CFL bulbs and longevity

Last Updated on April 15, 2017 by Dave Farquhar

Today the Consumerist linked to a report that CFLs burn out faster than expected.

That’s probably right. But not all CFLs are created equal, so if you have a bad string of luck with one brand, try changing brands.

I also think that CFLs are more sensitive to bad power than conventional bulbs are. Or maybe we just care more when a CFL burns out.
I’ve talked about this before, but the tabs in the fixture can become deformed, causing arcing, and, in turn, causing bulbs to burn out before their time. Arcs are bad, because they cause inconsistent power and excess heat, and the problem is cumulative. Arcing leads to grime building up on the circuit, probably due to sparks pulling in particles from the surrounding air, and that dirt buildup leads to still more arcing. My experience with my toy trains  makes me all too familiar with this phenomenon.

The last time I mentioned that, an alert reader suggested that light switches can cause the same symptom. Well, since that time, I’ve had a chance to try that.

The light bulbs in my bathrooms have never lasted very long. After I read about the tabs in the fixture, I checked that, but they seemed to be OK. After the reader suggested the light switch, I waited until one Saturday afternoon when the rest of the family was gone, and I changed out the switch. I don’t like to mess with electricity when I might be interrupted.

Bulbs in that particular bathroom used to only last a month or two. And, guess what? It’s been several months, and the bulbs I installed when I put in the switch are still glowing. So now I don’t have to use the very cheapest 40W bulbs I can find anymore; the CFLs I put in are still working.

Light switches cost less than a dollar, and if you have the right tools and have them all handy, you can change a switch in a matter of minutes.

I don’t know precisely how long my CFLs last, since I only started tracking the installation date three years ago. What I do know is that since I switched to CFLs, I spend a lot less time changing bulbs than I used to. I probably have between 25 and 30 of them, and I change about six per year. So, doing the math, I guess that means on average they’re lasting me 4-5 years.

That’s a little disappointing, I suppose. But my electric bills are lower than most people’s.

I like LED bulbs and think they’re the future, but their prices and limited availability of brightnesses and color temperatures make them impractical for widespread adoption right now. And if you’re having problems with CFLs burning out after just a few months, LEDs may very well have the same issue. So it’s better to solve that problem than to throw $20 bulbs at it and start losing those after a few months. That would really hurt.

Since my bulbs seem to be dying a couple of years before their time, it makes me wonder if I should invest in a package of light switches. I know a good number of them date to the 1960s, so they’ve had a good run.

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3 thoughts on “CFL bulbs and longevity

  • January 20, 2011 at 11:19 pm

    First thing I did before I moved into our ca 1959 house 26 years ago was change out all of the outlets and switches, haven’t had any problems since we moved in. My CFL experience is otherwise similar to yours except I find the 3-way versions don’t last as long – but they come with a guarantee the hardware store honors.

  • January 21, 2011 at 10:29 am

    Paul might find it prudent to change all those switches and outlets again. 26 yrs is a long time to a switch. Cheap and easy to do, and will give him the opportunity (if he hasn’t already) to seal off the box and reduce his heat bill a bit.

    I find the CFLs don’t like enclosed spaces, which would include recessed lights. They last about 2 yrs inside a fixture like that. I have a CFL I bought at least six yrs ago still burning, but not nearly as bright as it did. LEDs are just too expensive, though I installed LED “puck” lights under my upper cabinets in the kitchen and they work great (if a bit blue).

  • January 21, 2011 at 11:39 am

    I use some of that grease for distributor caps on halogen tube contacts. Works great.

    Anyone know of a company other than Leviton who make 3-way switches for table lamps?

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