January 2, 2011 in Features

CFL fire hazard a misconception

Fluorescent bulbs have safety measures built in
Joe Taschler Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
 
Tags:CFLs

As the use of incandescent light bulbs is phased out in the United States, consumers are turning to compact fluorescent bulbs as an energy- and cost-saving alternative.

The way CFL bulbs sometimes behave, though, has left some wondering whether they are safe. Search the Internet, and you’ll find a lot of items describing compact fluorescent bulbs as a fire hazard.

They are not, at least for the vast majority of the bulbs, experts say.

There are a number of reasons people might think CFLs – especially older model bulbs – are fire hazards.

“Incandescents, we’re all so familiar with – they’ve been around 100 years – and we know how they burn out,” says John Drengenberg, consumer safety director for Underwriters Laboratories.

“When (CFLs) do burn out, it’s completely different than an incandescent. And that’s why you have people who say, ‘My goodness, this is doing something I never expected.’ ”

For some older model CFL bulbs, burning out can sometimes involve light smoke, discoloration of the bulb’s base and a burning smell.

Underwriters Laboratories’ testing has determined the bulbs are safe, Drengenberg says: “We did long-term research and found there is no safety hazard.”

Linda Mae Schmitt, residential field manager with the Wisconsin Focus on Energy program, says it’s important for consumers to know that, when a CFL is emitting smoke, it’s a sign that “safety measures built into the bulb are managing heat and preventing subsequent hazard.”

She says she has heard of the problem from consumers only rarely, maybe once or at most twice a year.

Consumers should look for the Energy Star label on bulbs. Energy Star bulbs must meet Underwriters Laboratory standards, which require that materials be self-extinguishing, Schmitt says.

Technology has improved CFLs significantly in recent years, says Celia Lehrman, deputy home editor at Consumer Reports magazine. The publication featured the results of light bulb testing in its October edition.

“We tested them out through 6,000 hours and really didn’t see a huge number of failures,” she says. “There were differences among the various bulbs. Brightness, warm-up times – there were differences but not a rash of failures.”

Bulbs with the Energy Star label were the best performers in the magazine’s tests, Lehrman says.

“New CFLs, they do a better job of producing bright light and producing bright light in a color temperature that people are familiar with and like,” she says. “And they also work pretty consistently.”

While people had bad experiences with old versions of CFLs, the good news is that new ones are much better, she says.

They quickly pay for themselves, according to Consumer Reports, saving about $6 per bulb per year compared with electricity costs for incandescent bulbs. Multiply that by the number of light bulbs in a home or business, and the savings begin to add up.

But even as CFLs are refined, they may soon be supplanted by bulbs that use light-emitting diodes, or LEDs.

“We’re seeing a lot of (LED bulbs) in our labs,” Drengenberg says, meaning manufacturers have developed a product that they intend to bring to market.

“LEDs have advantages,” says Lehrman. “They turn on instantly. CFLs don’t hit full brightness right away,” making them less-desirable in areas such as stairways that might need light right away.

Also, LEDs are more efficient, and they don’t have any mercury in them, as CFLs do, Lehrman says.

“I think that manufacturers are learning how to use less and less mercury in their CFLs and still produce good light, but there is some in there,” she says.

With the new bulbs, reading the label is crucial, experts say. If it says don’t use it with a dimmer, don’t use it with a dimmer.

“What we always tell consumers is, it’s not a regular light bulb like have been around for 100 years,” Drengenberg says. “This is different. Look at the instructions.”


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