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The Standard Light Bulb

For over 100 years, the standard light bulb has been of one type—incandescent. A wonder of the modern world, Thomas Edison’s elegantly simple invention was reliable, inexpensive, and everywhere.

Enter the CFL Bulb

But technology marches on, and certain drawbacks and limitations of incandescent technology have opened the door for newer, more efficient, and longer-lasting light bulb designs. One of the most popular of these is the compact fluorescent lamp, or CFL. Boasting far greater energy efficiency than its wire-burning cousin, the CFL emits much more light per watt of energy, and far less heat to boot. But how?

A Burning Sensation

Incandescent bulbs create light by passing electric current through a small wire, or filament. The electrical resistance of the filament causes it to heat up and glow. But only about 10% of the electricity used is emitted as light. The other 90% is given off as heat. While this heat can be desirable in certain applications (heating lamps and botanical grow lamps, for example), it is usually just a wasteful by-product of incandescent inefficiency. 

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CFLs Are Cool - and Energy Efficient!

Instead of a filament, CFL bulbs contain a gas, which emits ultraviolet light (UV) when electricity is passed through it. But we cannot see ultraviolet light, so a special phosphor coating is applied to the glass to convert the UV light to visible light we can see. Since the CFL does not rely on heat to produce its light, it is far more energy efficient. And different phosphor coatings can be applied to customize the quality of the light output.

The CFL Light Bulb Ballast

In order to precisely control the electricity traveling through the gas, the CFL uses a device called a ballast. In the past, fluorescent lights have been associated with flickering, humming and slow starting. This was largely due to the use of electromagnetic ballasts. Today’s CFL bulbs use advanced electronic ballasts which do not tend to produce these performance anomalies.

Change is Good: CFL vs Incandescent Bulbs

Let’s look at some of the main advantages of replacing incandescent bulbs with a CFL light bulb.

  • Efficiency: CFL type bulbs use about 1/4 of the energy of a comparable incandescent bulb offering similar visible light output.
  • Longevity: Lasting up to 10 times longer than a regular light bulb, a CFL can save you lots of annoying bulb changes and burned fingers.
  • Expense: A CFL bulb does have a higher initial cost than an incandescent bulb. But it’s a case of the tortoise winning the race; over the lifetime of a CFL bulb it will save enough energy to pay for itself 10 times over.
  • Quality of Light: Gone are the days of flickering, humming fluorescents giving off a creepy pale glow. Nowadays, CFL light bulbs are capable of producing quality light that rivals the best incandescent bulbs.
  • Versatility: Coming in all shapes and sizes, CFL bulbs can be used almost anywhere you would use a regular incandescent bulb. Table lamps, ceiling fixtures, torchiere floor lamps, wall sconces, outdoor lighting, track lighting, recessed fixtures, and more can benefit from CFL technology.
  • Pollution: Since most of our electricity comes from coal-burning plants, using a CFL reduces air and water pollution. Replacing just one incandescent bulb with a CFL can keep 1/2 ton of CO2 out of our atmosphere over the CFL bulb’s lifetime.

Learn More

For more information about CFLs and other lighting technologies, use the visual guide on our Lamps Plus bulb finder page.

Or explore more with one of our other articles: 

1. Using a Dimmer with CFL Bulbs

2. How and LED bulb works

3. How an Incandescent bulb works

4. How a Halogen bulb works

Need Help With CFL Light Bulbs?

Need help finding a CFL light bulb or other types of home light bulbs? Our American Lighting Association trained consultants are here for you! Use the Lamps Plus store locator to find a superstore location near you, or contact us for more information!