"Are compact fluorescent lights safe?"
Column #832 02/05/2011
On The Level
Q. I read an email from a friend who passed it on to me about a burned up CFL (compact fluorescent light). I have CFLs in my house and I am concerned. She wrote that she turned on the light then smelled smoke after a few minutes. She saw flames spewing out of the side of the ballast which is the bottom part that screws in the socket. She immediately turned off the light. She is sure it would have caused a fire if she was not right there to turn it off.
She said she took the bulb to the Fire Department to report the incident. The fireman said he wasn't at all surprised and said that it was not an uncommon occurrence. Apparently, sometimes when the bulb burns out there is a chance that the ballast can start a fire. He reported that there have been warnings issued about the potential dangers of these bulbs.
Upon doing some Internet research, it seems that bulbs made in China seem to have the lion's share of problems. Lots of fires have been blamed on misuse of CFL bulbs, like using them in recessed lighting, pot lights, dimmers or in track lighting. Hers was installed in a normal light socket. Do I have a real worry about CFLs?
A. Actually you don’t have a great worry. What you had forwarded to you about the fire safety of CFLs can be regarded as what we used to call an “Urban Myth” which now seems to infest the internet-- not a new phenomenon, I’m sure. I did some research about this story and found it originated from Canada. The brand name the original story claimed to have been the problem wasn’t available at the retailer claimed in the original story suggesting a degree of fabrication.
When CFLs die out they usually grow dimmer and dimmer then quit. I have seen reports of a “pop” and can emit a slight burn odor when they do quit but wholesale fires? I don’t think so. The evidence doesn’t support it. In October 2010 The U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a recall for Trisonic (China brand) CFLs due to four reports of fire related failures. Statistically insignificant in the overall scheme of things. A mis-used incandescent bulb, one that comes into contact with flammable material in a closet or anywhere else, can and will cause a fire. There are building codes as to just how close combustibles can be stored near them.
Speaking of misinformation, there is a strong rumor that our standard 60 and 100 watt bulbs will be outlawed soon. Not quite true. There will be an efficiency standard to be phased in and just like improved gas mileage for cars, manufacturers will strive to meet the standards with available refined technology. About two dozen types of light bulbs are exempt from the efficiency planned requirements including oven and refrigerator bulbs, candelabra lamps, plant (grow) lights, replacement traffic signal bulbs and the yellow bulb that doesn’t attract insects. They discovered LED traffic signals don’t melt snow so they had to be replaced with the old fashioned type. Incandescent bulbs produce 95% heat and only 5% light for the power they consume.
Any new technology comes with unanticipated consequences and CFLs have theirs. Many people are aware of the low levels of mercury CFLs contain. Certain steps need to be taken if a CFL is broken and particles fall on a tile floor or on a carpet. Detailed safety steps can be accessed at www.energystar.gov. Energy Star is a joint venture between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy. Home Depot and other retailers place disposal bins located near store entrances for old CFLs.
Many packages containing CFLs state in large letters they can replace a "standard" light bulb. The fine print includes some of the conditions in which they must be operated. Better read it.
Great Value, a WalMart brand, lists on its packaging that the bulbs could cause interference to "radios, televisions and wireless devices." Some old fashioned fluorescent lights also played havoc with AM radios I seem to remember. They go on to warn "do not install near maritime safety communications or other critical navigation or communication equipment operating between 0.45 and 30 megahertz." The packaging warns that outdoor lights must be enclosed and not to use them with "emergency exit fixtures or lights, electronic timers, photocells or dimmers."
Philips brand CFLs also include warnings on the outside of the package while GE prints a warning on the bulb itself. Like anything else you buy and especially things that use electricity, or any kind of fuel for that matter, read and understand the instructions that come with it before firing it up or suffer the consequences. Nothing’s 100% safe and nothing’s foolproof.
Keep the mail coming. If you've got a question, tip, or comment let me know. Write "On The Level," c/o The Capital, P.O. Box 3407, Annapolis, MD 21403 or e-mail me at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.