Should We Celebrate the CFL?

In its story on Human Achievement Hour today, USA Today says we will be celebrating breakthrough technologies “such as the Compact Fluorescent Lightbulb.”

Hmmm.  What Michelle actually told the reporter was that even people who celebrate the CFL should celebrate Thomas Edison and the incandescent lightbulb, because it was that technological breakthrough that eventually made the CFL possible.  Earth Hour, however, represents a repudiation of technological advancement, the incandescent bulb and the energy that powers it.

But surely the CFL is a wonderful piece of technology that represents human achievement.  Up to a point.  As Sam Kazman wrote in Somewhere, Mr. Edison Gently Weeps, there are significant problems with the CFL.

1. Some people hate the light that CFLs give off. Lots of people, in fact; not just the ones in that New Yorker cartoon.

2. Unlike incandescents, CFLs take time to reach full brightness after they’re turned on — from 30 seconds to three minutes. The first time I used one, it was so dim I thought I’d bought a dud. Only when I walked back into the room later did I realize the need for patience. (And only then could I make out the small print on the back of the CFL package mentioning this.) If you’re used to full brightness at the flick of a switch, forget it.

3. CFLs can’t be used with most dimmers or timers, and they don’t fit in many fixtures. I’ve got several of those Y-shaped ceiling sockets that hold three 60-watt bulbs, but if I replace all three bulbs in a socket with CFLs, I can’t fit the glass cover back on. (According to one customer service rep at Westinghouse, you shouldn’t mix CFLs with incandescents in the same socket, so forget about inter-bulb harmony.)

4. Some CFLs can’t be used in totally enclosed fixtures or in base-up recessed downlights. They can also interfere with radios and televisions.

And here’s another lovely reason for hating CFLs, if you typically clean up the mess when a bulb breaks rather than call in your servants:

5. CFLs contain tiny amounts of mercury, and so EPA has a four-step program on how to clean up a broken CFL! First step: “Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.” I suspect EPA is overdoing it, but who am I to argue?

Finally, there’s the question of whether CFLs really do reduce the use of electricity. Back in 1987, the small town of Traer, Iowa, handed out 18,000 fluorescents to its residents, in a free giveaway aimed at cutting power consumption. How did that work out?

Despite the fact that over half of the town’s households participated, electricity use actually rose by 8 percent. Once people realized they could keep their lights on at lower cost, they kept them on longer.

Perhaps most important, however, is the fact that the CFL has become a symbol of a drive to ban technologies. The cellphone is imperfect too, but no-one is using it as a symbol to drive a ban on landlines. Such bans also create tangents in market technologies (for instance, no incandescent lightbulbs means no more Easybake ovens). Market technologies might lead to the dominance of CFLs, but they might also lead to the development of ubiquitous LED-based lighting. As such, the CFL might be a great example of human achievement in technology, but it is a terrible example of the human desire to put artificial restrictions on its own achievement.