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Switch to Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs and Save Energy

Updated: Jun. 30, 2017

There are many options available in compact fluorescent bulbs

FH09DJA_SCFLUO_01-2Family Handyman
Compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) come in a variety of sizes and colors. Learn about different types, where and where not to use them, and how to dispose of them.

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Compact fluorescent lights really aren't “new” any more. Ed Hammer, a GE engineer, invented the modern CFL in the 1970s in response to that decade's energy crisis. Thirty years later, CFLs have become mainstream, although some consumers, especially those who had bad experiences with the early versions, have been slow to jump on board. Many of the earlier CFLs took a while to reach full brightness, and once they did, the light had a cold, bluish quality that many people found unappealing. Advances in design and manufacturing—specifically, new electronic ballasts—have reduced the time it takes for CFLs to reach full brightness. Electronic ballasts have also helped eliminate annoying flicker and hum. Plus, you can now buy bulbs that emit a “warm” light, if that's what you prefer.

And the energy savings are real. Choose a CFL with the Energy Star label and you can save $30 or more in electricity costs over the life of the bulb (compared with the costs of using an incandescent bulb for the same amount of time).

Choosing the right brightness

Light output is measured in lumens. Use this simple chart to compare the brightness of an incandescent bulb with that of a CFL. Buy a CFL with a light output (lumen) number equivalent to, or better yet, slightly higher than that of the incandescent bulb you're replacing. CFLs can dim over time, so choosing a higher light output number is a good idea. Also, because CFLs don't generate heat as incandescents do, you can use bulbs with higher light output without the danger of overheating.

Disposing of broken and spent bulbs

All CFLs contain a small amount of mercury, which can be harmful to people, pets and the environment. If you break a CFL bulb, have people and pets leave the room. Open a window for at least 15 minutes so no one breathes in any fine mercury dust. Then return and scoop up the debris with a piece of cardboard. (Small particles can be wiped up with a damp paper towel.) Place the cardboard, paper towel and broken bulb into a plastic bag. Dispose of the plastic bag with your normal trash if it is allowed where you live. If not, find a local recycling center that will accept broken and spent CFLs. Sweeping and vacuuming are not recommended for cleanup on hard surfaces.

On soft surfaces like carpeting, put on gloves and pick up as many pieces as you can by hand or with the help of sticky tape and put everything into a plastic bag. If you have to vacuum, remove the bag and place it in a plastic bag or wipe out the canister if the vacuum is bagless.

Proper disposal of spent CFLs depends on where you live. Some communities allow disposal with the normal trash. If this isn't the case where you live, check online or with your trash hauler to find recycling centers near you. Some retail stores that sell CFLs also accept spent CFLs for recycling.

Choosing the right color

CFL lightbulbs described as “warm” or “soft” give off light that is comparable to that of an incandescent bulb and are well suited for residential use.

CFLs described as “cool,” “bright white,” “natural” or “daylight” have a bluish-white light, which some people prefer for reading and other detail work.

Choosing the right bulb for the fixture


Ceiling fans and wall sconces


Recessed cans and track lighting.


Table/floor lamps, open ceiling fixtures, ceiling fans and wall sconces


Table/floor lamps, pendant fixtures and ceiling fans


Pendant fixtures and ceiling fans.


Ceiling fans and wall sconces.

Refer to the following photos to help you select the best CFLs for your fixtures. CFLs fit into all screw-in fixtures, but consider looks as well as light. Twist-style bulbs light faster, but more traditional-looking A-lines and globes are a better choice when the bulb will be visible.

Where not to use a CFL

There are several places where you shouldn't use a CFL lightbulb:

  • Fixtures that are turned on and off frequently.
  • Areas that are subject to vibration, such as stairs and the garage.
  • Fixtures that are subject to extreme heat, cold or humidity. Buy “weatherproof” bulbs for fixtures that are exposed to the elements.

For anything other than a standard light fixture, such as a fixture with a dimmer switch, a three-way lamp switch, a remote, a photo or motion sensor or an electronic or digital timer, read the packaging to be sure the bulb is suitable. Also read the packaging if you want to use a CFL outdoors or in an enclosed fixture.