The incandescent light bulb was developed in 1876 by Thomas Edison, founder of General Electric. But as more energy efficient technology is introduced, even Edison’s greatest achievement has been all but extinguished forever.
On September 24th, 2013, it was announced that the last of the incandescent light bulbs had rolled off the GE assembly line to be replaced by compact fluorescents, or “CFLs.” The spiral-twisted tube bulbs use low-energy, fluorescent technology and there is really nothing cutting-edge about them, except for their size and the potential fire risk when they go bad.
Fluorescent lighting has been around since the late 19th Century, but wasn’t developed for widespread use until the 1930s. Less expensive to operate than their incandescent counterparts, most of the bulbs last longer and are safe for everyday use. But as the environmentalist lobby pushes for more energy-efficient or, “green,” technology, has the heightened concern for the environment surpassed that for human safety?
Recently I went into my kitchen and switched on the light over the sink, as I did countless times throughout the week. I left the room for a moment and when I returned it was dark, the familiar morning glow of the light fixture having just been replaced with the smell of burned ceramic and melted plastic. Upon investigation I discovered that the CFL bulb in the overhead light had quite literally burned out.
Just before it went dark, the 20-Watt, General Electric CFL bulb I had installed a few months earlier had gone so hot that it flamed through the plastic and ceramic base, causing it to melt and crack at the bottom of the glass tubing. The discovery of such a potential fire hazard was, to say the least, surprising, but apparently the problem is well-documented and manufacturers have been aware of it since the product’s release.
In a Snopes.com article John Drengenberg, consumer affairs manager at Underwriters Laboratories (UL), said about how CFLs expire, “People expect to see the bright flash and to hear the popping like a traditional incandescent bulb, but the burn out of a CFL is different. The light dims over time and might produce a more dramatic pop, emit a distinct odor, and maybe even release some smoke.”
Drengenberg is referring to the Voltage Dependent Resistor (VDR). The CFL burns out when the ballast overheats, causing the VDR to open the circuit like a blown fuse and prevent any hazards. Instead of resulting in a mild puff of smoke, however, the heat generated can, as in my case, burn through the base. As I dug deeper into this issue, I discovered countless articles, videos and online debates regarding the safety of CLF lighting and how there might be more to their compulsory introduction than simply reducing energy costs. It’s important to note here that Underwriters Laboratories is not a government agency but a private company paid by manufacturers to “certify” the safety of their products.
In the early 1990s, I worked for a major appliance manufacturer as an engineering technologist following UL guidelines in operational and safety testing of ovens, ranges and cook-tops. In my experience, a bit of heat and smoke being released from a popping resister is, by itself, not enough to cause the kind of damage apparently so common with this product. I am well aware of UL testing practices and it is beyond my comprehension how anything short of political pressure could be responsible for the approval of a consumer electronics product that literally lets flame out of its casing.
From a consumer standpoint, it’s baffling to me how UL, or the Federal Trade Commission – the governmental agency responsible for consumer safety, can justify the approval of a device that clearly presents a fire safety hazard under “normal use” conditions. Incidentally, the CFLs also contain mercury, another potential environmental health hazard often conveniently overlooked.
It is entirely possible that these products were rushed to market, not so much to help reduce pollution or save money for the consumer, but to further a political agenda. Whatever the reason, the consumer should be aware of the inherent dangers and always be careful when using CFL lighting.