10 June 2010

Compact Fluorescents

Call this a public service announcement.

Last week, my husband was home in our unfinished but completely serviceable basement. We spend rather a lot of time down there; our desks and computers are there, the laundry is there, the sewing machine is there, the crafty supplies are there. It's lit with bare light bulbs in plain porcelain sockets, and in a nod to energy efficiency, all those bulbs are spiral compact fluorescents. Well. While he was sitting there folding the laundry or something, one of the bulbs started crackling and smoking. He cut the power and removed the bulb before anything bad could happen, and I fired off a letter to the manufacturer.

I got a polite email back, which included the following:

CFL's have a unique "end-of-life" characteristic. As unpleasant as it is, in certain circumstances, a CFL may emit smoke and a melting, plastic-like odor at the end of its life. This is a common occurrence in all brands of CFL's and is not considered dangerous. Bulbs burn out when the ballast overheats and an electronic component, the Voltage Dependent Resister (VDR), opens up like a fuse in your home’s fuse box, shutting off the circuit and generating heat and possibly a small amount of smoke. This might sound dangerous, but the VDR is a cut-off switch that prevents any hazards. The melted plastic you are seeing where the glass coil connects to the ballast is simply a sign that the heat is escaping as intended in the design of the bulb. Please look for ENERGY STAR logo on the packaging, the seal of quality which means that the bulb is safe because it has undergone stringent test procedures.

The email also included links to several websites to corroborate this oddness, one of which was Underwriters Laboratories.

I have to say that I think this is incredibly peculiar. My husband and I both reacted the same way: the light bulb seemed to be failing in a spectacularly dangerous way, like, if we hadn't been home, there wouldn't have been a home to come home to. But according to the manufacturer and Underwriters Laboratories, this is a common way in which compact fluorescents die at the end of their life span.

Did you know this? Why would this not be better publicized? Or, why aren't the lights designed to die coolly and quietly?


Lynn said...

That's odd. We have compact fluorescents in pretty much all of our upstairs light fixtures, and I've never had this experience. It would have scared the pants off me, though.

Kyla said...

Yikes! I'd be disturbed that they find it normal/acceptable. We once had a regular bulb EXPLODE when it died, but that only happened once and it wasn't normal.

We don't use those bulbs because fluorescents are often a trigger for migraines...since both Josh and KayTar deal with them, we don't want them here in the house.

Harriet said...

I've never heard of it, but I have witnessed it. I thought it was my lamp, which is old. I'm guessing now it was the bulb.

De said...

Super. I guess none of our bulbs are old enough. I have never heard of this, just that they're dangerous if they break.

Furrow said...

None of my many CFL's have burned out yet, and I've never heard of this happening either. Weird.

Hey! Maybe yours is the first compact fluorescent to actually burn out in a home environment. They do last a long time, don't they? Maybe that's why we've never heard of it. Congratulations on this milestone.

mayberry said...

Disturbing! I'd never heard of that.

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

You'd think they'd want to warn you.

Unknown said...

Well, that makes me nervous about the CFL that currently lives in my daughter's room.

She leaves that thing on ALL the time.

niobe said...

Eep. Also, if you break CFLs, say, by dropping them on the floor when you're trying to install them, the very, very toxic materials (mercury?) they contain, will spread all over your floor, contaminating everything in sight.

Don't ask me how I know.

heidi said...

That would freak me out.

slow panic said...

i'm sorry did you say, "my husband was folding laundry?" now that would be dangerously spectacular at my house.

Lady M said...

That's really freaky. Explosion does not equal standard operating behavior in my mind.

daisy said...

Wow. Did not know that. Definitely unsettling!

I've had a few die on me, but they just simply quit working.

I was appalled to find out they contained mercury. When I went to dispose of the first one, I looked at the package of them I had in the cupboard, because I knew it was a type of fluorescent bulb. However, when I learned that it was unsafe to put them in the trash, I got a little worried. Yeah, it is an energy saver, and they last next to forever, but...but...all the stuff that goes along with disposing of them. I don't have a facility close by. There is one in another county nearby, but they only take stuff from their county residents. So for now, I'm collecting them in a container, hoping it never falls on the floor when the kids are rummaging through looking for something. :(

Patois42 said...

I shall think of you fondly when we have our first one burn out. We've only had them in about three years. I am now hoping we move before it happens.

(And don't forget you can't put them in the garbage.)

nonlineargirl said...

I have never had this happen (and find it quite alarming) but am currently anti-CFL because:
-a number of CFLs I have put in have NOT lasted the long time they are supposed to but in fact died more quickly than would be deemed acceptable for regular light bulbs.

-I can not find a dimmable CFL that actually works in my dimming fixtures. I have bought several brands of supposedly dimmable CFLs (for a pretty penny) only to have them not only not dim, but not work at all in my fixtures.

-after the bulb's "end of life" (dramatic or not) disposing of them is a big production. It is very bad to throw them in the garbage, and recycling them is a pain in the ass.