Shining the light on CFLs

Everything you always wanted to know about compact fluorescent light bulbs, but were afraid to Google for.

Published January 5, 2007 5:58PM (EST)

"Nobody" buys compact fluorescent light bulbs, says blogger Megan McArdle, because "they give off the kind of harsh glare we all leave the office to get away from."

McArdle was playing off a recent New York Times article recounting Wal-Mart's difficulties in achieving its goal of selling 100 million CFLs a year. (You can decide for yourself if Wal-Mart's August 2006 sales [3.95 million bulbs], which were almost twice its August 2005 sales [1.65 million], really adds up to "nobody.")

It is true, CFLs generate a different shade of light than do regular incandescents, though I will argue that it is a far cry from that ancient fluorescent tube hanging over your cubicle. And it is also true that their twisty shapes often look odd in a traditional light fixture. For me personally, such qualities are far outweighed by how amazingly long they last and how little electricity they consume. And judging by the comments to McArdle's blog, a percentage of her readership agrees with me.

But I'm not here to quibble with McArdle's lighting aesthetics (Disclaimer: I once edited a piece of hers for Salon.) People get to make their own decisions about what bulb to stick in their own sockets -- on that principle, I am libertarian all the way. The real purpose of this post is to pass on the URL of a Web site that a representative of the advocacy organization Environmental Defense posted in McArdle's comments area.

As part of their campaign to encourage people to "Make the Switch," Environmental Defense has created a handy guide to the world of compact fluorescents, complete with pictures, energy savings ratings, and all kinds of other data. If you're interested in dimmable compact fluorescents, Environmental Defense has the information you need (along with links to retail outlets).

I was delighted by this site, because a year ago I did some research on compact fluorescents for a How the World Works post, and didn't find anything nearly as comprehensive (which might be one reason I got some technical details wrong re: dimmer switches and rheostats). But that's why, even now, the Internet keeps me in a state of constant swoon: It is always offering me more information, and that information is always getting more organized.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Globalization How The World Works Wal-mart