Are CFL light bulbs practical and safe?

A few days ago I wrote an off-topic post complaining “green” builders are not using CFL lights. I got a number of responses, including one from a homebuilder association that defines the TX Green certification explaining CFLs have mercury in them which creates a number of concerns: environmental, breakage and  disposal, in addition to additional cost.  When I got these responses I felt like and idiot for writing about the issue if there is a good reason why CFLs are not used. But then, I spent some time doing research and arrived at a different conclusion. There are easy ways to deal with every one of the potential issues.
First, the good news. Incandescent bulbs are being banned in the EU.
Why is this important? For our a small subdivision like the one where we live with 200 Homes,  replacing 70 light bulbs per home (the number I replaced) would mean 14,000  CFL light bulbs replace the same number of incandescent bulbs, resulting in  over half a  million dollar in electricity cost savings, preventing over 1.5 million  pounds of coal from burning and a reduction in 6.3 million pounds of  greenhouse gases PER YEAR. 
Now let’s look at the key concerns from the builder:
1. Mercury in CFLs

Manufacturer investments in technology over the last two  decades have reduced the amount of mercury used in lamps by nearly 95%. The National Electrical Manufacturers  Association ( has established a maximum of 5 mgs of Mercury per light bulb, but many of the latest modern have as little as 1.23 milligrams. According to the EPA, a 13 watt CFL over 8,000 hours of use  could result in 1.8 mg of Mercury emissions versus 5.8 mgs for an incandescent.  The CFL results in almost three times less mercury emitted to the environment. “CFLs  result in less mercury in the environment compared to traditional light bulbs“  (5)  EPA adds: “Because CFLs also help to reduce greenhouse  gasses, other pollutants associated with electricity production, and landfill  waste (because the bulbs last longer), they are clearly the environmental  winner when compared to traditional incandescent light bulbs.” 


  2. Dealing with broken CFLs.  


If a CFL containing the maximum allowable, 5 mg of mercury,  breaks in the average bedroom with a volume of about 25 cubic meters, assuming all the  mercury vaporizes immediately (an unlikely occurrence), would result in an  airborne mercury concentration of 0.2 mg/m3. This concentration will decrease with time, as air in the room leaves and is replaced by air from outside or  from a different room, likely approaching zero after about an hour or so.  This level and duration of mercury exposure  is not likely to be dangerous, as it is lower than the US Occupational Safety  and Health Administration (OSHA) standard of 0.05 mg/m3 of metallic mercury  vapor averaged over eight hours. (3)  


3. Disposal of broken CFLs  


CFLs can be disposed of on any CFL Disposal station. IKEA, Home Depot, Ace Hardware  and other stores offer CFL  drop-off stations.  In Austin, businesses can drop off CFLs at the City of  Austin HHW Collection Facility, . Additional locations throughout Texas found at  Individuals can bring up to 5 gallons of waste for free. Commercial recycling for CFL light bulbs is quite inexpensive. Here in  Texas, Waste Management will recycle 125 light bulbs for under $0.72 each. (10). There are a number of commercial recycling businesses.  


The law in Texas allows businesses to collect their CFLs for  up to a year prior to disposal or recycling. (11). So if a CFL breaks during construction, it can simply be stored in a closed leak-free bag inside a properly labeled container like a trash can in a central location. The builder could store all broken light bulbs for up to a year then send them to the HHW collection facility (an 8 minute drive from our subdivision). Alternatively, if two light bulbs are broken per house, every 75 homes built the builder would spend $120 (shipping included) sending all these light bulbs to a commercial recycling location.  


4. Cost 

Come on, $100 cost per home is more important than saving a million dollars, 6.4 tons of green house emissions and half a million pounds of coal burned? If that’s the case then it would prove that builders are only saying they are “green” as an advertising scheme to sell homes not because they really care about the world. Here is how you could deal with the cost: 

 a) You could apply part (3% to be exact) of the $3,000 “Green” rebate from the City of Austin to pay for the CFLs 

 b) You could give your customers the option to pay for them – I would gladly have paid $100 plus, let’s say $10 for disposal of any broken CFLs, and I would have volunteered to take any broken bulbs from my house to the disposal center. 

 c) You could increase the price of the homes by $100. As a customer, adding $100 would not have made any difference for the average cost new home. If the salesperson would have quoted a price $100 higher at the beginning no one would notice.  

 d) You could increase the price of the house by $200. The only reason the builder had an “EcoGreen” sign outside of the home, the only reason they were promoting their certification and the only reason they had EcoGreen brochures along with the home builder brochures is because thy feel it would be a differentiator that will help them sell more homes. They didn’t do it to brag about how much they love the environment. Builders could increase the price of their homes by $200 or $500 and promote “The only builder with all CFL lighting in Texas”. For a LOT of people , this would be a very good incentive to do business with this particular homebuilder. I know because I asked many of my neighbors. Builder would be doing the right thing and making more money. 

 e) Builders could eat the $100, if they really care about the planet we live in and the plane you are leaving for your children.


 f) Builders could do a combination of all the above. Part of the money comes from the rebate, a part from the customer, a part from the rebate, a part from their profits, and still enjoy the marketing benefits of being really green.  

In conclusion: there is no good reason why builder should not stop using incandescent bulbs right away and start using more CFLs. Now if you want to go green all the way and have some extra coin, another option is LED lights which are mercury-free and even more efficient than CFLs, but cost about $50 a piece. 

Have you replaced your light bubls yet?


CFL Benefits
Each CFL can $30 in electric costs, Prevent 110 pounds of coal from  being burned and  Reduce greenhouse gas  emissions by 450 pounds (1) Lighting accounts for 38 % of residential energy consumption  (2) CFLs produce about 70% less heat than standard incandescent  bulbs, so they’re safer to operate and can help cut energy costs associated  with home cooling.
(4)  EPA’s statement “Switching from traditional light bulbs  (called incandescent) to CFLs is an effective, simple change everyone in  America can make right now. If every home in America replaced just one  incandescent light bulb with an ENERGY STAR qualified CFL, in one year it would  save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes. That would prevent the  release of greenhouse gas
emissions equal to that of about 800,000 cars. 
“ Sources and resources: 

(1)    MSNBC  
(2)    Energy Information Administration, 2003 Commercial Buildings  Energy Consumption Survey
(4)    GE Lighting 
(5)    EPA’s CFL FAQs 
(6)    TCEQ 
(8)    Recycling guidance to businesses 
(9)    NEMA 
(10) Waste Management Lamp  Tracker 
(11) Texas Regulatory  Guidance RG-377 January 2007
(12) GE Lamp recycling  information page
(13) Incandescent Bulbs are banned in the EU 



Green builders don’t act so green

Eco Smart enegry smart homes


 This is a transcript from an email tip I sent to the Consumerist 

We built a new home in Texas about two years ago. The builder told us it was an “Eco smart” house and that it was  “Green Built TX” certified.  They had yard signs and brochures to explain how green the builder is. We were shocked to find out most of the light bulbs in out house were incandescent.  Isn’t replacing bulbs with CFLs the simplest, most basic way to save energy?

 Our bathrooms, for example, have a lighting fixture with six lights, which means every minute the light is on, those six lights are consuming 360 watts. I replaced all six lights with 9w CFLs, now consuming 54 watts total – almost 7 times less energy. The CFL light bulbs are only about $1.50 at Home Depot or WalMart, I am sure the builder can get a better deal. I had to replace over 70 light bulbs in our house (picture of old light bulbs attached). I probably spent $150 total, a number that is absolutely insignificant relative the price we paid for the house.  

The kitchen area, for example has 4 light bulbs, all controlled by a single switch, consuming 240 watts instead of 52 watts now with 13w CFLs. Every home in the neighborhood has an outdoor light outside of the garage with an average of three 60-watt light bulbs that are usually left on overnight. That’s 18,000 watts consumed for every 100 homes. All night long. Just for outdoor lights.
What is worse, is that we threw away over 70 perfectly good incandescent light bulbs that I paid for (when I bought the house), which are by now in some landfill. In addition, I had to go through the inconvenience of buying and replacing 70 light bulbs, not including some I have not been able to change because they are too high and I cannot reach them with a normal sized ladder.
I called the builder, who told me the “certification” does not require all light bulbs to be CFL, just a certain percentage. The builder probably installs enough CFLs to meet the minimum requirement to be certified.


Selling “green” homes with incandescent light bulbs is deceptive and misleading. Building new homes that consume so much additional electricity to save $100 is absolutely irresponsible in this age. At the very least I would have liked to have the option to pay $100 for the upgrade, which would save thousands of dollars over a few years in energy cost and is the right thing to do.
I suggest selling new homes with incandescent light bulbs should be illegal.
My other idea is to offer homes with solar-powered A/C units. After all, most of the time you need the A/C running in Texas there is plenty of sun shining. It would be much more affordable than full solar systems which require many more panels plus a battery…but that’s a subject for another post. Maybe.