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January 2011 Newsletter

Compact Fluorescents:
Why, Why Not and Getting Rid of Them When They’re Done

Compact Fluorescent light

Now that we’ve replaced all of our incandescent lighting with compact fluorescents… What?... Oh, you saw me at the hardware store last weekend buying incandescent bulbs?... well… OK, you got me. So, let’s talk about this…

Why should I be using Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFL’s)? Well, obviously, to save energy. According to Energy Star a CFL can save over $40 in electricity costs over its lifetime. CFL’s use 75% less energy than standard bulbs and last up to 10 times longer. And they produce 75% less heat, making them safer to operate and reducing home cooling costs, to boot.

Occupancy Sensor

OK, so why not use them everywhere? Well, for one thing, a CFL’s life can be shortened by switching it on and off too frequently. So in our mudroom, for example, we use incandescent lighting with an occupancy sensor (motion detector) to turn the light on when needed and, most importantly, off again when it’s not.

Another thing is that CFL’s contain a small amount of mercury. Not to worry, as long as the bulb remains intact, it won’t release any of this mercury. We just make it a rule not to use them where there’s a greater chance of breaking them, like the freestanding lamp in the kids’ room. In case you do break one, I’ve excerpted the Cleanup and Disposal Overview from the Energy Star: CFL’s and Mercury web page. Click here for a full size printable version of the image below.

CFL cleanup

Well, what about this mercury? Is it a worthwhile tradeoff for the energy savings? Absolutely! In fact, there really isn't any tradeoff, because using CFL's naturally reduces net mercury emissions. The main source of mercury emissions in the US is electricity generation*. A properly recycled CFL can reduce the mercury down to nearly one fifth of the amount attributable to an incandescent, based on an 8,000 rated-hour-life CFL.

Which begs the question, "How do we get rid of these things?"

Don’t throw them in the garbage or your recycling bin. It's actually illegal**. Call your local waste management or recycling provider. They should be able to provide you with a list of locations where you can drop off your fluorescent light bulbs for recycling, and any special handling rules they may have. Here in Western Nevada County, they can be taken to the McCourtney Road, North San Juan and Washington Transfer Stations, as well as a few other sites they list around Nevada City and Grass Valley. In addition, Hills Flat Lumber, A to Z Supply and the Auburn Home Depot will accept them. Sure, it’s not quite as convenient as curbside pick-up, but we just keep a box in our utility closet marked “dead CFL’s” and periodically drop them off for recycling. And with an 8,000 hour rated life, they really don’t accumulate very quickly!


*US EPA: Mercury – Basic Information : “Coal-burning power plants are the largest human-caused source of mercury emissions to the air in the United States”

**Fluorescent light bulbs are categorized as Universal Waste and regulated by both the State and Federal Environmental Protection Agencies