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Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step

September 9, 2008

CFL Bulb Review: Best CFL Bulbs to Replace Incandescent

Category: Green Reviews,Household,Save Electricity,Take Actions,Tips – Tom Harrison – 4:22 pm

Have you been dissatisfied with CFL (compact fluorescent) light bulbs? You’re not alone!

I have found and tested a number of bulbs and found several specific bulbs that I believe solve most of the issues people have had with CFL bulbs. I have tried a lot of bad bulbs, but the winners are GE Energy Smart CFL bulbs. There are a few in this line that are not good, but I have tested each of the ones below.

There are a few things to keep in mind about what to expect from CFL bulbs. See below for more details, but first, my recommendations!

My Recommended Best CFL Bulbs (updated 10/2010)

BrandModelStyleAs Bright AsCommentsManufacturer Info/PictureWhere To Buy
GE15517Standard Bulb, Spiral100WBright, but a little bigger than a regular 100W incandescentGE Lighting 100W CFLAmazon
GE15516Standard Bulb, Spiral75WGood for replacing 60W if brightness is a concernGE Lighting 75W CFLAmazon
GE246853-Way Bulb, Spiral50/100/150WConsiderably larger than a regular bulb; didn’t fit in one of the table lamps I tried, with longer warm-up time, but it’s good for our applicationGE Lighting 50/100/150 Spiral CFLAmazon
GE47487Glass Covered60W – 75WShaped like a regular bulb, so good for spring-clip shades. Recommend 75W or more for readingGE Lighting 60W A ShapeAmazon
GE47486Standard Bulb, “A” type, pear shape40WAnother pear-shaped bulb, even less bright, but very nice for ambiance. Good for ceiling fans or ceiling fixtures with two bulbsGE Lighting 40W A-ShapedGoogle Search
GE47483Outdoor Floodlight90WNice and bright, and withstands moisture, etc.GE Lighting Outdoor FloodAmazon

Also Available in Stores

These bulbs are also available widely at local retailers like Walgreen, Walmart and many others. Bulb costs generally run about $7 — more for higher wattages or specialty bulbs, and are available in 3-packs and 6-packs in some cases.

I encourage you to buy from Amazon through the link below, as I get a little commission for bulbs (or anything else you purchase) when you click this link. It helps me pay the bills for my web server :-)
GE EnergySmart Bulbs from

What To Expect from CFLs Compared to Incandescent

Warm Up Period for CFLs to Get Bright

Nearly all CFLs have a warm-up period before they get to their full brightness. Some take a long time to warm up, and/or start quite dim — from 30 seconds to a minute or more for some that I tested. Most of the GE bulbs I recommend have relatively short warm-up times, but you should still expect to wait 10 or 20 seconds to get to 80% or 90% brightness, and there is still a several minute period where the bulb reaches it full brightness.

I am quite sure that the warm-up delay accounts for part of the perception that CFLs are “not as bright”.

Avoid “Daylight” CFLs

Some bulbs are labeled as “daylight”, or “cool, natural light” — this sounds a lot better than it is for most cases. People (and photographers) find the light in the early morning or afternoon more pleasant than the harsh noon sunlight; the daylight bulbs are bright, but harsh and unpleasant. Look for designations like “regular, everyday light”, or “warm”, or for “2700K color temperature”, except for specialty lighting.

The GE Energy Smart bulbs I tested are all sold in a package with a yellow top and green bottom. The daylight bulbs are in a blue package.

Some CFLs have gone too far to get the warm color. Also, the most commonly sold wattage of CFL replaces a 60W incandescent bulb; 60W is not terribly bright. These things probably account for the rest of the perception that CFLs are not as bright as incandescent bulbs.

CFLs Are As Bright as Regular Bulbs

As noted above, there are several reasons that it may have seemed that your new CFL is not as bright as the bulb it replaces. If you give the bulbs I recommend a few seconds, and make sure to replace with the same or higher “equivalent” wattage I am confident that you will see that CFLs are indeed as bright as claimed.

When CFLs first came out, the most popular wattage was a 60W equivalent bulb. If you replace a 75W or 100W incandescent with a 60W equivalent, you’ll certainly be disappointed.

Avoid Dimmable CFLs

Dimmable CFLs don’t work well, even the best that I have tested are still a far cry from dimmable incandescent bulbs. Many kitchens have recessed lighting designed for bright halogen bulbs on dimmer switches — no CFL I have found comes close to reproducing this light. My neighbor has replaced his kitchen floodlight bulbs with GE EnergySmart dimmable CFLs, and they work pretty well in his kitchen. But I can’t find them on GE’s (rather poorly organized) site. Maybe GE has decided to sell only products that don’t suck :-)

Generally, dimmable CFLs don’t dim evenly, and give off an ugly purplish-blue light, and often hum or buzz when they are dimmed.

CFL Sizes and Shapes

\"A\" Shape CFLCFLs can have different shapes and sizes than the bulbs they replace. For example, the 3-way bulb I recommend was too large to fit in an old table lamp with a “harp” that holds up the lampshade — this was just because the height of the bulb is bigger.

Some people have complained that the spring clips used to affix lampshades to the lamp do not work well with the spiral bulbs. I have actually found that the work just as well as the standard pear shaped bulbs (designated as “A” shape) … which is to say that neither shape bulb seems to work very well — spring clip lampshades always seem to be tilted one way or other. It may be worse with the spiral CFLs, but there are some recommended A-shape CFL bulbs that you can use.

In other cases, the “ballast” of the CFL bulb (usually a bulky white part near the screw-in base) can prevent the bulb from fitting in a tight spot. This is especially true for recessed flood, or spot lights, usually designated as R20 (smaller) or the larger R30 and PAR30. I have tried a number of these in our living room (R30) and kitchen (R20), but both are on dimmers, and in several cases the bulbs were too large for the fixture.

Avoid Low Quality CFLs: They Don’t Last, or Break

As I researched this piece, I learned that most (perhaps all) CFLs bulbs are manufactured in one of a relatively small number of plants, usually located in China, or other low-cost locations — all the GE bulbs I recommend are from China.

However, not all bulbs are the same: many (even most) CFLs are specified to be cheap, not good. The bulbs I recommend are easily distinguished by visual inspection from cheapo bulbs. Their parts are all solidly attached, with no gaps or irregularities. They also warm up faster and have relatively small ballasts.

(In fact, the bulbs we gave out for Halloween last year may have done more harm than good — they were cheapo 60w spirals, and I have found several whose bases and glass have become loose).

One of my objectives in reviewing bulbs and making a recommendation was that the specific bulb I recommended was one that could be bought and easily identified by brand and model number, for this is really the only way to have even just some confidence that you’re getting the right bulb. It is certainly the case that some “brands” are not much more than marketing vehicles for taking the cheapest bulb available on a given day and putting it into a box with a seemingly good name. I haven’t tested them myself, but some people report that the nVision brand sold by Home Depot (and only them) is good.

It is quite clear that companies like GE, Sylvania, Philips and even retailers like Home Depot, Wal*Mart, Target and Lowes have done themselves a great disservice by failing to sell high quality CFL bulbs from the start, even if they are getting their acts together now. It seems they have learned their lesson, at least in GE’s case. While some makers still sell lower quality, cheaper CFLs, the idea of real branding (where brand is supposed to represent quality) seems to finally have come to the CFL world.

Go for quality from a known brand; it’s not worth paying less.

CFLs and Mercury

Recently, there has been a lot written about the fact that CFLs contain mercury, and this is true. However, the actual risk to you is small, and this is especially true if you stick with high-quality, well-manufactured bulbs. Here’s a good article on the facts about mercury in CFLs. In short, more mercury is released in the air due to coal burnt from extra electricity of incandescent lights than is contained in a CFL.

While this article is pretty unequivocal about the matter (saying it’s a small risk), it’s clear that many people are still concerned about this issue — just read some of the comments in the linked article.

More and more places, like grocery stores and hardware store are making CFL recycling available.

My take on the mercury issue is that, like many things we face as we move away from our “energy is free” mode to the one where we recognize its various costs, we need to start getting used to making somewhat uncomfortable trade-offs.

The mercury debate is not “winnable” one way or the other, so if you want a clear-cut answer, I suppose you should go with common sense. For me, common sense tells me to be aware of the issue, buy well-made bulbs, and look for places that will properly dispose of burnt-out CFLs (and batteries, paint, oil, electronics, the standard tube bulbs, and the many other partially toxic materials we use in our daily lives.)

And by the way, it is reported that a broken CFL would expose you to about as much mercury as one or two cans of tuna. So, perhaps this puts the actual risk of mercury in perspective: it’s there, but perhaps we have other more risky things to concentrate on.

Finally, I believe one thing you can do to reduce the likelihood of bulb breakage is to buy the “A” shaped bulbs or other non-spiral shapes. These bulbs are typically made just by putting the decorative (or functional shape) plastic shell around a regular spiral or bent-tube bulb. I would think this gives you an extra layer of protection from accidental breakage, and perhaps even a more contained enclosure if there is breakage.

Give ‘Em Another Try

I hope you have good luck with these CFLs. If you have been disappointed in the past, now’s the time to give it another try. They are less expensive, more readily available and now you have the facts you need.

[Update: 10/2010, Changed links to Amazon pages having these lights, some really great deals on 6-packs and the like.]


  1. Wow, what a thread … Yes CFLs have many advantages and I don’t get any big put-down, however they aren’t good for all purposes: frequent on/off use, some harsh conditions etc. I hear that the “ban” really isn’t on all incandescents anyway: there’s an exception for utility (as per above, I don’t know how defined or if taxed), for high-efficiency incandescents (they deserve more attention, you can Google that up), and maybe for little bulbs like few-watt night lights. In that sense the “politics” are relevant to what we’ll be able to find later.

    BTW I reiterate that I would rather see a tax imposed than a ban even on regular incandescents. That would make them available for those who want for specific purpose but the discouragement would cut sales enough to produce the major long-term energy savings.

    Comment by Neil Bates — March 28, 2011 @ 8:40 pm

  2. I have deleted several recent comments on this thread, one from Karen, and one from Jack. I’ll take a look back and see if there are others that are not productive (including my own) and delete them.

    Thanks for all short, insightful, fact-based, on-topic and helpful comments. By on-topic, I mean relating to the specific CFLs I reviewed in this post over two years ago.


    Tom Harrison

    Comment by Tom Harrison — March 29, 2011 @ 7:50 pm

  3. Subsequent to two more responses from the Karen and Jack, I have reviewed the comment thread and removed those, as well as several other comments that were not, in my view, contributing to the tone and content of my blog, including a comment I wrote.

    There is a worthy debate to be had of the issues around all forms of lighting we use, and for that matter all forms of energy we use. While I am very happy, and generally thrilled to hear others comment, or engage in conversation whether or not I agree with the views stated, back-and-forth comments or arguments are not really that useful.

    And even if they are, they do not serve the purpose of my blog. As it happens, in addition to the time I spend writing, I pay a modest monthly fee to handle the 10,000 or so visitors I get monthly. So I get to be king :-). My goal is unabashedly to provide information and opinions to those who are hoping to find ways to live their lives using less energy.

    So I apologize if I have hurt your feelings by deleting your words. Let’s keep the comments open, and on point, please.


    Tom Harrison

    Comment by Tom Harrison — March 30, 2011 @ 7:39 pm

  4. Tom, good overall point and propriety. It is topical though, to get straight just which types of incandescents will *have to be* replaced and if any won’t. After all, we’d need to wonder “which CFL will work OK in my refrigerator” (has to brighten right away at 36 F and handle on and off after maybe 15 seconds, a harsh demand!) – but won’t need to if incans are available for that. And also if some incans (is that an acceptable slang abbr?) will pass the law (some company, not just GE, is making them), then that affects your purchase strategy over pros and cons. Also, if their claimed high power factor really influences effective consumption by CFLs (as some critics claim) that it a relevant angle in respect to rated wattage -?

    Comment by Neil Bates — March 30, 2011 @ 9:03 pm

  5. Neil —

    In 2008 I wrote the post about CFLs that worked for me at the time, and have updated it with the latest models since then.

    The topic is recommended CFLs to replace incandescent bulbs. I think I found five or six positive use-cases, and I still stand behind them. I still haven’t found use-cases for dimmable bulbs, for example, and don’t feel any need to discuss refrigerator bulbs (40W, on for perhaps 5 minutes a day: simply not relevant).

    If you or others wish to discuss the merits and limitations of legislation, please feel free to do so but not on this comment thread.

    I hate to be such a jerk about this, but for the first time in the 6 year history of this blog, I am going to see if it’s possible for me to close comments.


    Comment by Tom Harrison — March 31, 2011 @ 12:11 am

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