The Environmental Working Group, a watchdog organization that is extremely diligent though sometimes a bit cranky, has shed some new and unflattering light on compact fluorescent bulbs.It seems that not all of these oddly shaped, eco-friendly fixtures are created equal when it comes to energy efficiency and safety. The group issued a report just after the New Year that lays out some the issues it has with CFLs and the Energy Star tag that virtually all of then carry. The report is timely. In the third quarter of last year, one of every four bulbs sold in the U.S. was a CFL, a new high, according to the EWG. These bulbs use about 75% less energy and last up to 10 times longer than conventional bulbs, more than making up for their higher upfront cost. The EWG's beef is these bulbs vary more widely than you might imagine in their lifespan and mercury content. The group argues that Energy Star should reserve its stamp of approval for only the brightest bulbs in the pack; otherwise it doesn't mean much. Of course, even laggard CFLs are an improvement over conventional bulbs, which is no doubt how they earn the Energy Star seal. But when you learn that the lifespan for these bulbs can range from 6,000 hours (the Energy Star minimum) to 15,000, as the report points out, you understand that it pays to pick your bulbs more carefully than you had previously. The group lists seven winning CFLs (it calls them the magnificent seven for their long life and low mercury content). Several are somewhat obscure and available on niche lighting or eco Web sites, but a few are sold on Amazon.com ( AMZN).
There's also a much longer list of 1,100 bulbs it urges consumers to avoid because they don't meet stricter Energy Star standards that are expected to go into effect in July. These standards were supposed to take effect last year, but the EPA gave bulb makers a grace period for chipping away at a stockpile of 100 million bulbs they have that don't meet the new standards. Along with obscure or foreign-made brands I've never heard of and probably wouldn't buy anyway, these blacklisted bulbs include products that are sold at Wal-Mart ( WMT), Lowe's ( LOW) and Home Depot ( HD) or made by major manufacturers like General Electric ( GE), Siemens ( SI) and Philips Electronics ( PHG). The other issue with CFLs is that they contain mercury, and while it's not a lot, the EWG claims it's often more than necessary. The new Energy Star standards put a cap on mercury content for the first time. That cap is 5 milligrams -- roughly enough to cover the tip of a ballpoint pen, according to the EPA. For context, an old-fashioned mercury thermometer contained about 500 milligrams of the stuff. The watchdogs at the EWG warn that one-third of bulbs on the market don't meet this standard. But they also say that manufacturers have been way ahead of the EPA on ratcheting down the mercury milligrams. National Electrical Manufacturers Association set a voluntary cap of 5 milligrams a few years ago and a lot of its manufacturers have done better than that. EPA and NEMA concur that the industrywide average for mercury in CFLs is 3 to 4 milligrams. The safest bulbs have 2.7 milligrams or less.
EWGs argument is that if a few bulbs can go that low, so can they all. But I'm not losing sleep over whether the CFLs in my house contain enough mercury to cover all of a ballpoint pen tip, or just half of one. For one thing, the power plant pumping out the electricity to power that bulb is releasing way more mercury into our air and water (and fish) than any household could if it broke open its lightbulbs with abandon, and by using lightbulbs that use a quarter of the energy of regular bulbs, you're putting a dent in that. Moreover, the mercury isn't a problem as long as the bulb stays in tact. Should you break one, the EPA lists on its Web site some extremely alarming instructions for how to clean up mercury. (Vacuuming, it seems, is a big no-no). The mercury means these are considered hazardous waste and you should not blithely throw them into your household trash. But Ikea and Home Depot both take bulbs for recycling. Recycling Web site Earth911 can steer you to other local stores and recycling centers that take them. Meanwhile, the EPA keeps a state-by-state list of hazardous waste collection sites. For me, the mercury issue is a lot of unnecessary kerfuffle. In terms of human and environmental health, the far more serious concern is mercury from power plants, industrial processes like metal production and products like car batteries. Moreover, the energy savings makes overwhelming financial and eco sense. If you're among those who still need to be convinced that CFLs are worth the switch, the EWG offers a calculator that shows you how much money you would save by switching to CFLs or halogens, depending on how many bulbs you replace, how many hours a day you use them and where you live.
For example, I would save $25 a year by replacing the bulb in the ceiling light in my home office with a CFL. We save another $34 by using five halogen bulbs instead of conventional ones in our den. Halogens give off a lot of heat when they're used, and so aren't nearly as efficient at CFLs -- our savings would be almost $80 with those twisty bulbs. But they're still an improvement over conventional bulbs and work in places where CFLs might not, like in reading lamps or over bathroom mirrors. The group also offers guidelines for choosing and making the best use of CFLs in your home. If you're still using old-style bulbs throughout your house, give the EWG's guide a few minutes of your time and pick up some CFLs. In this recession and bear market, that lower electric bill could offer one financial bright spot this year.