Blinded By The Light, Pt 1

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to save energy. You have a menu of reasons to pick from to suit your belief system. It can be energy independence, either on a large scale as independence from foreign oil, or on a smaller scale, sometimes referred to as “off the grid”. It can be a way to save money on your utility bills. It might be a way to avoid energy delivery companies from having to build new facilities. If you think you are adding to global warming, energy conservation might slow that down. The question becomes what is a realistic way of doing it in a meaningful way.

With that in mind, let’s talk about compact fluorescent light bulbs, or CFL’s. They’ve become much more popular recently, but like a lot of you, I’ve been using them on and off for years. The lure of the packaging promising longer life and less energy are enticing. Wal-mart has an aggressive sales campaign on CFL’s and other large retailers like Home Depot, Lowes, and Costco are offering them in 10-packs or more at pretty attractive prices. How could they, and many environmentalists be wrong? Right? Wrong.

Anyone who’s used them enough knows their shortcomings. The light they put off isn’t anywhere on par with incandescent or halogen. The vast majority, in other words the cheap ones, are not dimmable. They’re not “instant-on”, and they take a while to reach full brightness. GE’s own website states that the bulb must be left on at least 3 minutes to reach the point of most efficient operation and they don’t recommend you leave it on for less than 15 minutes. They also don’t recommend you use them in items that vibrate, like ceiling fans or garage door openers. They’re alluding to the grim possibility of breakage. Grim? Read on.

Straight from GE’s website: What should I do if I break a CFL bulb?Fluorescent lamps contain mercury. Mercury at atmospheric pressure is a silver colored liquid that tends to form balls. Mercury is a hazardous substance. When one lamp is broken, the best thing to do is to wear chemical resistant glove to clean it up. The gloves can be vinyl, rubber, PVC, or neoprene. The gloves you buy in the supermarket for household cleaning are sufficient. The gloves protect your skin from absorbing mercury and from getting cut by the glass. The remains of one lamp can be disposed as normal waste since the amount of mercury is small. However, for future reference, when large quantities of lamps are being disposed you must follow your state and the federal regulation for disposing of mercury-containing lamps.”

Now, back to the meaningful and realistic part I was talking about earlier. Great, you saved some money at the store and on your electric bill and shaved off a few kilowatts. Any environmental advantage has been wiped out by a couple of broken CFL’s (probably in a landfill by now), and who knows on what magnitude. Net environmental loss, and it’s possibly happening in households all over the world, especially in countries that are or are near mandating their citizens use these CFL’s. The best of intentions blinded by ignorance.

So there’s the dilemma. You want to do the right thing, but don’t want to shoot yourself in the foot in the process. In Part 2, some solutions.