Saturday, August 2, 2008

How safe are CFLs?

Any green-minded person will tell you that we should all replace old-style incandescent light bulbs with energy saving compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). In fact, I wrote about his only recently on this blog. But after a couple of rather disturbing incidences at my house I am now wondering - how safe are they?

The benefits of CFLs over old-style light bulbs are obvious. They are supposed to last much longer than traditional bulbs, and they use up to 80 per cent LESS energy while providing the same amount of light. Over the average life span of a CFL (6000 hours usage per globe) this will save 1.6 tonnes of CO2 emissions and about $176 in energy costs (assuming a price of 10.95c/kW - in fact, we pay more than that). It is no wonder that the previous Howard government decided to phase out incandescent light bulbs over the next number of years.

And you guessed right - all light bulbs in my house are CFLs. Unfortunately, I found that some of the cheaper generic CFLs seemed to dim rather quickly - they were still going after a while, but the light output diminished to a point where it simply felt rather gloomy in the house. Inquiries with some people "in the know" revealed that there are major quality differences between different brands and that the market is not as well regulated and controlled as it should be.

I then gradually replaced the cheap ones with brand name CFLS, such as "Osram" and "Philips". I also received a pack of "Mirabelle" brand CFLs through the NSW carbon reduction scheme.

However, a couple of weeks ago I noticed the typical acrid smell of an electric fire in the sitting room. I couldn't see any fire but the stench was getting stronger and it seemed to be particularly bad just under the light. I thought we must have some problem with the wiring. I turned the lights off, checked outside whether there was smoke coming out somewhere, even crawled up into the attic space - but I couldn't see anything unusual.

The following day I noticed that one of the light bulbs in the sitting room was "dead". When I tried to unscrew it, it cracked at the base, just where the glass goes into the plastic encasing - not good, given that CFLs contain nasty mercury. We quickly evacuated the kids, opened all the windows, I made sure the thing didn't break completely, carefully sealed it in a plastic bag and got rid of it.

Then last week I again noticed this awful smell, this time in the bedroom. I looked up and saw thick black smoke coming out of our ceiling light! By now I was convinced that there must be a major fault in our wiring and I was worried we may end up burning the house down by turning the light on.

So I disabled the power to the lights and got our very nice local electrician to come and have a look at the problem. He unscrewed the lamp, took everything apart - all fine, no problem whatsoever with the wiring. What we did find, however, was that two of the three CFLs in the lamp were partially blackened inside and there were signs that the plastic base had started to melt and burn.

The CFLs had self-destructed! Both were from the "Osram" selection of bulbs. The Philips and Mirabelle lights are still going but I am not holding my breath. Maybe I was just unlucky and this was simply a bad batch. Or maybe this is a major problem of quality control, given that all the CFLs, no matter what fancy brand, are made in the same country that last year produced toothpaste contaminated with highly toxic diethylene glycol and children's toys covered in lead paint.

I intend to write to Osram and let them know about their quality product. But I am also furious with our government for not implementing better quality control measures. This is outright dangerous.

Thankfully, we may not have to live with CFLs for much longer. LEDs (light emitting diodes) are even more energy efficient than CFLs, they last longer, shine brighter and, according to my electrician, they are only a couple of years away from becoming widely available as a standard lighting option.


  1. I have a few of these in my house where practical (maybe 8 or so) but they are not practical in so many of my lamps (trilights) and ceiling fixtures.
    Can you imagine chandeliers with CFLs? I don't know how they are going to make a ban on incandescent lights work with all the light fixtures that are not suitable for CFLs. Are we supposed to spend thousands to replace them and junk up the landfill?
    Hopefully the LED ones will work with current fixtures.

  2. I wondered about this too and was interested by your experience. I am sure that you are not alone. There is a wide range in price and you wonder if you get what you pay for.

  3. This is scary and dissapointing. When you think you are doing something to benefit not only the environment but also your household, to find that you could have infact lost everything because of faulty globes. I will be interested to read what Osram have to say about this matter. Jxx

  4. Thought you might appreciate this additional information that I found at

    I have heard that CFLs can overheat and smoke - should I be worried? Why would this happen? Are these bulbs a fire hazard?

    Unfortunately, there have been some instances of CFLs smoking or smoldering. While this usually occurs when the product is defective or installed improperly, it is nonetheless a concern to consumers and the government. The latest ENERGY STAR CFL specification (finalized in March, and effective December 2, 2008) requires all ENERGY STAR qualified CFLs to incorporate end-of-life requirements and higher safety standards. ENERGY STAR qualified CFLs currently meet UL safety standards, which require the materials to be self-extinguishing. So, although the base or glass tubing may darken, an ENERGY STAR qualified CFL should never catch on fire. CFL manufacturers recommend that you install and remove CFLs by grasping the plastic portions of the base only. If the CFL is screwed into a light socket by twisting the tube rather than the plastic base, it can cause the vacuum seal or glass tubing in the CFL to break. Once certain parts are exposed to oxygen, they are more liable to become defective and/or overheat.
    In some cases, when a fluorescent tube reaches it end of useful life, the arc contained in the tube may elevate the temperature of the housing plastic near one end of the tube. This elevated temperature, although it is short lived, may produce some limited smoke and odor. In some cases a flashing arc internal to the fluorescent tube or ballast may occur and in some extreme cases, a deformation, significant distortion, or small breach of the plastic material may happen. Again, the materials and evaluation tests are designed to prevent subsequent safety hazard.
    If you have a product that does begin to smoke or smolder, immediately shut off the power to the CFL and, once it has cooled, remove it from the light socket. Then, send us e-mail at to alert us of this incident. Please include the product manufacturer's name and model information that is included on the CFL base and if possible an electronic photo. Also please tell us how the CFL was used - open or enclosed light fixture; indoors or outdoors; base orientation - up, down or sideways. Then visit the manufacturer's web site to find customer service contact information to inform them of the early failure. Manufacturers producing ENERGY STAR qualified CFLs are required to offer at least a 2-year limited warranty (covering manufacturer defects) for residential applications. In some cases, the manufacturer may request the failed product to be shipped to them so they can determine why the smoking happened, so make sure to keep the product until you speak to the manufacturer. The manufacturer will most likely provide a replacement product or a refund.
    If you have additional questions or concerns about your ENERGY STAR qualified CFL, please e-mail us at

  5. triccardi - thanks for your extensive comment, I think this is really useful to know. I might actually put this into another blog entry - I certainly want to use CFLs rather than incandescent light bulbs, but the experience did give me a pretty big scare!

  6. The truth is this technology has been rushed into production before efficient and reliable manufacturing methods could be perfected. In spite of being very eco-aware myself I have resisted installing these bulbs in my home due to the risks and the fact that they are not available for the European fittings I use at home. Like you I am awaiting the arrival of LED technology which will be vastly superior and will have much less environmental impact in manufacture and disposal.

  7. Wow, I just had some of the same issues! Thanks for posting this!

  8. I just had a 14w "Lights of America" CFL go up in flames when I turned it on. Thank heaven I was there when the thing decided to end its life. The house stinks from what ever product of combustion it emitted. This is not the type of product you give a second chance to, there not safe and I am going back to incandescents.


  9. I installed one in an overhead office fixture, an older ceramic socket, and after turning on, off, and making a "snap, crackle, and pop" noise, my circuit breaker tripped. Not pleasant in a retail setting. Upon removing the CFL, it was apparent that a discharge had occurred on the base of the bulb (i.e., deep within the socket), evidenced by blackened and melted metal. I think these can be fire hazards and I will not use them - particularly in older light fixtures.

    n.b. the CFL was manufactured by n:vision and purchased at Home Depot.

  10. We use them and have done so for a long time. Some definitely don't last as long as others but we've never had smoke or fire. The thing that bothers me is the safe disposal of these bulbs. they end up in landfill because recycling them is so difficult. every retailer should have a collection point for used bulbs. I notice Bunnings are currently doing this for batteries. I hate to think what's entering our waterways via our tips.

  11. Thanks Kirsty for your thoughtful comment. I agree with you on those issues. I shall write to my local Council and find out what their thoughts are!

    We are still using CFLs by the way, and I haven't had the problem since. I am a bit more careful in what I choose, I also suspect that maybe the manufacturers have cleaned up their act, as I am certain there would have been other people who have experienced the same problems!

    In 2008, I was hopeful that LED lights would come to replace CFLS soon. It seems that finally, five years later, LEDs are starting to make some inroads. I am still waiting for good affordable quality replacements for LED that would fit in standard light fittings, though.