A non-NEMA colleague recently told me that she had installed "some of those funny new light bulbs."

According to NEMA Business Information Services, the U.S. market penetration of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) reached 25 percent recently. However, that number indicates that a majority of consumers are still using less efficient incandescent light bulbs. With the immense amount of energy that can be saved by shifting consumers to more efficient light sources, we believe manufacturers, environmental groups and governments should be working together to convince consumers to make the right choices.

Some have cited mercury content as a downside of CFLs. Manufacturers have tested virtually every other element on the periodic chart to find an acceptable, equally efficient substitute for mercury in fluorescent lamps, without success. In March 2007, NEMA announced a voluntary commitment to cap the amount of mercury in their CFL products offered for sale in the U.S. at 5 milligrams (mg) for CFLs that use less than 25 watts of electricity and at 6 mg for CFLs that use from 25 to 40 watts of electricity. Higher wattage lamps require a slightly higher amount of mercury due to their size and to meet life requirements. Five (5) mg of mercury is equivalent in size to the tip of a ballpoint pen. 

Telling consumers not to use CFLs because of their mercury content is counterproductive. All fluorescent lamps contain mercury. Consumers should not focus solely on the mercury content of the bulb but rather on the energy performance, rated lifetime and light quality.

Coal-fired power plants are the single largest source of mercury emissions in the United States.  Reducing energy consumption can significantly reduce the amount of atmospheric mercury these power plants emit.  Therefore, encouraging consumers to use CFLs is a far more effective, and immediate, method of eliminating mercury than lowering the content in CFLs. The ENERGY STAR is an indicator of low-mercury bulbs. Any model labeled with ENERGY STAR must comply with the 5-6 mg maximum requirement. ENERGY STAR is not the indicator of the lowest mercury bulbs and it should not be. There are CFL bulbs on the market that are not and never have been ENERGY STAR qualified and therefore do not have to adhere to these requirements.

What to do in case a CFL breaks or burns out? For guidance go to http://www.energystar.gov/ia/partners/promotions/change_light/downloads/Fact_Sheet_Mercury.pdf

Although a CFL might not be the optimum choice for every lighting situation, a genuine ENERGY STAR qualified CFL will always be more efficient than the common incandescent light bulb.


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