Never Mind: Fluorescent Light Bulbs Not Quite As Earth-Saving As Advertised

News flash, Times readers: Those controversial fluorescent light bulbs may not be quite the inexpensive Earth-savers we had anticipated, wearing out quickly when they work at all as well as casting unattractive light. So said Saturday's front-page story by Leora Broydo Vestel from San Francisco. "The Bulb That Saved the Planet May Be a Little Less Than Billed." (The Times had previously sold the bulbs as potential world-savers.)

It sounds like such a simple thing to do: buy some new light bulbs, screw them in, save the planet.

But a lot of people these days are finding the new compact fluorescent bulbs anything but simple. Consumers who are trying them say they sometimes fail to work, or wear out early. At best, people discover that using the bulbs requires learning a long list of dos and don'ts.

Take the case of Karen Zuercher and her husband, in San Francisco. Inspired by watching the movie "An Inconvenient Truth," they decided to swap out nearly every incandescent bulb in their home for energy-saving compact fluorescents. Instead of having a satisfying green moment, however, they wound up coping with a mess.

"Here's my sad collection of bulbs that didn't work," Ms. Zuercher said the other day as she pulled a cardboard box containing defunct bulbs from her laundry shelf.

One of the 16 Feit Electric bulbs the Zuerchers bought at Costco did not work at all, they said, and three others died within hours. The bulbs were supposed to burn for 10,000 hours, meaning they should have lasted for years in normal use. "It's irritating," Ms. Zuercher said.

Irritation seems to be rising as more consumers try compact fluorescent bulbs, which now occupy 11 percent of the nation's eligible sockets, with 330 million bulbs sold every year. Consumers are posting vociferous complaints on the Internet after trying the bulbs and finding them lacking.


In California, where bulbs have been heavily encouraged, utilities have concluded that they will not be able to persuade a majority of consumers to switch until compact fluorescents get better. That is prompting them to develop specifications for a better bulb.

The effort aims to address the most consumer complaints: poor dimming, slow warm-up times, shortened bulb life because of high temperatures inside enclosed fixtures, and dissatisfaction with the color of the light.

Tom Zeller Jr.'s sidebar, "Some Special Handling Required," was also discouraging reading for acolytes of the environment.

Light bulbs are getting a lot more complicated.

In a guide they wrote, lighting experts at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute said compact fluorescent bulbs require "a little insight and planning."

That may be an understatement. While research suggests that compact fluorescent technology has improved in the last decade, the bulbs do not replicate the performance of incandescents, the bulbs to which most people are accustomed.

Zeller included confidence-inspiring tips like this one, which will no doubt cause people to just flock to these wonderful bulbs.

If you break a bulb, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends precautions to avoid mercury exposure: Clear people and pets from the room and open a window for at least 15 minutes if possible. Avoid vacuuming. Scoop up larger pieces with stiff paper or cardboard, pick up smaller residue with sticky tape, and wipe the area with a damp cloth. Put everything into a sealed plastic bag or sealed glass jar. In most cases, this can be put in the trash, but the E.P.A. recommends checking local rules.

Why was the Times so worried about mercury levels in tuna sushi while pushing light fixtures that continued much higher levels of the element?

Good for the Times for its belated recognition of the limits of fluorescent light bulbs. Yet the paper was as guilty as anyone of promoting fluorescents as an easy environmental panacea. A July 2007 story by Anthony DePalma on a study projecting rising sea levels and swamped New York City subways implied such an apocalypse could be avoided by among other things, switching to fluorescents.