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Ask Mr. Tight-Watt: CFL Bulb Life  Smart Choices Archive

Ask Mr. Tight-Watt: CFL Bulb Life

Mr. Tight-Watt and Rob Kirkpatrick answer a question about CFL bulbs.

Ask Mr. Tight-Watt

Lighting is a popular topic for our Smart Choices readers. This month, a reader asks Mr. Tight-Watt about the life of CFL bulbs.

Question: Why do my CFL bulbs last such a short time when they are supposed to last longer than my old style bulbs? Shirley, a Smart Choices reader

Answer: Our lighting expert, Rob Kirkpatrick from Service Concepts, directed us to the Service Concept website, where he has posted an article on this very topic.

Here are the suggestions from the Service Concepts site:
Some CFLs seem to burn out way before their life expectancy, and others, even of the same brand or type, may last much longer than expected. There can be many reasons for this. This list will provide some answers and also some steps you can take to prolong the life of your CFLs.

  • Be gentle. CFLs aren’t just breakable glass bulbs but also sophisticated electronic devices. A drop or bang on the way home from the store might have an undetectable effect on its likely life.
  • Where possible, don’t screw a CFL in by holding the glass spiral. Use the ballast (the plastic base part) at least for the final twist. The connection between the glass spiral and the plastic ballast could be weakened in a way you won’t see, but the effect can be a shorter life for that CFL.
  • Don’t put an enclosed CFL (e.g., those with a glass outer cover such as a globe, flood, or “A” shape CFL) in an enclosed fixture (indoors, such as a ceiling fixture or wall sconce). It won’t get as hot as an incandescent bulb, but still, the confinement will cause it to run warmer than normal and it won’t last as long. One exception: It is OK to put up to a 23-watt CFL in an enclosed fixture, according to our manufacturers. However, CFLs above 23 watts shouldn’t be used in an enclosure, even an open ceiling can.
  • It’s perfectly OK to put an enclosed CFL inside an outdoor fixture, such as a porch light or pole light.
  • Leave the light on if you’ll be back soon. Standardized testing for CFLs assumes 1 “on” and 1 “off” switch per day. Based on that standard, and an average of 3 hours per day on, a 10,000 hour rated CFL will last over 9 years on average. We’re conditioned to turn the light off when we leave the room. With CFLs, if you plan to be right back, it’s better to leave the lights on. The more often a CFL is turned on and off, the shorter its useful life. We’ve seen many cases where CFLs that burn around the clock – never off except during a power outage – may last two or three times as long (20,000 to 30,000 hours) as one turned on and off many times per day.
  • Rated lifetime is an expected average, not a fixed number. CFLs are tested in batches. If one lasts 10,000 hours, but one lasts 15,000 hours and a third lasts 5,000 hours under standardized testing conditions, the average is 10,000 hours. As a low-cost consumer item, they will certainly vary in their characteristics. Some brands will have more variability than others. This leads to the last point for you to consider:
  • CFLs may look similar on the outside, but they’re not all the same on the inside. Manufacturing quality matters. There are factories that make only the cheapest/fastest/lowest cost CFLs, with batches of components available from the cheapest sources, targeted to the bottom of the market. There is one brand we know of that tightly controls its processes, from the sand that goes into the glass, to the warehouse dock that sends your shipment on its way to you. Quality is not always measured by price. The highest quality manufacturers will have different models that vary in technology and features, but even their lower cost products may be manufactured under better controls with higher quality than others of comparable price. Service Concepts offers only CFLs from the top of the quality scale and even their lowest cost CFLs are made in a high quality manufacturing environment. Check out your electric cooperative online store to find the brands that Rob and Service Concepts have tested. 

Ask Mr. Tight Watt a question or view other questions he has answered.

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