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July 9, 2008

Compact Fluorescent (CFL) Reviews: One Solid Source

Category: Cool Sites,Green Reviews,Household,Save Electricity,Tips – Tom Harrison – 9:36 pm

One CFL can save a lotI am on a mission to find only top quality CFL bulbs that won’t disappoint. (Update 9/08: Mission accomplished; see my CFL Review here)

Why? There are a lot of really bad CFLs out there. This is probably why most of my friends and family who aren’t quite as, um, obsessive as I about this kind of thing have given it a good try, but been sorely disappointed.

So I am still on a mission, and will report back in a while, but until then, I did find one site that lists a number of different bulbs with honest assesments, and actually has CFL reviews by real people.

To my surprise, the site is Environmental Defense Fund (home of one of my heroes, Fred Krupp, who was part of the amazing deal last year to get TXU to call off building coal plants). At first, I thought these were all recommended bulbs, but it’s more of a “buyer beware” situation, and I don’t think they actually sell them.

There’s also a great buyer’s guide for CFL bulbs you should check out.

Anyway, until I actually see each of the bulbs I recommend in person, this is a good source for dimmable CFL reviews (hint: most of them are not so good), as well as other specialty bulbs.

So read the reviews carefully before buying. More hands-on CFL reviews to come…

Update: 9/8/08 — I have searched long and hard, tested and found a number of CFL bulbs I confidently recommend.


  1. Hi Tom,

    We have the misfortune of being an early adopter of CFLs in our household, and have suffered through the combination of high prices due to scarcity, and high failure rates across many different makes and brands.

    CFLs are a lot easier to get now than a few years ago, but the premature failure rates are still surprisingly high, and don’t seem to be closely related to selling price. The extra cheap bulbs do seem to have “infant mortality” issues more than the others, but what bothers me are the ones that fail after a few months of use, especially when they cost several dollars each because they’re supposed to be better quality. The “longer lifetime” used to justify the higher initial cost is generally non-existent, in my experience. They are very effective at cutting energy use though.

    Comment by Ho John Lee — July 15, 2008 @ 1:03 am

  2. Ho John —

    We went through our share of crappy CFLs as well. I had an interesting conversation last week with a guy from a prominent online reseller of lighting, confirming that probably the majority of what people can buy, in stores and online is cheap, and “brand” is often meaningless. That’s not always the case, though.

    I have also managed to make contact with a person at GE and I hope she’ll be able to send me a few “sure bet” samples.

    But it does look like there’s some hope, and my goal is to find a few CFLs that are well made, readily available, and don’t have the many problems you have listed. The premature failure issue is big (and hard to really know about just by looking).

    The CFL industry really seems to be shooting themselves in the foot on this issue.

    Comment by Tom Harrison — July 18, 2008 @ 3:30 pm

  3. I’ve had some issues with our CFLs no being bright enough (not up to the wattage on the box) and failing too soon (some within a week or so), so our house still uses mostly incandescent bulbs. BUT, we have found a few places where the CFLs work better, or at least don’t bother us. We’ve changed out bulbs in lights that stay on all the time, porch lights that we hate changing, and lamps in little used rooms.

    It would be great if you could add specific functionality to your experiment though. Some CFLs might be great quality lights in general, but not work at all for someone who wants a bulbs for a reading lamp. Likewise, some bulbs may not give off the best quality light indoors, but work great and last for years in a porch light (which would be especially good for the elderly and people who would have trouble changing a bulb in a less-accessible fixture). Perhaps your list could pull out some of your tested bulbs and specify their strengths and weaknesses. I know I get frustrated very quickly if I spend a bunch of money on a CFL and it doesn’t do what I need it to. Most people can’t/won’t test brands and types of bulbs in different lamps until they find the optimum arrangement.

    Comment by Amy — July 19, 2008 @ 10:15 pm

  4. Amy —

    Your frustrations are shared by many! And so is your outcome — a few CFLs in some parts of the house, but not many where they really count, right?

    Our kitchen has some floodlights built in, and a couple halogen lamps over the stove. None is a CFL — we tried, but the ceiling lights are dimmable, and that just didn’t work, and there are very few choices in the specific size that our fixtures require — PAR 20. Similarly, our dining room has a chandelier with 5 lamps (candle style, exposed) and dimmable — they just don’t have anything comparable in CFL. Our living room has R-30 ceiling lights, again, dimmable (although I have some hope that we’ll find a reasonable solution for this). So, we’re far from 100%.

    But, we do think a little more when we turn the incandescent lights on. And we make sure to turn them off when not needed.

    In truth, turning lights off is probably what accounts for the majority of our electricity savings over the years. Still, there are CFLs that are just as nice and workable as the incandescent bulbs they replace … or are in locations where we can make an easy trade-off.

    Our basement, outdoor flood light, the lights in the garage, attic, and others all fall into the “trade off” category. Then, there are standing lamps, reading lights, and desk lamps that are all perfectly good replacements for standard light bulbs. No, really, they are just as good as the bulbs they replace.

    So, as I test, I am going to focus on the ones that work in either the “don’t care, just need light”, and the “works as well or better than the incandescent it replaces”.

    And, I’ll provide specific brands, models, and resellers that you can buy them from … since it may be that getting low quality bulbs is as much a problem and frustration (and expense!) as some of the other real problems that CFL’s just can’t solve yet.


    Comment by Tom Harrison — July 20, 2008 @ 8:46 pm

  5. Tom,
    I am not a fan of CFLs. Yes, they do consume less wattage which is a good thing. But many people I know believe that that is an excuse to leave the bulbs on. Plus, they do contain mercury, which incandescents do not. The Environmental Defense Fund site said that the mercury content of CFLs is not as high as that of a thermometer. True, but a little bit of mercury is still highly toxic and if they are not properly disposed of the used bulbs end up in landfills not lined to prevent mercury contamination of groundwater.
    So, in my opinion, CFLs are not the answer. As you indicated above, I believe that the best/most efficient light bulb at this time is the incandescent bulb that is turned off.

    Comment by Debra Norvil — July 20, 2008 @ 9:55 pm

  6. While I got some CFL’s I have not replaced all of them because that would mean fixture replacement and I am not wanting to go that way yet.
    However, the CFL’s can’t be used for trouble lights because they are too bulky when I do car repairs or confined area repairs.
    Also, I shut off the lights when I don’t (need them) like when I leave a room. No lights are left on all night. I sleep in the dark. Can’t sleep in the light. Why would I leave a light on?
    For the burglars? > They will steal the bulbs <.
    But with turning the lights off more, that is the reason why I have had premature failure of CFL’s. Because they are on for an hour maybe 2 -but not the mandatory 3?.
    If the light is turned on for passageway at night (say like moving across the basement at night and then it is flicked off at the other doorway,(so in essence, 15 seconds) then CFL’s are basically a waste of money in that case(considering they are not meant for short term use)Then really, am I saving anything?
    It seems to me, “Both” bulb types are needed.
    The idea of banning the incandescent is ridiculous.
    So far I have burnt out 2 5 year light bulbs(in under a year). They are not enclosed or anything.
    I just have the habit of using light when I need it, otherwise they are off.

    Comment by friedemann — March 6, 2009 @ 11:17 am

  7. The biggest problem I have with the cfl bulbs that nobody has addressed is that when you turn them off using a remote (ex. my celling fan has a remote controll) they flicker all through the night. this was a major problem and I fanilly replaced them with old fashion fan bulbs and problem was sloved. Has this issue been resloved? anybody know?

    Comment by cjenkins87 — March 13, 2009 @ 10:38 pm

  8. The first CFLs I owned were Philips, which were subsidized by the local utility. They were bulky, and warmed up much too slowly. Nor did they last very long.

    I started buying Home Depot’s store brand several years ago. Much to my surprise (given their low price), they were reliable (even with intermittant use) and had outstanding color rendition (good enough for flashless snapshots). They also come on “instantly” (faster than an incandescent!), though not at full brightness (though much brighter than the Philips).

    Consumer Reports recently concurred, ranking them near the top.

    I haven’t checked them for dimming capability, but will eventually get around to it.

    Comment by William Sommerwerck — March 31, 2011 @ 8:32 am

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