This article was originally published in the May/June 1998 issue of Home Energy Magazine. Some formatting inconsistencies may be evident in older archive content.
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Home Energy Magazine Online May/June 1998
Changing Attitudes on Changing Lamps
by Erik Page
With the latest generation of phosphors, it's hard to notice fluorescent light without looking under the shade. What else is new in compact fluorescent lamps?
Working in the Fixtures Lab over the last four years, I have seen firsthand how quickly compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) technology has changed, and how slowly the public perception of fluorescent lighting has followed. Many people still feel that fluorescent light is better than no light at all, but just barely. After all, people have suffered under bluish, flickering and buzzing cool-white fluorescent lights for decades at work, and the last thing they want to do is bring one home with them.
Fortunately, CFLs have improved considerably. High-quality phosphors and electronic ballasts that first began to appear in the early 1990s are now the industry standards, and are built into all but the least expensive CFLs. CFLs come in many shapes, sizes, and colors, giving consumers many options when deciding what is attractive and what is not. If they didn't have fluorescent in the middle of their name, consumers might just give them a chance. And the CFL may still have its day. Major technical barriers have been overcome, prices continue to drop, and availability is increasing.Why Not CFLs? A 1994 survey by the Electric Power Research Institute found that consumers have five major complaints about CFLs: They're too expensive, they don't fit in many fixtures, they don't work with dimmers, they're unattractive, and consumers don't know where they should be using them. These concerns have all been addressed to some extent, and many of them have recently been reduced if not eliminated entirely. Here's a progress report.
They cost too much
Even some environmentally conscious individuals who would walk 10 miles to recycle an aluminum can are unwilling to slap down $15 to buy a CFL that would save them $60 in energy. Luckily, the market has matured and initial price is less and less of an excuse. Consumers can walk into Home Depot and choose from a wide variety of CFLs starting at around $5. While less expensive CFLs are often of dubious quality or rely on outdated technology, at least they are available. The best lamps cost around $20. CFL torchieres, including fixture, ballast, and lamp, sell for between $30 and $150.
They don't fit in my fixture
With over 100 types of CFL now on the market, there is a lamp for almost every application. Two developments in the last couple of years have led to the production of CFLs small enough to fit almost anywhere that the traditional light bulb--the A-lamp--will fit.
First, improvements in the durability of the CFL's phosphors have increased lamp power density--that is, there is more light emission per unit area of the CFL lamp wall. Thus the length of the lamp can be shortened for a given wattage. This has led to triple-tube lamps shaped like older CFLs, only shorter. Many measure only about 1 inch longer than an old-fashioned incandescent A-lamps. The other notable development is a new shape. The helical lamp, now available from at least two manufacturers, has a coil-wrapped tube that attempts to match the look, feel, and light distribution of the incandescent lamps that consumers know and love. Both the new triple-tube and the helical CFLs are truly compact and will fit in all but the most constrained spaces. And new CFL shapes and sizes appear each year. Even linear fluorescents are now available in a wide range of lengths, diameters, and colors to match a variety of applications.
They don't work in my dimmer
Dimming fluorescent lamps and CFLs have been around for years, but they used to require fixtures designed specifically for them (see Savings that Stick: Dedicated Fixtures). Most screw-based CFLs, installed in luminaires with standard dimmers, quickly change from $15 investments into $15 flashes of light. Now hitting the market is a screw-in CFL lamp that will work with nearly all standard dimmers. The lamp, a winner of Popular Science's 1997 Best of What's New award, can dim down to 10% light output.
Several other products that have been around for a couple of years are designed to run in the three-way circuits found in many table lamps. These high-output, 39W 2D or 32W Circline lamps with three-way switching ballasts compete directly with 50W-100W-150W A-lamps. The Circline is one of the cheapest CFLs, costing only about $10; the 2D usually costs over $20. Because of their flat, horizontal shape, 2D and Circline CFLs in table lamps send most of their light flux out the top and bottom apertures of the shade, where it can be useful, instead of into the shade, as A-lamps and vertical CFLs do.
They are unattractive
One big improvement in fluorescent lamps over the past few years has been their improved color. Color quality is measured on the Color Rendering Index (CRI), a scale from 0 to 100. Incandescents approach 100, but the low-quality fluorescents of a few years ago were in the mid-60s. Typical fluorescents today are in the low 80s. Today, CFLs are available with CRIs of 88, and a tube fluorescent has been developed with CRI of 92.
Most lamps are hidden behind lamp shades or sconces, so color quality is often more important than physical dimensions. In our lab we have two identical table lamps next to each other; one uses a CFL, the other an incandescent lamp. During a tour, when someone complains about how unattractive fluorescent lamps are, we make them guess which is which. They are usually quiet and attentive after that.
I don't know where I should use them
That's an important issue. When recommending how to retrofit a home, focus first on the fixtures that are used the most--typically kitchen, living room, and outdoor fixtures. Studies have found that, on average, fewer than 30% of the fixtures in homes account for 75% of the lighting energy costs (see Florida House Aglow with Lighting Retrofit, HE Jan/Feb '97, p. 21). This is because some lamps have higher wattages or are left on longer than others. By targeting the most used fixtures for replacement with CFLs, consumers can immediately cut lighting electricity costs by more than half.Even Better, Coming Soon There are exciting new lamps on the horizon. The entire lamp industry is quickly moving toward triphosphor lamp coatings that will continue to improve the quality and efficiency of fluorescent light. Tomorrow's fluorescents will have color quality virtually indistinguishable from that of incandescents but will last up to 20 times as long while offering a sixfold increase in efficiency.
Erik Page is a freelance writer and a research associate at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
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