Which Compact Fluorescent Light Bulb Is Right For You?

Popular Mechanics compared an incandescent bulb to seven compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) to see which was brightest performer. The light emitted was rated after participants examined “colorful objects, faces, and reading materials.” The good news? Every CFL outperformed the incandescent bulb.

The results surprised us. Even though the incandescent bulb measured slightly brighter than the equivalent CFLs, our subjects didn’t see any dramatic difference in brightness. And here was the real shocker: When it came to the overall quality of the light, all the CFLs scored higher than our incandescent control bulb. In other words, the new fluorescent bulbs aren’t just better for both your wallet and the environment, they produce better light.

Compared to incandescent bulbs, CFLs use up to 75% less electricity, last ten times longer, and save up to $30 over the life of the bulb. Though each CFL had its strengths and weaknesses, the overall winner was the N:Vision Soft White bulb. — CAREY GREENBERG-BERGER

The Best Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs [Popular Mechanics]

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  1. Skeptic says:

    All of this is loveley, but CFL lights don’t last long many of my lamps. The CFLs don’t long sideways in the overhead lamps in my home, nor do they last long in my tightly enclosed porch lamp.

    CFLs are great for many situations but you may need to replace your fixtures for them to work properly.

  2. mantari says:

    N:Vision Soft White is Home Depot, right? It says it takes a while to become full intensity, but is it otherwise instant-on, or is there a delay?

    Yes, I care about the delay. It is disconcerting. If I sell my home, I don’t want something that leaves a negative impression, even if it can be explained away. That, and I don’t like it either. Logical? No.

  3. 5h17h34d says:

    I’m not going to go 100% CFL until they develop one that works with dimmers. Gotta be able to make the lighting low for home theater and PC gaming.

  4. MercuryPDX says:

    Echoing some of the comments above, I have a yellow “bug light” CFL in the porch light by the front door. The fixture has a light sensor in it that flips the light on when it gets dark. For the first hour or two after sunset, my front porch looks like a rave in progress. Once that’s over with, (to me) it looks like the CFL does a better job lighting the front than a regular bulb.

    What initially attracted me to it was the “longer life” claims on the package. I have the date I installed the bulb written on a piece of tape inside the roof of the fixture. If it lasts longer than the 6-8 months the halogen bulbs in the fixtures over the garage last, I just may switch them all over.

    As to internal lighting, most of the fixtures have a dimmer switch or are exposed with no lampshade (like over the bathroom mirror). If they made CFLs look more aesthetically pleasing and “dimmable”, I’d put them in.

  5. TVarmy says:

    @5h17h34d:
    and
    @MercuryPDX:

    There are dimmable CFLs. They don’t dim smoothly, and they cost more, but they work. If you can’t find them at your hardware store, look around online.

    I hate to say it, but I don’t see how they can make aesthetic LED or CFL lights for uncovered fixtures aside from flood lights, unless you can come to like the twisted tube look. So, I guess you either have to stick with the old fashioned incandescents, or deal with ugliness.

  6. roamer1 says:

    @TVarmy: There are some CFLs that have the tubes enclosed inside an outer shell that makes them look more like old-style bulbs; I’ve seen these at IKEA, among other places.

    I’ve gone about 80% CFL in my house over the past year or so; I still use old-style bulbs in two touch lamps (I’ll probably get dimmables for them sometime) and in bathrooms and closets, where the lights are turned on and off frequently and where they aren’t usually on long enough for the energy usage to really matter (plus the high humidity in bathrooms where showers are taken probably isn’t good on CFLs.)

  7. I really like my CFLs, for all the reasons listed above. The one problem I’ve had is size: they ones I have are a good two inches longer than my incandescents. They stick out beyond the glass shades in my living room ceiling fan (doesn’t keep me from using CFLs there though), and I can’t use them at all on my bedroom ceiling fan because they’re so big I can’t put the bowl/shade back in place. Do they come smaller/shorter? Seems like it from the pic above.

  8. SpyMaster says:

    I fell for the hype a few weeks ago and went out and got a few CFLs…used the first one to replace an 85w incandescent at the bottom of the basement stairs. OK, so the new one only uses 25w (as opposed to 85w), but it comes on slowly…very slowly…well over a minute to come up to brightness…and (just as bad) the light shines with a ghastly yellow tone. Blecccccccccchh.

  9. MadMolecule says:

    We switched our house over to these about a year ago, and haven’t had to replace on yet. They do take about 30 seconds or a minute to come to “full brightness,” but honestly we’d had them for months before I even noticed.

    When you turn it on, it takes about a second to come on at all; at that point it’s bright enough to read by, but the light does have a rather sickly pall to it. After about thirty seconds, though, it looks great. In fact I find that I appreciate how great it looks, precisely because it comes on so slow like that. (Circular reasoning there, I know.)

    Anyway; the slight delay in coming up to full brightness is the only downside I’ve noticed–I think the curly-Q shape is kind of neat. And it’s nowhere near enough of an inconvenience to make me want to go back to incandescents.

  10. AcidReign says:

    …..In the hot, blistery, sweaty summers of Alabama, a bulb that doesn’t add to the heat is reason enough to switch. My old house has antique armor-cable two-prong wiring, and frequent brownouts courtesy of Southern Company. (You know it’s bad when you have to put a UPS on your dishwasher and fridge to keep from burning components up…)(If I moved 100 miles north, I’d be on TVA, and not subject to brownouts and blackouts!) This problem pops incandescent bulbs constantly. However, I’ve yet to see a CFL fail, period, in my house. As long as the bulb is behind a lampshade, it’s looks fine. I have a few fixtures where a crystal clear bulb is a necessity, but most do great with the CFLs.

  11. marike says:

    I picked up a bunch of Philips Marathon CFL when Hawaii Electric Co had instant rebates on them at Costco. We have no delay or problems with the bulbs (inside or outside) and they’re excellent. Consumer Reports is right tho, it definitely gives the room a “warm and cozy” feeling, which is the first thing I noticed, but they’re not as bright, which is noticable in a long hallway with only 2 bulbs at each end, but it’s not like you’re walking in the dark or anything, just not as bright.

  12. Dustbunny says:

    I’ve been using CFLs for several years in all the lamps in my house — the newer ones dont’ take as long to become fully bright as the older versions did. And I would go with the ones that have a softer, yellow-ish light instead of the white light bulbs which are blindingly bright.

  13. Bpj says:

    We recently changed most of our lights to the ‘daylight’ CLFs. They give a nice clear/light blue light that took some use to but i enjoy it more than a yellow glow. There were a few places that we couldn’t get the lights to fit in the light covers.

  14. @5h17h34d:
    They have them, but they are *really* expensive (as in $14 or more per bulb). Check out Smarthome.com for info.

  15. Also remember that many (most) CFLs have mercury in them. Not good for situations where they can drop, break and contaminate your home/workspace. {Prof. Jonathan}

  16. Grrrrrrr, now with two buns made of bacon. says:

    I use CFL’s all over the house. They definitely have a “warm-up” time which can be annoying if you’re not used to it or in places where you need instant brightness. But if you can live with the drawbacks, it’s the same amount of light for a quarter of the electricity over incandescents.

  17. valthun says:

    The ones mentioned in the article, N:Vision are what I use, and they are short. They fit inside the bubble shade on my ceiling fixture without any problem. I use the Daylight’s though, for PS they really help the color pop. As for movies and gaming, I just turn off the lights.

  18. darkstar says:

    We’ve had them for more than 12 years, and would never go back – we even found some tiny candle-base size bulbs for the chandelier at IKEA. The only old school incandescents remaining are in the bathrooms (haven’t found one that fits in the globe and was bright enough) and the floodlights (although I hear that even those come in CFL nowadays). The main reasons for switching have been mentioned, but for me it’s mainly about the heat: it’s supposed to give you light, and if you get heat it’s wasting your money.

  19. segfault, registered cat offender says:

    @SpyMaster:

    That’s my big gripe about using them in lights that aren’t left on for hours at a time–CFLs do not start up at full brightness. Some are better than others, but all of them are annoying in that respect.

  20. Dacker says:

    One of the commonly-touted advantages of CF lamps is the seven year lifespan. I’m hear to say that this is pure BS for some makes/models of lamps.

    I have some 15 year-old models which are basically shaped like a 5″ sphere from the earliest days of CF lamps which are still going strong. Yes, they are VERY slow to achieve full intensity, but they have a very long lifespan.

    I also have some installed in decorative pagoda lighting along my driveway. These ae nice cast alunimum models which run on 120VAC, not 12VDC. The only CF lamps available which fit inside cost me $10 each five years ago. Despite running on a photocell from dusk to dawn every single night, all seven are till running great.

    So why am I b*tch*ng? The typical CF lamps sold to consumers in multi-packs at big box stores have proven to be pure junk with lifespans meansured in months, not years. The worst offenders for me have been FEIT-brand lamps sold in multi-packs at COSTCO.

  21. Grrrrrrr, now with two buns made of bacon. says:

    @Dacker: Yeah, the big multi-packs you buy at COSTCO or Home Depot seem to have lifespan issues, although somewhere in very fine print, there’s probably something about them only lasting 4000 hours if you leave them on all the time.

    Still, at $2 a piece, most of them seem to last long enough.

  22. Squegie says:

    At one place I rented, there was very limited clearance between the top of the door and the porch roof, which meant the light fixture was very small. The incandescent bulb made the plastic brittle and it eventually fell apart. The incandescent ended up falling through the fixture and hanging by the wires (a bad setup), and getting broken by the door.

    Anyways, I replaced the bulb with a CF corkscrew. As long as the door wasn’t opened too far, it didn’t get hit. However, people always opened the door to far, and over the course of 2 years, the CF bulb got whacked by the metal door at least twice a day.

    When I moved out, the bulb was still in operation, still getting whacked by the door.

    If nothing else, I like them because they’ll take more abuse than the incandescents.

  23. BillyShears says:

    When the first lightbulb in my apartment blew out, I checked it and the others. It turns out the building manager had put 75-100w bulbs damn near everywhere. A quick trip to Walgreen’s and 9 bulbs later, I replaced every bulb in the joint and now the sum of the bulbs is using approximately what one room did before I pulled the ol’ switch.

    And my PG+E bill is thanking me.

    The fact that they contain mercury is kinda the downside, though. I’ll have to ask Google how to throw them out.

  24. Mojosan says:

    I went 90% CFL in my house 3 mos ago. Used all the Home Depot Bulbs.

    -The flood/spot light type bulbs take 30 secs to warm up and it is irritating to me. They come on at about 35% intensity at first.

    -The normal light bulb ones come on at about 90% intensity at go to 100% over about 30 secs but it doesn’t really matter.

    -The soft white is the way to go. The other 2 types they sell are “bright white” and “daylight.” Both of those are VERY harsh light and look like flourescent light.

    -I would say that 15% of the bulbs I put in went bad quickly. There is a prticular weak spot right where the buld connects to the base. Always install from the base and don’t hold the filament itself.

  25. “In the hot, blistery, sweaty summers of Alabama, a bulb that doesn’t add to the heat is reason enough to switch.”

    Heh. Amen to that. For nasty humid Illinois summer I had to get one in my embroidery lamp and it kinda grew from there ….

    There’s a big difference among brands in “light up” time, I’ve noticed. The one in my reading lamp comes to about 80% brightness right away and takes a minute or two to get to 100%, but 80% is more than bright enough to read. Different brand, same wattage on my basement landing takes forEVER to get bright.

    But I can’t really think of any lights I need at 100% within a minute OR ELSE, so it doesn’t bother me much.

    I have had one on my front patio on 24/7 for a little more than three years now without replacement. (And it’s obviously older generation as it’s 3 years old.) The one in my laundry room, though, only lasted about 18 months staying on 24/7. (My stupid cats can’t see in the dark and cry about it when they can’t find the litter boxes at night. I prefer wasted light to catly presents.)

  26. GitEmSteveDave says:

    When I first started getting my new house ready to move into, it had all incandescant. When I was ready to move in, I switched to CF bulbs. There was actually a difference in the bills to the lower side during the two periods.

    As for length of time being on vs cost savings, it’s instant. In my living room, there is a five fixture light. It was stock with 5 40watt incadecants. I switched over to 5 60 watt(13w)CF bulbs, and had more light at the same electric cost of 1.5 of the old bulbs.

    AND THE BEST PART. If Home Depot bulbs burn out within 5 years(or whatever is on the package), there is a 800 number on the bulb. Call it, give them the number on the bulb, and they will send you new ones. I didn’t even have to send in the old ones. I had a fixture in the kitchen that was frying them left and right, and called in, and less than two weeks later, I had a dozen brand new bulbs. So I got two for the price of one.

    As to the mercury, I called my county recycling center, and got in touch with the “household hazardous waste” dept, and I just had to drive down with the bulbs, and hand them over. No muss, no fuss, no cost, and safe for the enviroment.

  27. Topcat says:

    Sadly, CFL bulbs are no more environmentally friendly than incandescents. In fact, most of them are worse.

    The vast majority of CFLs are manufactured in China, a country which is adding to its fleet of coal-fired power plants at a rate of one every week. I enjoy the bitter irony that our energy-saving lightbulbs are being produced from factories drawing their energy from the one of the most highly-polluting and inefficient processes of producing electricity.

    And as was said above, fluorescent bulbs also don’t operate without mercury, and all of this additional mercury making its way to landfills is going to cause some headaches.

    I’ll stick with the cheap, warm glow of my incandescents for now- at least the power I’m paying for is hydroelectrically generated.

  28. balagon says:

    We’ve had CFL for something like 6-7 years now, and I agree with posters who say that the new ones just don’t last. Not only are those manufactured in China made in factories that are anything but green, it’s the China-made bulbs that fail long before the warranty ends.

    One of the big selling points in attempts to pass bills to make it mandatory to use incandescents talk about how much money consumers will save, because the CFLs will last for years and years. That isn’t what we’re seeing in normal household use at all. Sure, you can take dated sales receipts to get a replacement bulb, but it is a major pain–how many people are really going to bother?

  29. FLConsumer says:

    Running on 100% coal power here in Tampa from one of the dirtiest coal plants in the US (unless I’m on generator power, then 100% gasoline, probably cleaner), so it’s a wash in terms of dirtiness.

    I’ve been using CFLs for over 10 years and there’s been HUGE improvements in them over that time. I still have a few ancient Panasonic bulbs working. Otherwise I use mostly TCP or Philips bulbs. 1000bulbs.com has decent prices on them. I do have a few dimmable CFLs but they certainly aren’t the same as dimmable incandescents.

    Overall, I have CFLs in just about every room. I find the Panasonic globe CFLs to put off a very clean and accurate light. Just changing out the bathroom globes from incandescent to the CFLs made a huge improvement in the overall appearance of the bathroom. I do use T5 linear fluorescent, MR16 (halogen), PAR16(halogen), and PAR36 (Xenon) bulbs in each room as well for task & accent lighting. Normally I just run the fluorescents when I’m home alone, but switch over to the incandescents when entertaining. You still can’t beat the light quality that the halogen/xenon bulbs put out. I’m very partial to the PAR36 bulbs. PAR36 bulbs are used as aircraft landing lights. Tres cool.

  30. CyGuy says:

    BillyShears says: “The fact that they contain mercury is kinda the downside, though. I’ll have to ask Google how to throw them out.”

    If you are fortunate enough to live near an IKEA take them there, they have recycling bins specifically for CFL bulbs (they also have bins for NiCad&LiOn batteries – which most people seem to put their everyday alkalines in also)

    As noted above, while their you can get chandelier mini-based bulbs at IKEA which I have in several hallway ceiling fixtures. Want low light like from a dimmer, just unscrew some of the bulbs – they are like 15 watt equivalents, so using 5 is like a 75 watt bulb, but you can reduce the output to 60, 45, 30, or 15. Of course I’m pretty tall so reaching the bulbs in ceiling fixtures is not an issue for me – YMMV.

    I was previously able to a 5-pack of chandelier-style bulbs at CostCo, but I haven’t seen them there in a couple of years. Unlike the regular FEIT bulbs sold at CostCo which I too have been disappointed with, the chandelier bulbs seemed to last pretty long.

  31. OnceWasCool says:

    @Topcat: “Sadly, CFL bulbs are no more environmentally friendly than incandescents. In fact, most of them are worse.”

    It has nothing to do with the energy savings for environmentally for me. But it is all about saving me a few buck every year from my power bill.

  32. rbb says:

    Drop an incandescent bulb and you just sweep up the glass and throw it away. Drop and break a CFL and you have a hazardous waste problem http://www.bangordailynews.com/news/t/news.aspx?articleid=

  33. karmaghost says:

    I’m not sure if this has been mentioned yet, but the general rule (at least, as it used to be, maybe it’s different now) is that to get your money’s worth out of a CFL it needs to survive past 600 hours. After that, it’s all savings over normal incandescent bulbs. I hope someday CFLs become the norm, actually.

  34. PhilK says:

    Those N:Vision bulbs are absolute crap, I’ve tried a couple different types of them and they all take ~1 minute to reach full brightness and a few of them flicker on. I like CFL bulbs though, I’ve got some GE and Phillips CFL lights that are instant on, good quality light (no flicker) and were about the same price.

  35. virgilstar says:

    MAJOR problem here is the complete lack of compatibility for anything other than the standard screw-in fixture. We have several chandeliers and lamps that take the small-size screw-in bulbs, and I have yet to find a CFL with small screw fitting. Home Depot, Lowes, Target, and Ace hardware ONLY have the standard screw fixture. When you’re talking about replacing a 2 yr. old chandelier with 7 lights in it, just for the sake of swapping out the light bulbs, it doesn’t sound very environmentally friendly – think of all the metal that would end up in a ground-fill from the chandelier, plus the new metal to make the new chandelier with regular screw-fittings (if such a thing exists).

  36. silverlining says:

    @mantari: I have the lights sold a Home Depot (they’re SOOOOOO cheap–4 bulbs for about $7.50), and no delay before they reach full brightness. Or at least, no noticeable delay.

    Home Depot also has floodlights, and the CFLs with the tubes inside a dome, so that they resemble a regular incandescent. I used that bulb for a lamp with a shade that grips the bulb, and it works just fine.

    Environmental Defense has a great inventory of CFL bulbs at http://www.environmentaldefense.org/page.cfm?tagid=632 . Pretty useful site, with lots of Q/As, and recommendations for hard to find CFLs, like the dimmable bulbs.

    @SpyMaster: That stinks. Maybe they were bad bulbs? It’s not the experience I had with the Home Depot bulbs…

  37. ccqueer says:

    I stumbled upon this thread while looking for a cfl to retrofit a picture light and was awestruck by a particular comment posted by Mantari:
    -“Yes, I care about the delay. It is disconcerting. If I sell my home, I don’t want something that leaves a negative impression, even if it can be explained away. That, and I don’t like it either. Logical? No.”-
    Ummm… unless you sell your home on a daily basis and can’t keep up with simple maintenance I would kindly suggest – get this one – changing the bulb back if you’re so disconcerted. It’s a Buyer’s market, ya know. I just sold my home…with the electric turned off. Bought another one. Never gave a thought to what light bulb the previous owner had because…. why should I? Logical? Yes.