The Hidden Energy Use of Fluorescent “Energy Saving” Bulbs


dim cfl bulb idea

Common fluorescent “energy saving” bulbs, the CFLs, use more energy than might first be apparent.

This is because of their so-called “power factor”.
This is not the same as their power rating – and does not show up on home electricity meters.
Typical CFLs have a power factor of around 0.55.
That means they – effectively – use twice the energy that you see,
although the actual effect on power plant and grid depends on other factors too.

As an online search of “CFL” and “power factor” will show,
it is a complex issue of current and voltage phase differences,
and industrial users – unlike domestic users – are penalized for it.

The overall point, however defined, is that it is an extra, hidden, resource waste and an extra cost for utility companies to deal with, that users have to pay for in some form or other.


As in the Wikipedia explanation:
“The significance of power factor lies in the fact that utility companies supply customers with volt-amperes, but bill them for watts. Power factors below 1.0 require a utility to generate more than the minimum volt-amperes necessary to supply the real power (watts). This increases generation and transmission costs”

Also see the US Dept of Energy example illustrated with a horse pulling a load!


To put into an overall context of light bulb usage, from The Deception behind the Arguments used to ban Light Bulbs and other Products from the Freedom Light Bulb website

8. “But at least home consumers will see great savings on their electricity meters!”

Politicians like to emphasize how consumers save in running costs from buying more expensive bulbs.
Common switchover examples only use main household lighting.
Not only is the main kitchen lighting often already a fluorescent tube, there are many light bulbs that are rarely used in 20+ (Europe) or 40+ (North America) lighting point households, giving minimal or no savings in such situations when using expensive bulbs, that might also get lost or break before use, or be seen to be “dud”.

The mentioned energy savings section ( includes why consumer savings are less than expected.
A longer rundown can be seen from onwards.

A general point, as covered by research references from the above link, is that if electricity effectively becomes cheaper to use, more will be used (and wasted).


More specifically, the so-called “power factor” (not the same as power rating) of ordinary “energy saving” fluorescent bulbs means that they in layman terms use twice the energy compared to what the CFL bulb or your meter says., with references, including Sylvania/Osram factsheet admission about the energy usage of common CFLs.
[Strictly speaking, about VoltAmperes, “apparent power”… utilities do not charge residential customers for apparent power, as they do industrial customers. However, apparent power requires additional current flowing across the grid, and thus creates distribution losses in transformers and power lines in the form of heat]
That is not all, since many cheap LEDs for domestic use also have power factor issues (and LEDs have their own issues affecting usage savings).
Electricity consumers of course have to pay for this “hidden cost” in higher bills – especially in large scale pushed transitions to the alternative bulbs, which also require alterations to the domestic grids.

Electrical Construction & Maintenance Magazine: The Hidden Costs of CFLs.

Not only do incandescents often usefully release around 95% of their energy as heat:
Proponents conveniently “forget” to add that CFLs and LEDs really waste energy as heat, CFLs 80% and LEDs 70%.
That is because the CFL/LED heat is internalized, to give a greater, unseen, unpredictable fire risk, particularly with CFLs (incandescent heat being more noticeable, to warn users).


With any electricity saving the electricity companies make less money, and they simply raise the electricity bills, or receive state subsidies (out of citizens pockets) to compensate, as already seen in several countries and states
( and onwards)

Heads we lose – Tails they win!


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“Many Lights Make Handy Work” ;-)



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Update on Rik Gheysens CFL study

Relating to the post May 17 Research Report: Mercury in Fluorescent Lighting, the author has let us know some recent news on his website
(slight editing of the translation used):

May 2012

Website Test-Aankoop, May 24 2012:
CFLs (in the lab and in the waste collect centers): not always energy saving or environmentally friendly

In the June issue of the periodical “Test-Aankoop/Test-Achats”, 13 double shell compact fluorescent lamps with a brightness between 500 and 700 lumen and with an E-27 fitting were investigated.

Some conclusions are:

A certain model should, according to the packaging, have a lifetime of 8000 hours (= 8 years).
Four of the five test samples were already broken down before they burned 5000 hours.
The only still burning lamp reached at that moment only 70% of its brightness.

A sample of another model failed already after burning 1800 hours.
” The samples which reached 5000 hours, had lost at that moment more 35% to even 80% of their brightness. Moreover, this lamp could hardly be switched on and off 5000 times.”
This lamp can actually no longer be named a ‘low-energy light bulb’.


The Belgian newspaper “De Morgen”, May 25, 2012:
“CFLs are not always environmentally friendly”

In the June issue of the periodical “Test-Aankoop/Test-Achats”, 13 [double shell] CFLs were investigated.

The results are:

No lamp reached half the full intensity of light within 30 seconds.
“These teething troubles can no longer be justified “, said spokesman Ivo Mechels.

The lifetime of the lamps does not appear to correspond to the promised lifetime on the packaging. “Six of the thirteen species scored very poorly”, said Mechels.

The collection of broken bulbs is not always as it should.
“They usually end up in an ordinary plastic bin. In places lay broken lamps. That mercury is released in this way, is hardly realized.”


Another Belgian newspaper “De Standaard”, May 25, 2012, writes: “The CFL is almost dead”

” CFLs are less efficient and ecological than their manufacturers try to make you believe.
And they seem to have lost faith in them themselves.”
Ivo Mechels of Test-Aankoop/Test-Achats:
“CFLs are more sparing and last longer than conventional incandescent bulbs.
But they still have teething problems that (no longer) should be allowed.
This is no new technology anymore, so manufacturers can no longer hide (behind that idea).”

According to Stefaan Forment, researcher of the Laboratory of Lighting Technology of Ghent’s Catholic College St Lieven, manufacturers seem to believe much more in LED lamps…


As seen on that news page,
it has more information going back in time – as with the EU (Swedish) scandal of unrecycled dumped fluorescent light bulbs end 2011, also covered in a report on the website.

As for LED lighting being so much better, that is not necessarily so:
RGB types are effectively combinations of pure red green and blue sources, without the smooth light output spectrum of incandescents.
Meanwhile the now popular and generally simpler/cheaper “white LEDs” have additional issues from effectively mimicking the light quality of fluorescents, that is, from bluey (relatively bright) type LED source light hitting phosphorescent wall coating.

More on LED issues here.
And that is of course without going into the not always warranted “great upfront expense for long term savings”, for many less often used bulbs.

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A Twisted Bulb Idea

Replacements for your regular bulbs?


As seen on the Solovyov design page mentioned in the below article,
more specifically on lighting


From “Helablog, a taste of chaos”:



Try wrapping you head around this light bulb. The very cleverly done project by a Belarusian design duo Solovyov Design, is a fluorescent bulb measuring not much bigger than a standard bulb, however, the open form provides a dissipation light that is normally not found in single point light sources.

Aptly called “Insight” the energy efficient bulb is a parody of the classic “light bulb going off above your head” when you get an idea….except this one is a brain bulb.

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Research Report: Mercury in Fluorescent Lighting

Continuing on with the recent excellent additions to Howard Brandston’s website,, it links to an extensive study (alt link) by Rik Gheysens about mercury on fluorescent lighting, the preliminary report now being available, it will have a finalised version, meanwhile the author welcomes comments to it via the email in the document.

The latest update is available here:
Direct document link to the last version, at the time of writing.
It is much the same as on Howard’s site, but the below extracts are from the that version:


1. Impact of mercury exposure on human health
2. Mercury: demand and supply
3. Mercury in fluorescent lighting
4. Does mercury in lighting result in less mercury in the environment compared to traditional light bulbs?
5. UNEP and EU intertwined with private interests
6. Health problems during production phase, use and disposal of fluorescent lighting
7. Ethical consuming and freedom of choice
8. Conclusion

Summary (of each section)

1. Impact of mercury exposure on human health
It is an accepted fact that mercury and methyl mercury in particular are very dangerous to human health. An overview is given of the characteristics of mercury, the health effects and the origin of methyl mercury in fish.

2. Mercury: demand and supply
Some facts are summed up about the reduction of the global primary mercury production, the global consumption, the emission of mercury to the atmosphere, and the average emission in some countries. The chapter ends with a short discussion about actions which have been undertaken to reduce mercury emission in power plants.

3. Mercury in fluorescent lighting
We bring into focus the demand of mercury by the lighting sector. The directive 2002/95/EC has exempted the fluorescent lamps from the requirement for the substitution of mercury.
What is the amount of mercury in fluorescent lamps and in particularly in CFLs?
At this moment, no alternatives for fluorescent tubes and HID lamps are available. But CFLs can be very easily substituted. We ascertain that the most suitable alternative for the CFL is the halogen lamp and the incandescent lamp but in some countries the incandescent lamp has been banned.

4. Does mercury in lighting result in less mercury in the environment compared to traditional light bulbs?
We try to answer the question if the argumentation to justify CFLs in the U.S. and in EU-27 is valid.
We find that today, an average of mercury between 0.006 and 0.009 mg/kWh is emitted during the generation of electricity in EU-27 (instead of 0.016 mg/kWh) and about 0.009 or 0.010 mg/kWh in the U.S. (instead of 0.012 mg/kWh).
Comparing a clear incandescent bulb, a new halogen lamp and a CFL, we find that the new halogen lamp is the best choice and the CFL the worst choice. So, the CFL cannot be justified. Because of these findings, an immediate ban has to be ordered on CFLs. In regions with a low emission of mercury, the net result is that only CFLs are spreading mercury. In regions with a huge emission of mercury, other measures than the distribution of CFLs are needed to reduce the pollution.

5. UNEP and EU intertwined with private interests
UNEP has given undue preference to Philips Lighting and OSRAM AG through the en.lighten iniative. The partnership with UNEP is not only intended to promote CFLs over the whole world but also to develop a road-map for the global phase-out of incandescent bulbs. Under the pressure of CFL manufacturers, the U.S. and the E.U. took measures to ban incandescent lamps. The world has to be freed from the undue obtrusiveness with which some lighting manufacturers are spreading their CFLs. The lobby of the private industry in the decision making in the E.U. must urgently be restrained.

6. Health problems during production phase, use and disposal of fluorescent lighting
Serious health problems are recorded during the production phase of CFLs, in particularly in China, where most CFLs are produced. Research is going on to investigate if ultraviolet and electromagnetic radiation from CFLs is a risk factor for the aggravation of light-sensitive symptoms in some patients. Broken CFLs mean a danger to the health, especially for children.
The measures issued by the governments or institutions of different countries are not univocal.
Not recycled CFLs are a serious problem for the environment and for health.

7. Ethical consuming and freedom of choice
The consumer has the right to acquire the most appropriate product to meet his well-considered demands. The ban on incandescent lamps means a violation of the free market principles. Certain preferences cannot be fulfilled by CFLs.
The Cradle to Cradle principle suggests that every product should have a complete cycle mapped out for each component. This is not the case with CFLs, due to the fact that most of these lamps end up in a landfill and due to the losses during exploitation of mercury, production phase and breakage.
Ethical minded consumers don’t want to buy fluorescent lamps because these lamps do not comply with an ethical production, i.e. with a minimal harm to the natural environment.
This chapter ends with a small test of CFLs. The conclusion is that in the given circumstances, to buy a CFL is somehow to take part in a lottery.

8. Conclusion
The production of CFLs should be banned immediately. We demand an immediate lift of the ban on incandescent lamps and clear notices on the package about the content of mercury and about the dangers intrinsic to fluorescent tubes.
Each habitant should be able to receive data about the emission of fine particles, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, mercury, etc. in his region. Especially in Europe, a lack of such information is ascertained.

In a nutshell

• Coal fired power plants are by far the largest source of mercury to air.
• A range of widely available, technical and economically feasible practices, technologies, and compliance strategies are available to power plants to meet the emission limits.
• A VITO-study concluded: “(…) even in the worst possible case that a CFL goes to the landfill, during its lifetime it will have saved more mercury emissions from electricity production in coal power plants (compared to the mercury emissions related to the conventional incandescent bulbs’ electricity need) than is contained in the CFL itself, so the overall mercury pollution balance will be positive.” (VITO-report 2009)
This mantra, based on outdated figures, is still repeated without further research. Meanwhile, in any developed country or state, emission limits are valid. Nowadays in Europe and in the U.S., all base is lacking to justify the use of CFLs and to ban the incandescent light bulb.
• In other countries with a higher power plant mercury emission, it would witness of malicious pleasure to distribute mercury containing CFLs to tackle the problem of mercury pollution.
One has to deal with the problem of the power plant mercury emission, and one has not to add
a new problem. If one would fully consider the ‘way of mercury’, – the exploitation of mercury mines, the manufacturing and recycling of CFLs inclusive – , then one should discover how noxious this whole process is.
• U.S. EPA must stop to spread wrong information about the mercury pollution in landfills.
Their assertion that CFLs reduce the amount of mercury released in the environment is not correct.
The new halogen lamps and even the incandescent bulbs are better than CFLs, regarding the environmental impacts.
• The E.U. must stop to use the outdated number of mercury pollution by power plants.
With the correct number, they cannot prove that CFLs are better than the halogen and incandescent lamps. The ban on incandescent lamps has to be lifted!
It was a great mistake to design the mercury containing CFLs.

A well researched review,
with an interesting if rather extreme conclusion even for this SYLBTW blog taste (“the production of CFLs should be banned immediately”!).

But a welcome counter to all the usual defence arguments about “other mercury sources” etc being worse, which is always a weak justification at the best of times – to the extent mercury is a problem, wherever found, then 2 wrongs don’t make a right.
Not even in Washington!


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See FL: (S)tripping the Light Fantastic

From Freedom Light Bulb blog post

Having looked inside a LED bulb,
there are naturally enough a lot more examples of CFL dissections out there,
having been around longer as replacements for regular incandescent bulbs…


From the EE Times article
“How compact fluorescent lamps work–and how to dim them”
A good, very technical description of CFL function.





From Australian engineer Rod Elliott’s article
“Should There be a Ban on Incandescent Lamps?”
A good lengthy account also for the layman, which despite the title actually mainly deals with CFL issues in all aspects, in usage, safety issues and more.



From Save the Bulb “CFL Autopsy” article



This is an Osram CFL from a few years ago that has stopped working. I cut the base in half with an angle grinder as a hacksaw would not cut the black insulating material in the bayonet connector. This rather brutal approach destroyed quite a few components on the board. This is basically a pretty crude electronic fluorescent gear that is not nearly as efficient as it could be as evidenced by the rather large choke, the thing that looks like a transformer with an iron core and copper windings at the back. This lamp (when it was working!) started with a brief flicker. One of the broken bits was a neon lamp as are found in old fashioned starters so I suspect this was part of a crude and inefficient capacitor start, these are also likely to fail before other parts of the lamp.

The weight of this lamp was 82 grammes, 20 grammes was the circuit board that may well have been working and certainly is in many lamps that are thrown away. The glass tube is 40 grammes, the metal lamp cap 6 grammes therefore 16 grammes of plastics derived from fossil fuels makes the remainder. The mercury content will be anything between 2mg and 5mg depending on the age and manufacturer of the lamp.

The construction of this lamp allows the electronics module to be easily separated from the tube however the plastic base is fixed to the tube with expanded foam so it would be difficult to separate the plastic and glass for recycling.

A typical equivalent Incandescent lamp weighs 34 grammes approximately 27 grammes of this being the glass envelope, cap approximately 6 grammes and approximately 1 gramme of metals including the filament.

Since writing this page some further information has come to my attention. As part of the EuP work done by VITO, spreadsheets were used to analyse the environmental impact of different lamp types. The spreadsheets were originally written for the assessment of the impact of general domestic electrical equipment so there may be errors due to the relative size of lamps. The outputs of the spreadsheet included the following numbers:

• Energy used in manufacture:
GLS 1 MJ = 0.28KwH
CFLi 12MJ = 3.33 KwH
[ed- as from similar Osram and Philips CFL manufacture data, such energy usage quoted is from the assembly of already made components. Including the energy needed to make the components themselves, raises CFL energy use to 40 times or more that of incandescents, as from Dr Stanjek’s study (commissioned by Greenpeace, so hardly research biased): Referenced, with more on the issue:]

• Pollutants created in manufacture and winning the materials required:
GLS 5 grammes, non hazardous
CFLi 128 grammes, 78 grammes being hazardous waste

So basically each CFLi manufactured causes one and a half times its weight in waste and a weight equal to itself in hazardous waste. As I said above these figures are subject to question but are alarming as they stand.



On a lighter, nay, dimmer note…
a reminder from a previous post



Imagine calling a fluorescent bulb Tru Dim 😉
(it’s dimmable, apparently, and full of fun components)


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The Brandston Research Team’s Fluorescent Light Bulb Study

imageHoward Brandston is a well known New York lighting designer, and is the Congress consultant of choice when they holding hearings into light bulb matters.

The following information is from his website commentary.
As mentioned in a previous post, he is shortly launching a campaign against the light bulb regulations on a Facebook page, details which will appear on the above website link.
Given his status, it will hopefully get a good following.


Research into the Effects and Implications of Increased CFL Use

In September 2009, I assembled a first-class team of doctors and researchers to study the implications of the wide-spread use of CFLs. Supported in part with a grant from the IES, the primary intention was to determine if further investigation and research is warranted to re-examine the direction of current and proposed lighting related legislation. Our study included:

• A literature search of the health hazards post by Electro-magnetic Fields
• Measurements of the fields generated by CFLs
• Measurements of EMF’s at installations
• Creation of a detailed list of potential problems stemming from installed CFL usage
• An analysis of actual installation system efficiencies – CFL vs. Incandescent
• An illustration of dimmer induced SPD shifts with CFLs. Illustrated with SPDs.

Our findings fully support that further research must be done. The full research report [originally published March 2010] is available here. The document is large — 3MB (.pdf).

RE ” further research must be done”, it may be noted that Canada has indeed delayed a ban for (at least) 2 years, in part because of CFL concerns, more:


Introduction and Conclusion excerpts from the Brandston team study:


The main purpose of the study is to determine if more research is required before the ban on ordinary incandescent lamps takes effect. If it is determined that it would be in the best interest of the country to conduct further studies, then the ban and the restrictions placed on the incandescent lamp should be withdrawn and held in abeyance, until a solid basis can be determined as to what the best course of action be taken to meet the spirit of the act.
All funding by the several government entities promoting the use of CFLs should also cease until there is careful evaluation of relevant CFLs characteristics and comparison with incandescent lamps.

We assembled an experienced interdisciplinary team, fully capable of delivering proposed investigation and research.

Report prepared by:
Howard M. Brandston, FIES, Hon. FCIBSE, FIALD, PLDA, SLL, LC
Philip Brickner, MD St. Vincent’s Hospital
Sasa Djokic, PhD Univ. of Edinburgh
Richard Vincent St. Vincent’s Hospital
Scott Bucher St. Vincent’s Hospital
Heather Auto St. Vincent’s Hospital
Kate Sweater Hickcox Lighting Research Center, RPI


CFLs are not the superior replacement for incandescent lamps, neither in conservation or aesthetics.
Nor is the CFL an equivalent light source technology.
As an indicator of lamp efficiency, lumens-per-watt has been extensively used as a comparative metric to promote the energy advantages of light sources. However, this is flawed because no meaningful conclusions can come from measuring and quantifying an individual type of light source on its own. Lumens-per-watt does not capture any qualitative characteristics, nor does it express the actual performance level of any light source used in practical applications. Most importantly, it does not represent the actual illuminating and spectral properties of a given light source. Lumens-per-watt is simply an idealized quantifier obtained in laboratory measurement, which is often used isolated from other light source characteristics and out of context with the lighting applications under which people live and work. What is really needed is an incandescent lamp with today’s lumen output but with longer life.

Generally, there are no bad light sources, only bad applications.
There are some very laudable characteristics of the CFL, yet the selection of any light source remains inseparable from the luminaire that houses it, along with the space in which both are installed and lighting requirements that need to be satisfied. In the pursuit of more useful lumens-per-watt metric, one must match the luminaire to the space being illuminated.
The lamp, the fixture and the room: all three must work in concert and for the true benefits of end-users. If the CFL should be used for lighting a particular space, or an object within that space, the fixture must be designed to work with that lamp, and that fixture with the room. It is a symbiotic relationship.
A CFL cannot be simply installed in an incandescent fixture and then expected to produce a visual appearance that is more than washed out, foggy and dingy. The whole fixture must be replaced — light source and luminaire — and this is never an inexpensive proposition.


“It is wrong to assume that banning the incandescent lamp is an energy- and ecologically conscious action. We have not solved all our lighting problems by finding a highly efficient source. There is presently no lighting technology that can replace certain types and uses of incandescent lamps.”
[ref, IALD]

This study challenges current political consensus and decision to phase out incandescent lamps and switch to CFLs on the assumption that significant energy savings will be achieved without seriously compromising any of the relevant functional and illuminating requirements in target applications. Moreover, and more importantly, the study points out that there is a need to carefully investigate and elucidate some of the important safety concerns that may arise from a prolonged exposure and widespread use of CFLs, of which levels of electromagnetic fields measured around these appliances are illustrated in more detail. (N.B. an initial measurement of approximately 50 DB from a 13W CFL)


We propose the following simple test that may actually provide an effective method for determining whether the legislation will actually serve people:

– Initiate a field study aimed at satisfying the proposed power limits in all public buildings, from museums and hospitals to the White House, and the homes of all elected officials.
– As this will include replacing all incandescent lamps with CFLs, it would be easy to directly ascertain the effects of the proposed legislation/ban.
– Assure that all of these measures to comply with specified power limits in residential units are done and paid for solely by the occupants, i.e. that occupants may freely decide on the use of specific equipment and devices
– At the end of sufficiently long period (e.g. 18 months) check whether the incandescent lighting had not been reinstalled, and perform a detailed survey with all users to determine their overall satisfaction with the initial, intermediate and resulting lighting.
– This will help to identify specific target applications for different light sources, as they will be selected by end-users, based on their needs and requirements.
– In parallel with this field study, initiate and perform detailed research related to determining quantitative and qualitative characteristics of CFLs and other alternative light sources (e.g. LED light sources), as well as the comparative analysis of their relevant aspects and most important effects of use.

Based on the data collected from the above field/labs studies, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 and current lighting related energy legislation still in Congress may be amended, if necessary, to conform to the results of the studies. We expect that the current and proposed legislation would be rewritten in favor of a new act, which will be based on the result of a thoughtful process that could yield a set of proven recommendations that will better serve our nation’s needs by maximizing both human health, environmental satisfaction and energy efficiency. In the end, the most energy effective solution for residences may be achieved using incandescent lamps with a combination of occupancy sensors and dimmers.


Regarding the obvious retort of
“incandescents are not banned, energy efficient halogen types allowed”, or “better LEDs are coming”, and other arguments used to justify bans, see the 13 point referenced rundown of why the arguments don’t hold up here:

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