Why Did the CFL Bulb Never Catch on With Consumers?

CFL Light Bulb

Legislation banning common incandescent bulbs has not been well received by most consumers. CFL and LED bulbs, often mentioned as the new go-to lighting option for homes, have caused an uproar. Consumers complain that the government is making them choose between one bulb that “doesn’t work” (CFL) and another bulb that is “too expensive” (LED).   At the peak of these complaints, LED bulbs were costing around $35 each for a 60 watt equivalent. CFLs are far less expensive – as cheap as incandescent in some stores – but there has been a very rocky history with consumers and many have dug in against them. Even politicians, sensing a way to please constituents, bad-mouth the CFL.

What happened with compact fluorescent technology to create such bad feelings from consumers? CFLs, introduced commercially by Philips and Sylvania in the mid 1980’s, were projected to be an energy efficient “transitional” technology between less efficient incandescent bulbs and LED technology on the horizon. The plan worked with businesses and institutions. They generally embraced CFLs, because they cut bottom line energy costs and worked well enough for their lighting applications.

From the beginning, consumers found much to complain about:

“NO INSTANT START”

Flip the switch of a table lamp – get instant light. Screw in a CFL manufactured in the 1980’s and 1990’s – get a faint glow for what seemed like forever until it warmed up to full light. It got worse. Screw in a CFL to an outdoor porch light. Winter arrives. Flip the switch. No light at all. Most CFLs would not come on if the temperature was below freezing.

Today, the vast majority of CFLs start instantly and have low start temperatures.

“LIGHT DOESN’T LOOK LIKE INCANDESCENT”

The warm soft white light of incandescent bulbs was not easy to match for compact fluorescent. The color temperature of early CFLs always seemed a little weird. For the CFLs that were marketed as 2700K, warm white, they had a greenish yellow cast that didn’t work for consumers. The compact fluorescent sweet spot has always been cool white, which is why the business and institutional sector in particular embraced them. But cool white is not what most consumers want in their living room.

Again, most of this is ancient history. Today, 2700K CFLs are a much closer match to incandescent warm light.

“WHY CAN’T I DIM IT”

Another fatal flaw that in many ways continues to haunt CFLs. They will dim, but you can’t just grab any CFL off the shelf like you can with incandescent or halogen. The dimming CFLs are more expensive.

“THEY’RE TOXIC, THEY CONTAIN MERCURY”

Fluorescent technology uses mercury vapor, a key component in how it produces light. This is true of all fluorescents including linear tubes. The technology has improved to the point that the mercury levels are lower, but nevertheless, CFLs are still considered toxic enough that some states have regulations about disposal of burned out or broken bulbs.

THE BAD START, LEFT A BAD TASTE

Even though the CFL today is a mature, very affordable technology without most of the problems of the past, many consumers will not give them a second look. Instead they are used as the target for people irate about the incandescent ban. That said, many consumers have found a place for CFLs in their homes. They use them in closets, pantries, basements, garages and as outdoor lights. All excellent opportunities to play to the strengths of CFLs – long life and energy efficiency.

However, with a rapid decline in the prices of LEDs, CFLs will probably always play a bit role for consumers. Walk into a Lowe’s, Menard’s or Home Depot today and you’ll find mostly LED bulbs front and center. CFLs are still there, but pushed to the bottom shelf. The dream of a “transitional” CFL technology never caught on with consumers. For most, it will be a move directly from incandescent to LED, a technology that seems to do everything incandescent can do and more. The only drawback has always been up front cost. Now that barrier is quickly disappearing. In a very few years, we will all be living in the age of the LED.

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Dave Burtner

Dave has been active in the lighting industry since 1994. Formerly a member of the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America and certified by the National Council On Qualifications for Lighting Professionals, Dave now writes blog posts, lighting tips and provides lighting product assistance for the Topbulb website.