Friday, August 03, 2007

Carbon Footprint: Compact Fluorescence

When I saw this New Yorker cover over at The World's Fair, I knew I needed to use it for a column about compact fluorescent bulbs. This week is the perfect week for it. Not only did I renew a few fixtures in my apartment this morning with CFBs, King of the Nerds (who last week was promoted to represent all of science in a column called Dear Science) offered Seattle's lighting Luddites fuel for the anti-conservationist fire. (Warning: while Nerd is a gentleman and refrains from profanity, his newspaper's readers are/do not, so beware of following that link!)

The question here is whether Americans are willing to pass up on incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescent ones. The cons for switching include:
  1. The strange light looks funny, buzzes, gives me headaches, and induces seizures.
  2. If I break the bulbs, I'll inhale mercury and turn into a drooling idiot.
  3. Power in the Northwest doesn't come from carbon anyway, so why bother?
  4. All of my fixtures are three-way switches or dimmers.
  5. I can't throw my old CFBs in the trash. What a drag!
Here are my quick responses to these:
  1. Go buy a new bulb (not that one you got free from the power company in 2000) and try it out. You will be impressed by its silence and light quality.
  2. The Nerd writes,
    While new compact fluorescent bulbs are voluntarily limited to five milligrams of mercury each, as little as a tenth of a milligram per square yard will make you seriously ill.
    Note to copy editor: please change 'will' to 'could.' Even 'could' is too strong a word. Seriously ill was probably caused from direct ingestion or inhalation of the entire quantity prepared in its most bioactive state. (Feel free to chime in if you can clarify this!) For reference, 5 mg is 1% of what mercury thermometers contained. Yes there IS mercury, so you should follow these instructions in the rare event that a bulb breaks. The Nerd also insinuates that CFBs throw off UV light. Read that part carefully: UV is like a catalyst for the light that actually comes out. When was the last time you got sunburned in the office? As far as the drooling idiot is concerned, I'm not sure if new bulbs could fix the Nerd's questioner.
  3. We do use water to fuel our consumptive power habits, but what about all of those folks in Wyoming or Michigan that burn coal? If we don't use our extra power here, guess who we sell it to?
  4. Contrary to popular opinion, there are CFBs rated for dimmers and three way switches.
  5. In the United States, use this helpful guide to find out where your bulbs should be disposed of. In Seattle, go here or here.
As far as the pros are concerned, by replacing 5 of your most commonly used bulbs with CFBs you can reduce electricity consumption, lower your power bill by about $60 a year and diminish your carbon output by 500 pounds a year. This is all for changing a bulb that should last 10 years.

Don't forget that you can also turn off your compact fluorescent lights when they are not in use!

1 comment:

golob said...

Now for my moment of honesty -- almost every single lightbulb in my house is a compact fluorescent. Ha!

Recycling mercury bulbs, even in "eco-friendly" King County is surprisingly difficult. One has to go to a handful of companies, and then pay to dispose of the bulb. The other option is to call up King county hazardous waste, set up an appointment, and then have the bulbs stored for all eternity as waste -- no more than ten at a time please; at least that option is free.

The mercury poisoning data are based off UpToDate, a quite accurate source. While you are right that mercury thermometers have much more, that's why most household thermometers are made with alcohol now.

I also looked up the electricity sharing. While the Pacific Northwest does share electricity with California, it's impractical to ship it all over the country. Transmitting thousands of miles costs tremendous amounts of energy. Let's not forget the manufacturing costs, the energy it takes to ship these bulbs from China and the energy to recycle or store the mercury.

I stand by my conclusion. If you have a light that is out of reach and used heavily, go with a CFL. Otherwise, particularly in the PNW, I think traditional bulbs (turned off when they're not needed) are the environmentally responsible choice.