

Mismatched, burnt out and too long CFLs
“Because you told me to buy these horrible light bulbs!”

Bathroom fixture with the right CFLs

Replaced with soft white mini CFL bulbs 60W equivalent.
Notice how they do not extend beyond the base of the shades.

So what do you need to know to replace your incandescent bulbs with CFLs?   We recommend that you start by purchasing and replacing one or two bulbs and see how they work in your light fixtures and in your home before purchasing a large quantity.  Before you go to the store, we recommend you take a look at what you currently have.

Curly Q CFL, reflector CFL & incadescent reflector

Curly Q CFL, reflector CFL and incandescent reflector

First, note the wattage of the incandescent bulbs you are replacing.  You probably want to replace them with bulbs that are the same brightness.  CFLs will list the “equivalent wattage”.  The whole point is that CFLs use less wattage than incandescent, but since wattage is how people are used to selecting light bulbs, you want the equivalent wattage.

Second, note both the shape of the bulb you are replacing and the style of the fixture.  If it is a recessed light or a light where you see the lightbulbs, you will want to get a bulb of a similar size and shape.  Note that not all recessed light fixtures are created equal either – you may want to measure the cavity so you know how big a bulb will fit.  You should also consider taking a sample bulb with you to the store.

box of 4 Philips 13w soft white CFLs

Note the 60W equivalent and the “Soft White”

Third, you need to know what color bulb you want.   You probably want “warm white” or “soft white”.  Some people think  that the color of light you want is “daylight” or “natural light” but you probably don’t actually want either of those.  (Have you ever walked into a room where the light is bright and bluish and it shows every flaw on face or wall? That’s probably a “daylight” bulb.  It also tends to feel very “institutional”.)

Many CFL light bulbs will additionally list the color temperature as a number as well.  These numbers can range 2700K to 5000K.  The range that gives the color most like incandescent lights is 2700K to 3000K.  These are usually listed as “warm white” or “soft white”.

The fourth thing you need to pay attention to is whether the lights you are replacing are on a dimmer switch.  This is a knob or slider that makes your light brighter or dimmer.   Most CFLs are not designed to work on dimmers – they may flicker, make noise or cause other problems.  For these switches you need to get CFLs that are specifically labeled as “dimmable”.   They will probably be more expensive.

You may find that some dimmers are not compatible with CFLs at all.   For example, we found this to be true with my mother’s fancy, expensive dimmer switches.  On these switches the CFLs never turned completely off and flicker when on.   This is one of the more common situations where CFLs burn out very quickly.  Unfortunately, the only solution here is to replace the dimmer switch.   This can be more complicated than it sounds,  Jonathan is an electrical engineer and found this weekend that replacing the dimmer switches at my mother’s house had complications that were too time consuming to solve this weekend.

When you get to the store, you should pay attention to brand as well as to price.  We have found that some brands are more consistently higher quality than others.  Like many things, CFL light bulbs are predominantly made in China and that does not determine the quality of the bulb.  There are a large number of brands out there and we haven’t tried them all.  When we are buying a bulb and we want a high degree of confidence that it will be a quality bulb, such as when we are buying it for someone else’s house,  we will typically buy a bulb made by GE or Phillips.   Brands that we have had consistently bad experiences with are n:Vision, Feit and TCP.

We have also found that companies are constantly improving their CFL light bulbs, so if you couldn’t find bulbs that you liked a few years ago, it is worth trying again.

CFL bulb with installation date written on base

Write the date on the bulb so you know how long it lasts

When installing your new light bulbs we recommend using a permanent marker to write the date on the base of the bulb.  If you find that bulbs in a particular fixture are burning out quickly – for example in a year or less – then there may be some other problem that is causing the bulbs to fail.

While we are not getting into all the detailed varieties of bulbs here, note that they make CFLs particularly designed for outdoors and that we have seen CFL bulbs in steamy bathrooms fail more often than elsewhere in the home.

We recommend that you save your incandescent bulbs for a few weeks to be sure you are happy with the CFLs and that everything works properly before tossing them in the trash.   Renters sometimes like to hold on to the incandescent bulbs with the plan of returning them to the fixtures before moving out – but consider leaving the CFLs for the next tenant.

If you have CFLs that fail they should be recycled properly.  Many hardware stores, including Home Depot will take CFLs and fluorescent lights for recycling.  In Massachusetts I have found that many City and Town Halls provide recycling drop off locations.  One resource for finding a place to recycle CFLs is

You may have also started to hear about LED bulbs, particular in reference to flashlights and holiday lights.  These use different technology than CFLs and are currently significantly more expensive for standard household lights.   If you have the opportunity to try some, we recommend it, but a full discussion needs its own post.

Light bulbs are a rich topic for discussion, debate and education and we have tried to provide in this post basic information for getting started.  We hope to discuss many of the other topics and advances in light bulbs in future articles.  Please post questions about light bulbs and CFLs in the comments.

Happy Greening!

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