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Compact Fluorescent Lighting 101

Learn why compact fluorescent (CF) bulbs are a great lighting choice for your home.  This article explains the science behind compact fluorescent bulbs and their many applications.

With rising energy costs, compact fluorescent (CF) bulbs are becoming increasing popular choices for lighting your home.   There are many choices for compact fluorescent bulbs and many applications.

CF bulbs came about as a means to put energy efficient fluorescent bulbs where they could not be used before because of the awkwardly huge size of the bulbs. The total lumens depends upon the tube length and the tube diameter.

Self-Ballasted Bulbs

In a CF, the tubes are bent into a tight pattern to reduce the overall length of the bulb.  Most CF bulbs have a ballast built into the base, so they can act as a direct replacement for incandescent bulbs.  Unfortunately, buying a new ballast with each bulb drives up the price.  A 23 Watt CF bulb may cost 30 times as much as the 100 Watt incandescent bulb it replaces.

Non-Ballasted CF Bulbs

Some CF bulbs have the bulb sold separately from the ballast.  Most of those have the ballast permanently mounted to the lamp assembly, and the shape of the bulb-to-ballast interface may be proprietary.  That means if the bulb ever becomes unavailable, you will have to replace the entire lamp assembly. Plus, you can’t take advantage of new technologies that come along.

Energy Efficiency

Since CF bulbs are far more efficient than incandescent bulbs, you need to read the packaging and look at the lumen output.  Most CF manufacturers list the equivalent incandescent wattage.  A 23 watt CF can produce as much light as a 90 watt incandescent.  The energy savings is obvious.  CF bulbs also have the long 10,000+ hour life of their full-length cousins.

Differences Between CF and Incandescent Bulbs

One difference between incandescent bulbs and CF bulbs takes a bit of getting used to:  CF bulbs are not instant-on.  There is about a half-second delay.  It is a small delay, but if you hit the light switch expecting instant light, the delay can be unsettling.  Also, CF bulbs take a few minutes to reach maximum brightness.


Two factors set apart good CF bulbs from lesser ones.  First is color.  Many inexpensive CF bulbs have terrible color.  If you are unsure about the color, buy the bulb at a store that will let you return it if you don’t like it.  Philips has done extensive development in their phosphors, and the color from their fluorescent bulbs is the best I’ve ever seen.  I have used two Philips CF bulbs in my living room lamps for many years.

Outdoor Use

The second factor is outdoor use.  CF bulbs face the same temperature limitations as their full-length cousins.  A very notable exception is some of Philips’ Marathon and Earth Light CF bulbs.  Some of them are packaged as being for outdoor use.  How is that possible?  Chemistry!  Philips uses clever mercury alloy.  The alloy’s chemistry controls the level of mercury vapor in the bulb, thus the light output is controlled over a wide range of temperatures.  I’ve read Philips technical papers on this technology.  The advance is a smart application of science, not a deceptive gimmick.  I’ve used them as porch lights in Ohio winters, and they work as advertised.


With rising energy costs, compact fluorescent bulbs are becoming increasing popular choices for lighting your home.

There are some important factors to take into consideration when selecting these lamps – cost, color and temperature limitations.  With their rise in popularity, we can expect ongoing improvements to compact fluorescent lamp technology and lowered bulb costs in future.  The selection of compact fluorescent bulb available to consumers has risen dramatically in the past few years, and it is anticipated that this trend will continue.

Thanks to our guest lighting expert – Lance Kaczorowski, who brings a wealth of expertise to the site:

Kaczorowski, a native of New York City, now resides in Fort Wayne, IN.

Kaczorowski has a 4-year degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin, and also a 2-year degree in Electronics Engineering Technology from the Community College of the Air Force.  Kaczorowski’s broad work history includes (chronologically): Three years as a Mercedes-Benz mechanic; six years as an electronics technician with the Air Force; three years as a new product development engineer with General Electric Lighting in Cleveland; seven years as a new product development engineer and an engineering analyst with Grote Industries in Madison, IN; and currently as an engineering analyst with International Truck and Engine Corporation in Fort Wayne.

The first two years of Kaczorowski’s employment with General Electric consisted of extensive training in light source sciences and engineering under GE’s Edison Engineering Program.  Kaczorowski’s experience with lighting was broadened at Grote Industries, which is a supplier of vehicle lighting for heavy duty trucks.

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  • John

    So we now have a replacement for the incandescent bulb that is longer lasting and much cheaper to operate (the CFL). But from experience I have seen neither. The Fluorescent tube is not the problem but the built in ballast sure is. Then you have the murcury hazzard. It is obvious that the general public has been sold a bill of goods they can’t eat. I am not impressed that so many people that should know better has jumped on the band wagon just because it is the pouplar thing to do.
    ( As a foot note — what do you suppose is going to happen when you can’t get the incandescent bulbs any more and the government drops it supplemental support.)


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