Installing compact fluorescent bulbs is a tricky, but illuminating experience


August 28, 1991|By Susan McGrath | Susan McGrath,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Replacing even one incandescent bulb in your home with a compact fluorescent is, unfortunately, a bit of an adventure. But it is well worth the effort, and once you have the system figured out, it will be easier to replace others. Each bulb you replace will save you between $24 and $48 over its lifetime, depending on your area's electricity rates. And it will help reduce acid rain and other nasty forms of air pollution.

First, a novice's guide to what's out there. If you are interested in learning more about the technology, check the sources below. Otherwise, stand by for the minimalist approach.

A compact fluorescent has two working parts: the heavy base, called a ballast, that regulates the ionization of gas taking place inside the tube, and the light-giving tube -- whatever its shape. You can either buy one-piece bulbs, in which the ballast and tube are stuck together, or two-piece bulbs, in which you can replace burnt-out glass tubes and reuse the ballast.

Compact fluorescents have been compacted by adapting trombone technology to lighting tubes -- you need the length but can't spare the space? Fold that tube over a few times. The result is a bulb that looks a lot more like a tuning fork than like that same old Edison light bulb we've been using all these years. However, you'll find that some of the one-piece bulbs look like oversized incandescents. "Globes" are round and fat. "Capsules" are sort of lozenge-shaped. These one-piecers are designed to make you feel comfortable -- "These aren't high-tech, honey. They're kinda cute."

In fact, the manufacturers have just put a more conventional, translucent, light bulb-shaped cover over the futuristic-looking tube. These are nice-looking, and great for open fixtures where you'll see the bulb. They cannot be used in enclosed fixtures because the tube would be, in effect, enclosed twice, and could conceivably overheat.

The two-piece bulbs are very high-tech looking. If you are slow to take to new things, stick to one-piece globes.

Two-piecers come in two varieties: those with a magnetic ballast, and those with an electronic ballast. Two-piecers are more economical than globes. After four or so years, when your bulb at last burns out, you can save the ballast and replace the tube for about $5.

Here are a few don'ts:

An electronic ballast should not be used in the same electrical socket as your TV. It will interfere with its workings. A magnetic ballast should not be used in unheated spaces where temperatures may fall below zero. They won't work. And no compact fluorescents can work on an ordinary dimmer switch.

Compact fluorescents get the best mileage, so to speak, when they are left on for at least two hours. But this does not mean that it is more energy efficient to leave them on than to turn them on or off as needed. If you don't need the light, turn off the lamp.

Back to our project: Buying and installing at least one compact fluorescent in a frequently used lighting fixture in your home.

Stroll around your home. What fixtures do you use most frequently, or leave on for the longest periods? A light over the front or back door, for instance, you might leave on all night for security. (Be sure to check temperature ratings before buying.) Your kitchen lights probably stay on for hours at a time. Do you leave a hall light on as a night light for the family? Read for hours next to a table lamp every evening? These are all good candidates.

Lights you rarely use probably don't merit the expense of a compact fluorescent -- unless they're in difficult-to-reach locations. And if you have a tall lamp that gets knocked over by visiting dogs and children on a regular basis, scratch it off your list. These bulbs are expensive, and just as breakable as the old-fashioned kind.

Once you have identified one or more candidates, get a piece of paper and a pencil and take copious notes about these lighting fixtures. Sketch each one, maybe, or at least write down enough information to refresh your memory when you get to the store and your mind goes blank. Measuring the depth of the fixture, if it is covered, and its width at the narrowest point will be a big help.

One more thing before you go. If any of the lamps in question are portable, carefully pack them up in a box and take them with you. This is obviously the best way to tell if a bulb is going to fit.

Fit, you see, is the problem. Chances are, every single lighting fixture in your house was designed for the antique that Edison perfected 100 years ago. The ballast on a compact fluorescent is just too bulky, the tube too long for many fixtures.

Choose a time to visit the lighting store when you are not in a tearing rush. Pick the most sympathetic-looking salesperson you see. Then ask him or her this: Can you leave a deposit to cover the cost and take home an array of compact fluorescents to try in your fixtures, if you guarantee you'll bring them back the next day? If the answer is yes, you have it made. If the answer is no, find out what return policy they have.

Mail-Order Bulbs: Real Goods News, (800) 762-7325, at 966 Mazzoni St., Ukiah, Calif. 95482.

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