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Can America change a light bulb?

May 5, 2008

Congress and the green beans running the Department of Light Bulbs in this country should take another look at the mandated transition from incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescent lights (CFLs).

My problem with CFLs is not the mercury. We tried one, and it nearly burned down our house.

But I wish not to make light of mercury, if that’s what it takes to belay the transition to CFLs. Mercury is touted as a major hazard everywhere but light bulbs. It’s gone from our thermometers, and, years ago, dentists began snookering patients into replacing their mercury fillings.

Despite the hazards our mercurial safety industries have preached over time, incandescent light bulbs will be obsolete and CFLs in American homes by 2012, even though the EPA recommends CFLs not be used over carpet. It could be difficult, the Agency maintains, to remove mercury from carpeting if the squiggly bulb happens to break. The Agency recommends that you not touch the bulb while screwing it in. Use the base, that’s what it’s for. . . .

Notwithstanding the green aura surrounding CFLs, I heard a scientist on an NPR program railing against the liabilities of the “Twister bulbs.” He claimed people were driving 80 miles in California to dispose of their CFLs in proper haz-mat disposal stations. Think of the fossil fuel being wasted just throwing the things away. He said some local governments are instructing citizens merely to deposit them in their garbage. Seattle’s Municipal Code specifically forbids this

This article has additional information and helpful tips.  For instance, laying out a dropcloth to catch broken fragments from a bulb you touched while screwing it in, could reduce your chances of spending $2,000 on haz-mat clean-up.

We bought a CFL last summer as an experiment. We needed to find out whether we should have emigration plans in effect by 2012. We installed the CFL in a recessed fixture over the kitchen sink.  A few minutes later, I noticed a smell, like burning insulation.

The new CFL had heated the fixture and the ceiling. I turned off the light and hailed my husband. He found the base of the bulb very hot. After waiting for the bulb to cool down, he attempted to unscrew the bulb. This was not possible, because the socket had warped. The bulb had detached from its base, and my husband removed it from the socket with pliers. He found melted resin between the bulb and the base. No incandescent bulb had ever done this before, in this or any socket in our house.

After removing the bulb with pliers, my husband found that the ballast coils were melted. The ballast in a light bulb brings the voltage up to a high enough level to initiate fluorescence, or electron flow that produces light. Ballast coils should not melt. If they do, it can cause a fire, like any other source of overheating or arcing.

The ceiling area surrounding the socket was too hot to touch. We came close to having an electrical fire resulting from the CFL’s self-destruction. At this point, mercury toxicity seemed a low priority.

There was no warning anywhere on the CFL packaging that using a CFL in a recessed fixture could pose such a hazard. Must a consumer research how and where he may safely screw in a light bulb before screwing in a light bulb?

Yes. There is some useful information at this site, but they don’t tell you everything. Here is the extract that suggests that perhaps we should not have attempted to screw a Twister bulb into a recessed fixture:

“If you put CF bulbs in fixtures that keep heat trapped inside or where there is little air circulation, the excessive heat build-up will cause your CF ballast (and therefore the bulb) to fail. CF ballasts are extremely sensitive to heat and therefore need good air circulation for maximum performance.”

I submit that a failed bulb, and sub-par performance, do not sufficiently warn the consumer of the possibility that his house will burn down. Most of us have been screwing light bulbs in with impunity for years, and with nary a thought of a melted ballast starting a fire.

Moreover, we’ve been told we must use CFLs beginning in 2012, but we have not been advised that we may need to overhaul the light fixtures in our homes. Now, let’s not always see the same hands, but how many readers out there know that CFLs are incompatible with photocells?

We were shopping for light fixtures at a lighting store recently. I asked the proprietor, JV, whether he had ever heard of a CFL overheating and causing a fire. JV receives lighting industry info sheets regularly, and said he sees something about a CFL-caused fire “all the time.” He said he would not use a CFL indoors. “Until 2012, right?” I queried. He grinned cynically through gritted teeth.

A forensic fire expert in Seattle that my husband, an attorney, has retained for insurance defense litigation, told my husband that he knows of cases of fires caused by CFLs.

The way they are presently manufactured, CFLs can present a fire hazard. It is very possible that improved manufacture of CFLs could reduce the hazard, and this is something our all-protective government should oversee if the transition is to be imposed.

All CFLs are manufactured by Lights of America. The bulbs are made in U.S.A. of foreign out-sourced components. (See Q&A #13)

I am not advocating an underground Society for the Preservation of Incandescence. I am suggesting dutiful urging of Congressional representatives to forestall implementation of regulations requiring residential consumers to use CFLs. Right now, CFLs would appear to be less safe, less efficient, and in some cases less economical, than incandescent light bulbs.

Tell your rep that you heart your planet as much as he does, and try to get him to see the light.

  1. May 5, 2008 10:24 am

    I imagine the industry will take you to task for being such an alarmist. After all, it’s not like everyone’s house is burning down. And what’s a little individual sacrifice, anyway, when compared to the importance of global catastrophe?

    BTW, this link has some nice photos of melted CFLs.

  2. May 5, 2008 11:34 am

    Oooh, pretty.

    And where are the insurance and mortgage industries on federally mandated pyrogenic light bulbs? Why is it that anything to do with global warming causes institutional brain freeze?

  3. Jane permalink
    May 6, 2008 7:53 am

    Thanks so much for this article!!! I’m removing all the twisties at once. I hate them anyway; the light is insufficient for any meaningful activity. A typical environmental snafu if I ever heard of one. So glad you didn’t have a fire.

  4. Renee permalink
    May 6, 2008 11:33 am

    I have an added objection to this imposed CFL nonsense: fluorescent lighting makes me physically ill. Instant headache, nausea, and dizziness. I’ve heard many other people say the same thing. I’d like to mandate a little taste of this predicament to the appropriate powers that be to inspire a change of tune.
    “By law, you, and you, and you…must be crippled with otherwise avoidable sickness.”
    Ah, the land of the free.

  5. May 6, 2008 11:46 am

    You raise an excellent point, Renee. Fluorescent light fries my already dry eyes, as well…will our protective state compel us to install pathogens in our own homes? Stay tuned, dear.

  6. October 28, 2008 10:32 am

    I started replacing the bulbs in my house with CFLs. After a while, it really didn’t seem like they lasted much longer than the incandescent bulbs. Since they cost more, I’d rather just use incandescent bulbs until the technology improves and the price comes down.

    It is important to note, though, that those who have a valid reason to argue a certain case should take caution not to make false claims. Doing so only hurts your cause, it doesn’t help it.

    In the case of the plastic of the base of a CFL melting or having a burn spot… this is supposed to happen. CFLs radiate more heat (outward) than an incandescent bulb (which keeps most of the heat inside the bulb.) As long as the plastic base of the CFL says “UL”, then you’re ok… and a little bit of scorch or melting plastic is perfectly normal.

    Aside from the heat which is generated and the fact that the plastic is fire-proof (but not melt-proof,) there is a kill switch built into the base of the bulb. When it reaches the end of its life, it essentially self destructs, which may cause some scorching or melting. Again, if it is UL certified, it is tested safe.

    CFLs will not last very long if in enclosed areas. So, the better places for CFLs are in outdoor fixtures and in lamps with lampshades.

    In any case, my concern isn’t about the heat… nor the mercury… but the cost and the lack of a supposed super-long life. Seems like a scam so far.

    I appreciate some of the points you make, Stareclips, but nothing would persuade me that the smell of burning plastic and the feel of my ceiling heating up is “perfectly normal.”–Lauren

  7. August 31, 2009 8:50 am

    Perhaps if stareclips had actually experienced the failure mode of smoke filling up her bedroom, he/she would have a different opinion.

    Speaking from experience, acceptable failure modes do not scorch your ceiling tiles, cause you to replace your light fixture, or cause your family to gather on the porch for several hours while the house airs out.

    I will not use CFLs in my home. I don’t care what the government says.

  8. JengLiang permalink
    December 26, 2009 10:47 pm

    I have a CFL burned tonight in our bathroom. Luckily we were around, smelled the smoke and turned off the light in time…

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