ARCHIVE: Energy saving light bulbs

The government has been working with all major retailers who sell light bulbs and UK energy suppliers to phase out traditional energy guzzling bulbs, replacing them with energy efficient light bulbs such as Compact Fluorescent Lamps  (CFLs). This is in advance of a EU-wide mandatory phase out of incandescent bulbs that began on 1 September 2009 and which was agreed by EU Member States in December 2008.

The traditional light bulb has not changed for over a hundred years since Edison and Swan - the time of Queen Victoria - and these bulbs waste 95% of electricity as heat.

Compact fluorescent lampWhy have this initiative?

Climate change is the biggest threat facing our planet today. It is happening and it is happening now. Everyone – governments, businesses and individuals - needs to work together to tackle climate change by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.

By phasing out the traditional light bulbs, we will all be using less energy so will need less electricity. CFLs are up to 80% more efficient then incandescent lamps.

What are compact fluorescent lamps?

They are small fluorescent lamps which fit into standard light sockets, usually referred to as CFLs or energy saving light bulbs.

They last longer and use less energy than traditional (or incandescent) light bulbs, because they are much more efficient at changing electricity into light.

CFLs are also cost effective. Advice from the Energy Saving Trust suggests that as they will last up to 10 times longer than a traditional bulb, just one energy saving bulb could save up to £3-6 a year and, depending on the length of time lights are in use every day, could save around £40 before it needs replacing.  Fit all the lights in your house with energy saving bulbs and you could save around £37 a year and £590 over the lifetime of all of the bulbs.

What other alternatives are there to incandescent lamps?

CFLs are the most energy efficient alternative technology, however halogen lamps are now available to fit into standard light sockets and emit light not dissimilar to incandescent lamps, but with only a 25-40% energy saving.

In the longer term, lamps based on Light-Emitting Diode (LED) technology promise to be highly-efficient alternatives even to CFLs.

The Energy Saving Trust’s website provide useful information on alternatives.

Are CFLs bad for my health?

Energy efficient light bulbs are not a danger to the public.

Like many household products, they must be disposed of sensibly and there are suitable facilities available for this purpose. Although they contain mercury, limited at 5mg per lamp, it cannot escape from a lamp that is intact. In any case, the very small amount contained in an energy efficient bulb is unlikely to cause harm even if the lamp should be broken.

Do CFLs contain mercury?

Yes, they need mercury to generate light efficiently. The mercury is used to produce ultraviolet light, which is then changed into light we can see by a special coating in the lamp. The coating is inert and poses no health risk.

Nowadays, the typical amount is 3 - 4 milligrams per lamp (and limited at 5mg per lamp) – just enough to cover the tip of a ball point pen and just enough to last the expected life-time of the lamp.

Will the mercury in CFLs cause damage to the environment

Over the life time of both lamp types, energy efficient bulbs produce less mercury. This is due to the fact that mercury is emitted from power stations during electricity generation and energy saving bulbs are more energy efficient – therefore saving on the amount of electricity that needs to be generated.

Of course, we’ve done a lot to reduce mercury emissions in the UK in recent years. Total emissions have fallen by 80% since 1990 and stand at 7.6 tonnes a year (2005 NAEI figures - see www.airquality.co.uk); power generation accounts for about 31% of this total.

Does the mercury in a CFL pose a risk?

The mercury cannot escape from an intact lamp and, even if the lamp should be broken, the very small amount of mercury contained in a single, modern CFL is most unlikely to cause any harm. 

But it makes sense to avoid unnecessary contact with mercury; and any light bulb – broken or intact – should be dealt with sensibly.

Is a bulb likely to break?

Like all household products energy efficient bulbs can break, but they are actually harder to break than traditional bulbs: they are often coated with plastic as a protector and as they’re of a smaller diameter than traditional bulbs they’d have higher stress limits. According to trade figures, breakage rates are less than 1%.

How should I deal with a broken CFL?

Although the accidental breakage of a lamp is most unlikely to cause any health problems, it’s good practice to minimise any unnecessary exposure to mercury, as well as risk of cuts from glass fragments.

Revised advice issued by the Health Protection Agency is to:

  • Ventilate the room
  • Wipe the area with a damp cloth, place that in the plastic bag and seal it
  • Sticky tape (e.g. duct tape or similar) can be used to pick up small residual pieces or powder from soft furnishings and then placed in a sealed plastic bag. The plastic bag doesn't need to be air tight, but should be reasonably sturdy.
  • Place it in another, similar bag and seal that one as well (this minimises cuts from broken glass).

The public should contact the local authority for advice on where to dispose of broken or intact CFLs as they should be treated as hazardous waste and should not be disposed of in the bin. All local councils have an obligation to make arrangements for the disposal of household hazardous waste at a civic amenity site or household waste recycling centre. The National Household Hazardous Waste Forum runs a website with details of these centres for chemicals, but which also applies to other hazardous wastes (www.chem-away.org.uk/). Alternatively contact your local council direct.

How should I dispose of unwanted CFLs, e.g. at the end of their life?

From 1st July 2007, waste CFLs have been subject to the requirements of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Regulations. Those who sell items such as energy efficient bulbs must provide information to the public about where they can take waste bulbs and other WEEE. Some retailers will also take them back in store. However, most retailers have funded Designated Collection Facilities, in the main at local authority civic amenity sites. From this point, producers of the equipment fund the transport, treatment and recycling, where most of the mercury can be recovered.

How does this amount compare to other articles that contain mercury?

A typical mercury thermometer may contain 0.5 to 3 grams of mercury, whilst a typical mercury barometer may contain 100 to 600 grams of mercury, around 25,000 to 150,000 times more than an energy saving bulb.

Is the light from CFLs bad for my skin?

In October 2008 the Health Protection Agency issued precautionary advice regarding the use of certain types of CFLs in close range for periods of time over one hour. Their advice is that that open (single envelope) CFLs should not be used where people are in close proximity - closer than 30 cm or 1 ft - to the bare light bulb for over 1 hour a day. At these distances CFLs might emit Ultra Violet (UV) light at a level less than equivalent to being outside on a sunny summer’s day.

If bulbs are required at these distances then an encapsulated (double envelope) CFL should be used. These are cost around the same as open CFLs and offer similar levels of energy savings.

All CFLs are safe for normal usage and the HPA does not advise removing CFLs from your home.  More information can be found on the HPA website.

Through EU legislation, mandatory limits will ensure that all CFLs will not emit UV light above safe levels from September 2009. The European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks also published a report into this issue recently and this can be found on the EC website.

What about those with light-sensitive conditions?

CFLThe Government has been in discussion with groups representing a small number of individuals for whom the use of CFLs can aggravate pre-existing light-sensitive conditions. The Government was successful in pressing the European Commission to introduce mandatory standards for UV emissions.

The Commission’s Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks published a report into this issue recently and this can be found on the EC website.

As an alternative to CFLs, halogen lamps (like the one pictured) are now available for use in standard sockets which operate in a similar way to incandescent bulbs, however these offer only relatively small energy savings.

Does the law require me to replace all my traditional light bulbs immediately?

No; while the intention of both  the UK’s retailer-led voluntary initiative is to phase out the sale of inefficient bulbs in participated retailes, the EU’s mandatory measures under the Energy-using Products Directive will phase out the manufacture and import of inefficient bulbs and retailers will be able to sell on existing stock if they so wish.

Don’t efficient bulbs take a while to warm up?

Modern, good quality, efficient bulbs should take little more than a couple seconds to warm up to full brightness, the short delay is due to the way they work.

But aren’t efficient bulbs too big for most fittings? And don’t they give off  ‘gloomy’ light?

The technology of energy efficient light bulbs has improved massively in recent years. Manufacturers have now developed “look-alike” bulbs for the majority of light fittings and they give the same standard and quality of light as existing bulbs and in the same shapes.

At the moment, many efficient bulbs are not compatible with dimmer switches, However dimmable bulbs are on the market and will be made increasingly available in the UK during the phase out period. As an alternative to CFLs, halogen-based lamps are now available for use in standard lamps sockets, though these only offer relatively small savings.

In the past, the variety of colours available from CFLs was limited and they usually came as a ‘cold blue’ colour. Energy efficient bulbs now come in a range of colours from the original ‘cold blue’ to the traditional ‘warm white’ that you get from incandescent lights. Look for the Energy Saving Trust’s ‘Energy Saving Recommended’ logo as these have to emit the same warm light level as old fashioned bulbs.

Aren’t these bulbs more expensive?

Whilst the upfront cost of efficient bulbs can be greater than traditional bulbs, according to the Energy Saving Trust efficient bulbs last up to ten times longer than a normal bulb and can up to £3-6 a year each in energy bills (for a 100W bulb), saving consumers up to £60 over the lifetime of the bulb in reduced energy bills and replacement costs.

Retailers are now selling efficient light bulbs at prices well under £1, and in some cases prices are not much more than traditional bulbs.

Doesn’t switching the lights on and off use more energy than leaving them running?

No. Switching on an energy efficient bulb only uses the same amount of power as leaving it on for a minute or two. Turning the bulb on and off repeatedly may shorten a bulb’s life but normal use should not do this.

So what is the timetable for these bulbs being phased out across the EU?

  • 1 September 2009 – From this date, manufacturers will not be able to place on the market clear lamps equivalent to 100W incandescent lamps, or above, must be minimum C class energy rating (leaving only halogen retrofit halogen lamps). Non-clear (frosted / pearl) lamps must be minimum Energy Label A-class.
  • 1 September 2010 - From this date, manufacturers will not be able to place on the market 75 W clear incandescent lamps.
  • 1 September 2011 - From this date, manufacturers will not be able to place on the market 60 W clear incandescent lamps.
  • 1 September 2012 - From this date, manufacturers will not be able to place on the market all remaining clear incandescent lamps (i.e. 40W and 25W).
  • 1 September 2016 - Raising the minimum level to B class for clear retrofit lamps (i.e. phasing out C-class retrofit halogen lamps).

Where can I find out more?

Page last modified: 29 October 2009
Page published: 11 January 2008