Fluorescent Bulbs Are Known to Zap Domestic Tranquillity

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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 30, 2007

NESKOWIN, Ore. -- Alex and Sara Sifford, who live here on the Oregon coast, want to do the right thing to save a warming world.

To that end, Alex Sifford, 51, has been buying compact fluorescent light bulbs, which use about 75 percent less power than incandescent bulbs. He sneaks them into sockets all over the house. This has been driving his wife nuts.

She knows that the bulbs, called CFLs, save money and use less energy, thus cutting greenhouse gas emissions blamed for climate change. She knows, too, that Al Gore, Oprah Winfrey and the Department of Energy endorse them. Still, the bulbs, with their initial flicker, slow warm-up and slightly weird color, bug her.

"What really got me was when my husband put a fluorescent in the lamp next to my bed," recalls Sara Sifford, 53. She said she yelled at her husband for "violating the last vestige of my personal space."

Experts on energy consumption call it the "wife test." And one of the dimly lighted truths of the global-warming era is that fluorescent bulbs still seem to be flunking out in most American homes.

The current market share of CFL bulbs in the United States is about 6 percent, up from less than 1 percent before 2001. But that compares dismally with CFL adoption rates in other wealthy countries such as Japan (80 percent), Germany (50 percent) and the United Kingdom (20 percent). Australia has announced a phaseout of incandescent bulbs by 2009, and the Canadian province of Ontario decided last week to ban them by 2012.

The relatively glacial adoption rate of CFLs in most of the United States suggests continued stiff resistance on the home front, despite dramatically lower prices for the bulbs and impressive improvements in their quality.

"There is still a big hurdle in convincing Americans that lighting-purchase decisions make a big difference in individual electricity bills and collectively for the environment," said Wendy Reed, director of the federal government's Energy Star campaign, which labels products that save energy and has been working with retailers to market CFL bulbs.

"I have heard time and again that a husband goes out and puts the bulb into the house, thinking he is doing a good thing," Reed said. "Then, the CFL bulb is changed back out by the women. It seems that women are much more concerned with how things look. We are the nesters."

A key to the abiding grass-roots resistance to CFLs, Reed and other experts said, is indelible consumer memories of the hideous looks and poor quality of earlier generations of fluorescent lights. They were bulky. They were expensive, as much as $25 each. They had an annoying flicker and hum. They cast an icky, cold-white light that made people look pale, wrinkly and old.

"People remember them from 20 years ago and they are not going to forgive," said Dave Shiller, vice president of new business development for MaxLite, a Fairfield, N.J., company that manufactures CFL bulbs.

A new breed of bulbs solves most, if not all, of the old gripes. The bulbs are smaller and much cheaper -- often selling for as little as $1.50 each at big-box stores. Most bulbs pay for themselves in reduced power consumption within six months. They last seven to 10 years longer than incandescent bulbs. The hum and flicker are long gone, and many bulbs are designed to mimic the soothing, yellowish warmth of incandescent bulbs. (Most, though, still do not work on dimmers.)


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