Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Buyer Beware: Compact Fluorescent Lamps Versus Incandescent Bulbs...Which is Better?

CFL light bulb on the left, incandescent bulb on the right.

I worked with Berea, Chris and Michael on our “buyer beware” project. Everyone came into the project with some good ideas, but we were all most enthusiastic about the idea Chris pitched: CFL bulbs versus incandescent bulbs. We were all skeptical about whether CFL bulbs were really as good as what the government and CFL producers were saying. Can they really save consumers money? Our they really good for the environment? We also wondered how to dispose of the bulbs in a safe manner, considering the mercury content of the bulbs.

We researched our project using a mixture of primary and secondary sources. We did a confidential survey over the internet to gather the opinions of consumers. We decided that an online survey would be easier as it would allow us to ask more questions in a shorter period of time, plus it would be more confidential, as we would never know who exactly completed the survey and what their answers were. We used the free survey website SurveyMonkey to conduct our survey.

We also looked at information obtained through Government of Canada websites, Manitoba Hydro, and Clean Nova Scotia, which is an organization that works with the public and private sector on environmental issues. We looked at three specific issues: the environmental impact of CFLs, the human impact, and the cost savings. By looking at CFL bulbs in three different ways, we were able to determine whether the bulbs are as good as they are claimed to be.

Environmental Impact

The Federal government says that by using CFL bulbs instead of incandescent bulbs, it is estimated that, as a nation, we will be reducing greenhouse gas emissions by over 6 million tonnes a year. Considering that would be the equivalent of taking 1.4 million cars off the road, that’s pretty impressive! We also found that CFL bulbs use about a quarter of the energy that incandescent bulbs use. However, the bulbs also contain mercury, which is dangerous to humans.

The people we asked were split on the issue of environmental impact. Many acknowledged that they were good for the environment, though some raised the issue of mercury being bad for the environment, if not disposed of properly. Others felt that they were not good for the environment at all. The bulbs are heavily advertised as being environmentally friendly, and it seems that the advertising is working as most have heard of the energy-saving claims.

Another issue is that CFL bulbs increase the amount your furnace will have to work during winter time, as the bulbs do not generate the heat that incandescent bulbs do. Manitoba Hydro claims that the money spent on heating will be offset by the money saved over the summer when your air conditioning does not have to work as hard to heat your home.

Human Impact

The biggest concern regarding CFL bulbs and human impact is the mercury levels. As I mentioned earlier, mercury is dangerous to people, and if the bulbs are broken and not cleaned up properly, or not disposed of properly, this could lead to prolonged exposure to mercury. We wanted to research the proper way to dispose of CFL bulbs, as none of us were aware of the procedure at the beginning of the project. It seems most other people weren’t either! We asked a question regarding disposal on our survey, and the vast majority simply disposed of CFL bulbs in the trash. Those who were aware of proper procedures admitted that they could not be bothered to follow proper disposal procedures. Do not throw away CFL bulbs! It is actually prohibited to do so by City of Winnipeg law. Doing so can cause the mercury to leech into the water and soil at land fills or even get into the air. Instead, Winnipeggers have the following disposal options:

Please dispose of your burnt out CFL bulbs properly, it is free after all! The used bulbs will be recycled, according to Home Depot. So you will not only be preventing harmful mercury from being released into the environment, you will be helping to reduce waste.

Another thing we feel should be advertised is how to clean up the bulbs safely if they are broken. Most people we surveyed did not have a bulb break while in use, but many people are unaware of how to clean up a broken bulb. One person stated that they used a broom, which is not a good idea, according to Energy Star .

Instead, open a window, leave the room for at least fifteen minutes, and shut off any air conditioners to keep the mercury from circulating through the air. Use paper or cardboard to scoop up the glass and powder, and place them in a jar or sealed plastic bag. Use tape to pick up and smaller fragments that are remaining. Wipe clean with a wet paper towel or wet wipe, placing the used towels in the jar or plastic bag. Do not use a vacuum or broom. A vacuum is only to be used on a carpet, after all visible pieces are removed. Afterwards, you are to remove the vacuum bag and place it in a sealed bag.

It is also recommended that any bedding or clothing that has come in direct contact with a broken CFL bulb be thrown out, as washing them in a washing machine will contaminate the washing machine. Clothing that has come into contact with just the vapour however, can be washed.

Cost Analysis

According to the Government of Canada, the use of CFL bulbs could save the average Canadian home (containing roughly 30 bulbs) , about $50 on their electricity bills. However, considering the price of CFL bulbs (a 15 watt bulbs, equivalent of a 60 watt incandescent bulb) is $5, meaning replacing incandescent bulbs with CFL bulbs is an investment. CFL bulbs should last much longer than incandescent bulbs, up to five years, so that means consumers should make a return on their investment after three years of normal usage.


Ultimately, we concluded that CFL bulbs had positive and negative aspects. They greatly reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and energy use, which are all good for the environment. Consumers also save money by switching to CFL bulbs, as they last longer, and use up much less energy than incandescent bulbs.

However, we feel that not enough is being done to educate consumers on how to dispose of bulbs properly. While they are good for the environment in the reasons stated above, the mercury in the bulbs is very bad for the environment. The City of Winnipeg is trying to prevent mercury leeching by setting up disposal sites, but more needs to be done to educate consumers on where to take their used bulbs. It would be helpful if the government created an advertising campaign to let the general public know that throwing away the bulbs is bad, and that there are places to dispose of the bulbs for free. Home Depot could even cash in on this, offering a free incentive for those who come in to dispose of a bulb. This would raise awareness and hopefully prevent people from disposing of their bulbs in an unsafe manner.

CFL bulbs are a great product for your pocket book, and for the environment when used and disposed of correctly. We think that with more promotion of safe disposal techniques, people, and the environment will benefit further from CFL bulbs.


  1. Did a light bulb appear above your head when you got the idea?

  2. Hmm...you would have to ask Chris about that. I certainly felt inspired when the idea was presented to us.

  3. This is such an interesting case for PR, advertising and marketing: a great product with lots of benefits to the consumer (both direct in the cost efficiency, and indirect in the benefits to the environment), but with its share of inconveniences too. How to persuade consumers that the benefits are worth the hassles/risks? There's still some work to be done there, I think!

  4. Definitely! There was so much more we wanted to do, but we were limited by time and our page count limit.

  5. CFLS also can start smokeing when they burn out. At work ive had at least 3 bulbs do this and a few at home has well. I dont use CFLs at all for this reason.
    Also their has been research done on the impact of the UV rays from uncovered CFLS on the human skin causing burns.
    And to add CFLs life is killed if put in a place where they are not able to be left on for at least 15 mins at a time so CFLS in the bathroom and kitchen out of the question.
    Im waiting for the LED bulbs to come down in price and will be switching to them for now ill keep to the Edisons.

    Great article though enjoyed reading it!!!

  6. My "energy efficient bulb" just blew out this morning; it was for my previous joke, I'm sure.

  7. Kenton: Aww no! You didn't have anything to clean up, did you?

    Kirk: Thanks. :) Never read anything in our research about CFL bulbs being damaged by being in a place where the light is not on for very long though. I do like LED bulbs.

  8. No glass shattered - just fizzled. Like my singing career.

  9. The benefits of cfl lamps is their comparatively low electricity usage when compared to HID lighting, as well as much lower levels of heat being generated as a by-product. Thanks for posting nice article.