Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step

November 3, 2007

Free CFL and Halloween Wind Turbine Costume Success!

Category: Fun,Little Things,Save Electricity,Take Actions – Tom Harrison – 6:11 pm

A few weeks back I wrote about Carter’s idea to make a Wind Turbine costume and hand out free compact fluorescent bulbs for Halloween. It was a great, great success. First, the picture:

and a few more in the album. Carter built it with some help from me, he and his friend Nicky gave out free CFLs (which is harder than it might seem), and we all learned just how much work there is to be done. (Update: 10/2008 — better options for CFLs now available)

Wind Turbine Costume Construction

The blades of the turbine were made out of foam-core board. We got the dimensions from a scale model we had in the house and I cut out the pieces with a razor knife. We glued it all together with regular white glue.

The blades actually turn, and this was a bit of a trick. We found an old paint roller handle, and a threaded extension pole that screwed right into the handle. We bent the metal roller so that when the extension pole ran down Carter’s back, the turning part was level and over his head. The plastic base of a compact disk case has a spindle; with some duct tape (and Lego’s for spacers) we made the spindle the right diameter for a paint roller cover (the part that you would paint with) to slip over about 1/2 way. We taped this contraption to the back of the foam-core blades, and thus had our hub — it could slide on and off the paint roller frame. This is engineering at its finest!

It just happened that Carter had a duct tape jacket lying around. No, really, he can make anything from duct tape, a skill learned from his cousins Max and Sam, and perfected since. His first duct tape jacket was a pullover, but that wasn’t very easy to use, so his improved version had Velcro buttons on the front for easy on and off. If you don’t happen to have a duct tape jacket lying around, any other jacket would do, but duct tape sticks well to more duct tape, so this was ideal. Not to mention pretty amazing :-)

So we taped the paint roller extension pole to the back of the duct tape jacket (with more duct tape, of course), adjusting for height several times. The jacket needs to be tight at the waist to stabilize the contraption. If I had a hacksaw, I could have shortened the extension pole, which was a bit long, but it worked out fine anyway.

The final part was the “tower” of the turbine, which we made out of white poster-board. This turned out to be an afterthought on our part, and we didn’t have a very effective way of keeping it attached to the rest of the device. More planning would have helped.

It was an impressive site indeed — a boy wearing a costume with wind-turbine blades that really turned. Neighbors handing out candy were sometimes amazed, and sometimes confused.

Free CFL Bulbs

I had bought a case of 60 Watt 2700K spiral bulbs from, at $1.99 each. As an aside, I see in my server logs that many people are looking for dimmable CFL bulbs, CFL outdoor floodlights, indoor CFL floods, “normal” shaped CFL bulbs, and so on which also sells. I have sampled them all — my main advice: go for 2700K color temperature which looks nice and warm.

Anyway, Nicky and Carter went door to door, trick-or-treating. They ran into a few unexpected reactions.

In the first few tries, people thought they wanted money for the bulbs, so they added the magic word “free” to the pitch. I think “Trick or Treat for the Environment” worked pretty well, with a follow-up like “please use this free compact fluorescent bulb to help reduce global warming”. Our original idea of “Switch or Treat” may have been too subtle for the conditions. They tried a number of pitches, and learned which ones worked. Some of the reactions were pretty surprising.

My favorite was a person driving by who recognized the wind turbine costume and rolled down her window to say “Awesome costume” — we handed her a bulb and she gave us her thanks and a smile. This was a nice way to start the night, since I think Carter and I were both a little unsure of how this was going to work out.

When knocking on doors, several people took the bulb and expressed their appreciation. But a few people said they didn’t know what a CFL light bulb was. One person said she had been meaning to go buy one, and give it a try. I saw at least several people reading the label and looking in the box as they walked back into their house. So if you are a neighbor reading this, please replace an incandescent bulb you use a lot with the one we gave you — you’ll be impressed at quality of CFL light compared to the first ones that were made, and it should last for many years. And if you are not one of our neighbors, replace a bulb anyway!

All in all, the boys handed out about 25 or 30 bulbs. Charlotte gave away a few more, and I put some in the bags of a few people who came to our house. If anyone wants a bulb, let me know, as we have 20 left, which is nearly a lifetime supply, I think :-)

Perhaps “Trick or Treat for the Environment” is something we could scale up a little for next year. If you’re interested, add a comment and I’ll see if we can do some bulk purchasing. Heck, maybe this could be a Veteran’s day gift, or a Thanksgiving present. A CFL dradle? CFL Christmas Tree Lights (actually, LED seems like a much better idea here). Flag day — come on folks, let’s get creative :-)

Work to Be Done

I learned a lot from this. For one, I am absolutely terrified of the kind of canvassing the boys did — they were spreading a message, and I realized that my blog here is a way to hide from the “in your face” kind of awareness building that the boys were able to accomplish.

It’s possible that in an hour or so, they were able to educate three or four or maybe more people, and perhaps ten or fifteen people will actually use the bulbs. This is pretty cool. I have a lot of admiration for the boys, who were very, very good, earnest, and effective.

I have to say, I was pretty amazed at how many people didn’t know what the bulb was — we purposely got the iconic spiral shape for easy recognition. But there were people, living here in Newton who appeared not to know what the heck these things were. We’re going to need a lot more Halloweens before we get every household in the US to replace a bulb.

But not to despair: the need for work to be done represents opportunity to do something good. I congratulate Carter and Nicky for doing something meaningful and important on a night that otherwise doesn’t have a lot of meaning.


  1. Now THAT is a fantastic Halloween costume!!! Great idea and masterful execution. I wish I could have had Carter and his buddy at my door — i’d have given theem all my snickers…. I still have a couple incandescents waiting to die out.
    Love Sal

    Comment by sally — November 4, 2007 @ 3:39 pm

  2. Kudos to Carter and the Harrison family for thinking of (and following through with) such a good idea. The neighborhood loved the costume and Nicky thought handing out the CFLs with his pal was a great way to spend Halloween (and yes, of course he loved the candy too!). It’s nice to see young kids thoughtfully engaged in energy conservation issues. -Andrea (Nicky’s mom)

    Comment by Andrea — November 5, 2007 @ 10:37 am

  3. I was wholly impressed with Carter’s costume. I do have a question. When Carter was walking down the street and the blades were going around, did you have them hooked up to a small storage battery? OK, I guess that will be a project for next year. Hey, maybe Nicky can be a storage battery next year :) I am sending your blog on to a number of people up here, first to brag about my brother and nephew, and secondly because I think you are right about how important it is to get the word out about CFLs. And by the way, I have been looking for a place to buy “normal” shaped bulbs. Home Depot only sells the squiggly ones and they don’t work well on the spring loaded shades. So here I come. Thanks for the tip! Hat’s off to Carter and Nicky for getting the word out there. That is how to get real grass roots social change — reminds me of what we did back in the late 60′s and early 70′s when we had “Earth Day” …. we were collecting signatures door to door for cleaning up the rivers and harbors. Hey, now that I think of it, they actually did do some seriously good work on that front. It took a while, but damn, that did happen.

    So let’s all go door to door with a CFL in hand!

    Comment by Eliza Harrison — November 5, 2007 @ 10:59 pm

  4. Eliza — there are a couple of “pear shaped” bulbs at Greenlights USA ( but they seem to max out at 60W equivalent.

    The other option for spiral bulbs on lamps is to get one of those metal “harp” jobs that screw onto the light socket, and bend the metal spring clips up somehow.

    Having been encouraged by our feat of engineering with the costume, I’ll see if I can figure out how to do that with one of our lamps and post some pictures.

    Sally — it’s an interesting question about whether to wait for the incandescents to burn out before replacing them. The break-even point on “standard” CFLs vs. incandescents is probably something like 14 months (I calculated this on another post, just don’t remember the actual figure) and CFLs can last from 5 to 10 years. Depending on how long the bulbs you have now would last, I suppose you would have to calculate the residual value of the current bulb (< $0.40) and disposal costs compared to the rate of energy savings of the CFL. My gut says that with a small capital investment of a few dollars a bulb, you’ll break even well before the expected lifespan of the CFL. And since none of this accounts for actual energy costs (the unaccounted for external costs, such as pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and the chance that we’ll have a marginally stable world economy), it’s a good bet that changing the bulbs now is a big win. So, waste not, want not :-)


    Comment by Tom Harrison — November 10, 2007 @ 5:40 pm

  5. Although this was well-intentioned, you endanged all those people. You gave them as easily breakable product containting mercury with no warnings or instructions on proper disposal or cleanup.

    Comment by digigreen — December 15, 2008 @ 11:14 am

  6. @digigreen –

    The bulbs we handed out (more than a year ago) were in their retail packaging. The boys gave them to adults who wanted them, not children, and explained what they were. These were the same bulbs readily available on the market at the time.

    It is true that as I spent more time investigating CFLs I learned that these bulbs, like almost all available at the time, were manufactured to lower standards than suitable. I have subsequently written a review of bulbs from GE that are much higher quality. Many thousands of people have seen the posts, and I hope learned what I did, which is that it’s worth paying for better quality.

    If you wish to address concerns about marketing dangerous products, perhaps you should turn your attention to cigarette companies, coal mining and burning facilities, and auto makers, and the many other products sold that pose great present and future dangers to all of us.


    Comment by Tom Harrison — December 16, 2008 @ 2:10 pm

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  8. I work with children teaching them about sustainable living practices for their families and the earth that are attainable now. Thanks for the tips on the light bulbs and I am interested in forming some type of coop to purchase the led lights which I understand have come down in cost but still needs a little more assistance to make it possible for the everyday person to invest in these better quality bulbs. So please contact me and keep up the great work.


    Comment by Anntranette — October 29, 2011 @ 12:39 am

  9. I am not up to date with the latest on LEDs, but you’re right, they are coming down in price. But they are still expensive at the source, so unlikely that you could get them at a significantly lower cost than what you’re seeing at retail. The best bet is to check your local utility to see if they have some sort of subsidized price.

    The secret to making LED prices come down is adoption — if people use them, manufacturers can build them at sufficiently high volumes to make the per-unit cost lower. We saw this when CFLs first came out (around when I wrote this post!), and then a few years to get them right. Then people started buying them and they started getting made in volume, and are now good. Unfortunately, the “Merchants of Greed” managed to find a way to scare people away from them.


    Comment by Tom Harrison — October 29, 2011 @ 5:57 pm

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