Following up on yesterday’s post, we now look at compact fluorescent (CFL) light bulbs. June Fletcher of the Wall Street Journal reported that the payback period for CFLs is “about four months.” She provided no source for this figure.
CFLs are more energy efficient because they have can produce the same light output for much less electricity input than incandescent bulbs. They also are said to last much longer, and therein lies the sources of the expected energy savings. But where the government’s Energy Star program is confident about the reduced energy usage, it is highly ambiguous about longevity:
ENERGY STAR qualified bulbs use about 75 percent less energy than standard incandescent bulbs and last up to 10 times longer.
Technically, an Energy Star qualified CFL could last no longer than an incandescent bulb and still meet this definition.
The program offers a savings calculator similar to the one for clothes washers, discussed yesterday. (See the Excel spreadsheet in the lower right margin of the page linked above.) By default, the savings calculator assumes that CFLs have a 10:1 longevity advantage, even though it’s apparently the best-case scenario and not the most likely case.
We looked at Home Depot online for prices. 60-watt soft white incandescent bulbs made by Phillips cost $1.04 for a 4-pack ($0.26 each). They are rated by the manufacturer to last 750 hours. 13-watt “curly” CFLs marketed under the name n:vision (but apparently sold only by Home Depot) cost $6.88 for a 4-pack ($1.72 each). They are rated by Home Depot to last “10 times longer,”or 10,000 hours. (The company’s R-30 flood CFL is said to last four times longer at a cost of $4.98 each.) Plugging these data into EPA’s Energy Star savings calculator as best as it allows (the user must choose from a limited number of bulb lifetimes) yields a payback period of 0.1 year for the 13-watt curly CFL. (More on errors in the Energy Star savings calculator later.)
Historically, the dominant issues with CFLs have been product quality, lighting quality, and durability. When CFLs have failed to deliver promised performance, consumers often decided not to buy them again. Manufacturers of substandard products (and the Energy Star program) impose external costs on the entire market when they sell (or promote) lamps that fail to meet consumers’ expectations, and market penetration is made more difficult because manufacturer (and Energy Star program) product claims are less credible.
We’ve previously blogged on the lighting quality issue, noting that men and women seem to have very different tastes:
Washington Post staff writer Blaine Harden reports that from Ground Zero of the battleground, CFLs don’t pass “the wife test.” Women didn’t like early CFL models because they make skin look “pale, wrinkly and old.” Harden says these problems have been overcome:
A new breed of bulbs solves most, if not all, of the old gripes. The bulbs are smaller and much cheaper — often selling for as little as $1.50 each at big-box stores. Most bulbs pay for themselves in reduced power consumption within six months. They last seven to 10 years longer than incandescent bulbs. The hum and flicker are long gone, and many bulbs are designed to mimic the soothing, yellowish warmth of incandescent bulbs.
“The new fluorescent bulbs aren’t just better for both your wallet and the environment — they produce better light,” declares the May issue of Popular Mechanics, in an exhaustive comparison test of the new breed of CFLs against incandescents.
Apparently, women are unconvinced or they don’t look to Popular Mechanics for guides on interior decorating. Men buy CFLs and install them to save money. Women remove them to restore more natural indoor lighting. Harden reports that this is true even for women who are politically committed to combating global warming.
Assuming (probably realistically) that gender differences in taste are resistant to change, the remaining major problem CFLs have is persuading men that these bulbs are as durable as advertised. If not, then men also will become dissatisfied and drop out of the market. The Popular Mechanics article referenced by Harden examines only lighting quality using a mix of objective and subjective measures. (The sex of the the “three PM staffers” whose opinions were obtained is not disclosed, and in any case, a sample of three persons drawn from the staff of Popular Mechanics seems unlikely to be representative.) Reader comments on the article, which also are unlikely to be representative, include many who have experienced much shorter product lifetimes. While they were originally happy to innovate their enthusiasm for CFLs probably has been lost. Here at Neutral Source we have experienced many premature CFL failures, and while it is possible to return defective bulbs to the manufacturer it is cumbersome at best to do so. One must save both the sales receipt and record the contact information for the manufacturer. This is an unreasonable burden for a product costing less than $5, and the opportunity cost of the time required to obtain a replacement exceeds the cost of simply replacing the bulb.
Back to EPA’s Energy Star savings calculator, it has serious defects. First, it does not allow the user to substitute his own estimates for bulb lifetimes. The longest incandescent bulb life allowed is 1,000 hours, and the shortest CFL lifetime allowed is 6,000 hours. The savings calculator cannot handle any comparison in which the CFL lasts less than six times as long. As reported above, the n:vision CFL flood only claims that it will last “up to four times longer,” and Home Depot sells several incandescent bulbs rated to last longer than 1,000 hours. This constraint in the model is hard to justify, and it is clearly biased in favor of CFLs.
Second, the savings calculator ignores the income effect caused by lower lighting costs. That is, after adopting CFLs, consumers are likely to leave the lights on longer than they otherwise would. The Energy Star program assumes that the income effect from saving energy does not lead to any increase in energy use. This is extremely unrealistic.
Third, the savings calculator ignores the risks posed by mercury contained inside each CFL. It is EPA’s view expressed elsewhere that mercury exposure, even at very low levels, is unsafe. Yet the Agency’s Energy Star program makes an extraordinary effort to persuade consumers not to be concerned about the mercury in CFLs. The program’s web site promotes (albeit with a fine-print disclaimer presumably to avoid committing an information quality violation) a National Geographic article purporting to show that the mercury in CFLs is too small to worry about. The article also contains a remarkable non sequitur that it attributes to EPA:
One CFL contains a hundred times less mercury than is found in a single dental amalgam filling or old-style glass thermometer, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Whereas the mercury in dental amalgam and is bound up and extremely difficult to release, the mercury in a CFL is in a vapor form that is easy to absorb.
Fourth, the savings calculator ignores the cost of CFL disposal. Largely under pressure from EPA, most jurisdictions require that CFLs (and other fluorescent bulbs) be disposed as household hazardous waste. EPA has advice for how to dispose of CFLs (PDF):
What should I do with a CFL when it burns out?
EPA recommends that consumers take advantage of available local recycling options for compact fluorescent light bulbs. EPA is working with CFL manufacturers and major U.S. retailers to expand recycling and disposal options. Consumers can contact their local municipal solid waste agency directly, or go to www.epa.gov/bulbrecycling or www.earth911.org to identify local recycling options.
If your state permits you to put used or broken CFLs in the garbage, seal the bulb in two plastic bags and put it into the outside trash, or other protected outside location, for the next normal trash collection. CFLs should not be disposed of in an incinerator.
ENERGY STAR qualified CFLs have a warranty. If the bulb has failed within the warranty period, look at the CFL base to find the manufacturer’s name. Visit the manufacturer’s web site to find the customer service contact information to inquire about a refund or replacement.
In short, EPA says CFLs are difficult to dispose safely and the Agency is pressuring manufacturers to establish their own recycling programs. This will increase the price of CFLs, as the costs of such programs must be passed on to consumers. In any case, EPA’s Energy Star savings calculator assumes that the cost of CFL disposal is zero. This is only valid if the Energy Star program expects consumers to ignore the program’s disposal advice. (Note also that there continue to be problems with CFLs failing to last as long as advertised. The program makes it appear to be much simpler to secure warranty replacement than it really is.)
When CFLs break, EPA has detailed advice for how consumers should clean up:
How should I clean up a broken fluorescent bulb?
EPA recommends the following clean-up and disposal guidelines:
Before Clean-up: Vent the Room
1. Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.
2. Shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system, if you have one.
Clean-Up Steps for Hard Surfaces
3. Carefully scoop up glass fragments and powder using stiff paper or cardboard and place them in a glass jar with metal lid (such as a canning jar) or in a sealed plastic bag.
4. Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder.
5. Wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes and place them in the glass jar or plastic bag.
6. Do not use a vacuum or broom to clean up the broken bulb on hard surfaces.
Clean-up Steps for Carpeting or Rug:
3. Carefully pick up glass fragments and place them in a glass jar with metal lid (such
as a canning jar) or in a sealed plastic bag.
4. Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments
5. If vacuuming is needed after all visible materials are removed, vacuum the area where the bulb was broken.
6. Remove the vacuum bag (or empty and wipe the canister), and put the bag or vacuum debris in a sealed plastic bag.
Disposal of Clean-up Materials
7. Immediately place all cleanup materials outside the building in a trash container or outdoor protected area for the next normal trash.
8. Wash your hands after disposing of the jars or plastic bags containing clean-up materials.
9. Check with your local or state government about disposal requirements in your specific area. Some states prohibit such trash disposal and require that broken and unbroken lamps be taken to a local recycling center.
Future Cleaning of Carpeting or Rug: Vent the Room During and After Vacuuming
10. For at least the next few times you vacuum, shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system and open a window prior to vacuuming.
11. Keep the central heating/air conditioning system shut off and the window open for at least 15 minutes after vacuuming is completed.
If EPA is serious about these steps, then the cost of performing them, multiplied by the proportion of CFLs that break in service, must be included for the Energy Star savings calculator to be reasonably accurate.
After each of these four corrections is made, adopting CFLs might still save consumers money. As we noted yesterday with respect to “payback periods” for clothes washers, the the savings calculator produces results that are severely biased in favor of the product that the Energy Star program wants consumers to buy. This statistic is calculated as the ratio of first year energy cost savings divided by the gap in purchase price. It is not calculated, as it should be, as incremental net present value. Consumers (and reporters) are misled if they assume that these calculations are valid and reliable.