A Little Bit on Light

Thing number 7 on our Learn and Play agenda is to speak about anything technology related.  I couldn’t really think of anything big that had caught my attention recently.  But I did realize there was a new piece of technology I had adopted recently (“new” isn’t quite the right word, but it is new for my family anyway).  We recently decided to eliminate all incandescent bulbs in our household in favor of Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFLs).  Partially this was a decision based on cost of use and partially this was a decision based on doing something small to assist the environment (along with several other things we try to stick to in order to reduce our footprint – though don’t take that wrong, we’re not “environmentalist” just normal people with some concerns).

So why CFLs then?  Well according to the Energy Star website:

“If every American home replaced just one light bulb with an ENERGY STAR qualified bulb, we would save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes for a year, more than $600 million in annual energy costs, and prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of more than 800,000 cars.”

If you keep reading after that on the website, you’ll see that on the average a CFL will save about $30 in cost over an average lifetime.  What?  Just $30?  That doesn’t seem like much I know, but consider this.  I have a home full of lights.  I think I replaced roughly 20 bulbs.  So that becomes $600 over the lifetime of the bulbs.  Not bad.  Sure nothing stellar, but hey I am not too proud to admit that I’ll scrimp and save even on that much just to keep some dollars in my family’s pocket.

On the environmental side, there is a bonus as well.  Those 20 bulbs will result in a lot less energy use.  Less energy use here in Ohio means less coal burning.  Less coal burning means less carbon dioxide, less sulfur dioxide, and less of a whole lot of stuff in fact.  It also means less mercury in the air. 

The number one criticism of CFLs is that they contain mercury.  This has been attacked again and again as a reason not to use these bulbs.  If you live in an area where coal burning does not provide your power then maybe skipping out on CFLs is not a bad idea.  However, the truth of the matter is if you live in an area with coal burning power plants then you will be offsetting the amount of mercury going in to the air by using less energy.  Coal burning generates quite a bit of mercury and the mercury in CFLs does not present anywhere near the level of danger that energy production from coal creates.  According to Popular Mechanics. “In 2006, coal-fired power plants produced 1,971 billion kilowatt hours (kwh) of electricity, emitting 50.7 tons of mercury into the air—the equivalent amount of mercury contained in more than 9 billion CFLs (the bulbs emit zero mercury when in use or being handled).”

When properly handled is a key point.  You cannot simply throw away CFLs when they go bad.  They do need to be recycled.  There are several places that do this.  Take a look at Earth 911’s website and type in CFL and your zip code to find places where you can recycle these and a whole lot more.

If you break a bulb, you also have to take a few special precautions.  The short list is clear the area and open windows.  Wait about 15 minutes for the vapors to clear.  Use disposable gloves and stiff paper to pick up the materials.  Any powders can be picked up with a piece of tape.  Vacuuming is not recommended since it can contaminate your vacuum cleaner or even get back in to the air through the exhaust.  At this point since the mercury is presumably dissipated, you can just discard of it in an outside trashcan.  The National Geographic page on CFLs where I got this from covers this in better detail and offers a great point that you are more in danger of cutting your finger on broken glass than taking any damage from the mercury content in a CFL.  They point out that according to the EPA, the mercury content of an average CFL is “a hundred times less mercury than is found in a single dental amalgam filling or old-style glass thermometer.”  While I wouldn’t recommend licking the inside of a thermometer or anything, I am of the school of thought that people are a bit too reactive about some things like mercury.  Blame the media and their scare tactics.

So go out and get yourself some CFLs, save money and do a bit of good for the planet.  And while you’re at it grab an order of sushi to go.

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