Harbor Freight Reviews

The unofficial review forum for Harbor Freight™ tools.


Compact Fluorescent Light Bulb

A typical, spiral-shaped compact fluorescent light (CFL)
compared with a standard incandescent light bulb. The
larger mid-section of the CFL houses the starter/ballast and
other electric circuitry necessary for all fluorescent lights in
an amazingly small space. Illustration courtesy of Wikipedia.com.

Review from Harbor Freight Reviews

This article is an expanded version of our commentary Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs Light the Way to a Brigher Future posted to our Harbor Freight Reviews Discussion Forum.

Our review of Harbor Freight's 45-watt solar panel kit prompted a brief commentary on the merits of compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL) within the context of low-energy consuming devices. Rather than append that article with what might be considered a rather lengthy commentary given our academic propensity for prose,;) this article is submitted as a separate commentary and review in this expanded version on our web site.

Most people should be somewhat familiar with these CFLs, but the continued high demand for traditional incandescent light bulbs :( suggest many have not yet seen the light :idea:. CFLs, like other fluorescent lights, require much less electrical energy to produce an equivalent amount of illumination as produced by the first-generation of household electric lighting, the traditional incandescent bulb. No longer are fluorescent lights handicapped with the ghostly artificial appearance of their bluish light or the hum of their early ballasts. Modern CFLs offer a range of color temperatures to suit the needs and tastes of any individual and they do so quietly as well as efficiently.

Hot and Cold Lights and the Temperature of 'Color'

Color temperature determines the appearance of light and varies from warm to cool for residential lighting applications. It is technically expressed in degrees Kelvin although these numbers are less meaningful to most people than the text desginations used below.
  • Warm lights are somewhat reddish in appearance and are the color temperature most Americans have grown up with from the incandescent lighting that fills the typical American and Canadian homes. Many Americans prefer this color temperature for reading and tabletop lighting.
  • Cool lights are more bluish in appearance and are the color that Americans are familiar with in their schools, offices, manufacturing facilities, and shopping malls. Cool white is used to describe cool lighting with just a bit warmer hue that lacks any bluish overtones. 
  • Full spectrum lights emulate the natural light of the sun and are used for ambient lighting and for some applications which find them suitable as plant grow-lights. Full spectrum lights are also recommended for the treatment and prevention of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) that occur during the winter months when individuals in most temperate and Northern climates receive less exposure to outdoor light because of the low ambient temperatures. Traditonal incandescent lights are 'warm' and do not contain enough full-spretrum light to avert SAD.
One of the aspects that had slowed acceptance of fluorescent lighting into more private homes is the artificial cool appearance of traditional fluorescent lighting. New CFLs are available in a variety of color temperatures, including warm illumination which emulates traditional incandescent lighting and full spectrum illumination which is more natural, emulating sunlight and can even be found in basic primary colors. Of course cool white is also available to light up those wide-open spaces.

Compact Fluorescent Light Basics

Compact fluorescent lights (CFL) are basically, well, compact fluorescent lights. They are the same technology that has been around for over 75 years compacted into a smaller package. In other words, they're simply fluorescent lights, but unlike their larger grandfathers, they have their starters/ballasts and other circuitry necessary to make them work miniaturized into a package which fits into standard light sockets normally reserved for incandescent light bulbs. Of course they're improved in other ways as well, being quiet running and available in a variety of color temperatures that make them much more pleasant for home use. They are so much more energy efficient and safer (because of their lower operating temperature which decreases the risk of electrical shorts and fires) that the manufacture of standard incandescent light bulbs will be discontinued in the United States in the not to distant future. Fluorescent lights have always been a favorite in large-scale operations (e.g., industry, schools, offices) because of their energy savings and low maintenance (around 10,000 hours between bulb replacement). CFLs find their way into private homes in the United States and Canada as awareness and concerns about green-house emissions mature. They have long been a favorite in Europe and other parts of the world where residential energy costs are considerably higher than in North America. And of course, we find them indispensable for use with solar-powered applications that generate only small amounts of usable electricity.

We have special interest in energy conservation and alternative energy sources and have purchased quite a few products related to these interests from Harbor Freight and from other suppliers. In our tests Harbor Freight has been consistently striking out but with their 45-watt solar panel kit they may have hit a home run. This is by far the lowest price anywhere for low to medium wattage solar panels, and the charge controller and compact fluorescent light bulbs are a bonus. Click here to read our product review.

When comparing CFLs to standard incandescent light bulbs remember that if you're comparing wattages (which is what we all do, pun intended), then you have to use two different measuring 'sticks.' CFL put out almost 5-times as much light on a watt-for-watt basis when compared with standard incandescent lights. This makes a 15-watt CFL roughly equivalent to a 60-watt incandescent light bulb. The table below gives some commonly used equivalance values based on the actual lumens output for each type of light bulb. It should help simply your selection of the appropriate CFL and help guide you through some of the comparisons we're making in this article.

Approximate Equivalence in Lighting Power between Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFL) and Conventional Incandescent Light Bulbs

Compact fluorescent light bulbs at 1000Bulbs.com
Shatter-Resistant CFL including 14-watt floodlights
Dimmable and 3-way CFLs
All colors of CFL at discount prices
    5-watt CFL  =    25-watt incandescent 
    9-watt CFL  =    40-watt incandescent
  13-watt CFL  =    60-watt incandescent
  15-watt CFL  =    70-watt incandescent
  23-watt CFL  =  100-watt incandescent
  30-watt CFL  =  120-watt incandescent
105-watt CFL = 420-watt incandescent

FYI: Fluorescent lights are actually 10 to 20% efficient compared with the typical incandescent light bulb which is only around 2% efficient. The actual efficiency of a fluorescent light depends on its specific design, with industrial fluorescent lighting enjoying the highest ratings of around 20% efficient, while CFLs are usually on the lower end at only 10-15% efficient (Remember, CFLs have design limitations because of their compact size.). Still, CFLs are 4 to 5-times more efficient than the typical incandescent light.

CFLs come in a variety of color temperatures: cool is the standard appearing, typical fluorescent light that many people like for area and general ambient lighting; warm better emulates a conventional incandescent light which most people prefer for reading; and full spectrum emulates the natural light of the sun and is used for ambient lighting and some applications find it suitable as a plant light; CFLs even come in an assortment of colors

The numbers are downright staggering: A CFL uses about 1/5 the energy of a conventional incandescent light bulb and lasts around 10-times longer. Over the life-time of the CFL, this saves around $44 at an 8 cents per kw utility rate and double that with our actual delivered utility rate in Western New York (i.e., $88!?).And the fact that YOU can make enough electricity at home to run them is even cooler with your Harbor Freight's 45-watt solar panel kit.

What's in a Watt?

The commonly used term "watt" is actually an expression of electrical energy not light intensity. "Lumens" and "candlepower" are the terms that better describe the actual brightness, but they're unlikely to supplant "watts" anytime soon because of the years of use this term has seen in reference to incandescent light bulbs. Typical CFLs produce around 50 lumens per watt, while incandescent light bulbs produce around 10 lumens per watt. A candle produces 0.3 lumens per watt and T5 and T8 tube-style fluorescent lights can produce around 100 lumens per watt. (A low-pressure sodium light is actually the most efficient light source currently available producing up to 200 lumens per watt. Want to read next to one of these lights?)

FYI: When translated to physical energy, 1,000 W (1 kW) is approximately equal to 1.34 hp of work. (So I guess a 1 kW light bulb could pull a horse? -- viz., produce more "work.")

Candlepower like horsepower has an obvious derivation: the light intensity is compared with the brightness provided by a typical candle. The actual unit of measure is "foot candles" where 1 foot-candle is the amount of light striking an object one foot away from a lit candle. The more scientifically standardized term "candela" is approximately equal to one foot-candle. Lumens is another popular measure with each candela approximately equal to 12.57 lumens. (Actually, it's all a lot more technical than presented here, but this should give you a general idea of the equivalent "lighting power" of these measures.) Click here if you would like a simple, straightforward explanation of these terms devoid of the overly complex technical rhetoric that hamstrings the Wikipedia these days.

Most of the "watts" in incandescent lighting is actually wasted as heat energy with only about 2% going towards providing visible light Nonetheless, for a given "wattage" different incandescent lights typically provide comparable the levels of illumination. Hence, we all know what a typical 25-watt refrigerator light compared to 100-watt reading lamp looks like and understand how they're both dwarfed by those awesome 500-watt floodlights. For this reason, CFLs are often described by their equivalence to a given wattage of incandescent light, even though they actually consume about 1/5 the energy and therefore their real wattage is much lower lumen-for-lumen.

Cost-Savings Calculations for a Single 15-Watt CFL

  • A standard 70-watt incandescent light bulb consuming its 70 watts for 10,000 hours will require 700,000 watts or 700 kW in electrical energy. At a rate of 8 cents/kW this costs $56 in electricity.
  • A 15-watt CFL (equivalent to the 60-watt incandescent light in brightness) will consume 150,000 watts or 150 kW in electrical energy over a 10,000 hour period. At a rate of 8 cents/kW this costs$12 in electricity. 
  • The difference in electrical consumption (700 kW - 150 kW = 550 kW) results in the 60-watt incandescent light bulb costing $44 more than the CFL to run for 10,000 hours. 
  • The CFL in this example typically costs $1.09, while the incandescent bulb usually costs between $0.29 and $0.90 depending on whether it's a standard or a long-life bulb. (The price differential cancels out considering that it would require two or more standard incandescent light bulbs to provide 10,000 hours of illumination, while a single long-life incandescent light bulb [costing about twice as much] could run for 10,000 hours.)
  • With National Grid in Western New York we're currently paying about 16 cents per kW delivered (the stated power price is only around $0.08/kW but that doesn't include all the delivery charges, taxes, etc.) which is double the 8 cents per kW often used for these comparisons including the calculations above. Our actual cost for delieverd electrical service would double the cost differential between these two bulbs, bringing the savings to $88 for each incandescent light bulb replaced by an equivalent light-ouput CFL!
  • If you replace ten 70-watt incandescent light bulbs with ten 15-watt CFLs, you'll save $440 over the 10,000 hours of use. (FYI: 10,000 hours was selected as the comparison point because it is the typical life-expectance of a CFL; regular tube-style fluorescent lights last considerably longer, with 50,000 hours not being unusual.) If you're not so lucky as to actually be paying only 8 cents per kW and are paying our rate you'll save $880 by replacing the ten 70-watt incandescent bulbs
  • Another way to view this cost-savings is to consider the payback or interest returned on your investment: the $1.09 - $0.90 = $0.19 investment (the net increased cost for replacing a 70-watt incandescent light bulb with a 15-watt CFL). "A penny saved is a penny earned (B.F. Franklin)," so consider the $44 saved as $44 return on your $0.19 investment. That's a total yield of 232%. Of course you probably won't earn this in a single year. In fact, if you use the light bulb 2,000 hours per year it will take you 5 years to earn your 232% return. (The 2,000 hours/year estimate averages about 5.5 hours/day of light usage.) So play fare, divide your earnings by 5 years -- you're making 46.3% per year on your investment of each CFL plus you're helping to save-the-planet too. Try getting this annual return on your money from any other investment!
  • And we just have to add that paying our twice-as-much-as-you (maybe, or maybe others are underestimating the actual cost of DELIVERED electricity from their power untility companies), we're doubling our rate of return here in Western New York. Yes, that's a whopping 92.6% annually. I sure wish we could invest even more money in this market.
The math is compelling -- don't wait for those old light bulbs to burn out; smash them now and start saving money today! Of course there is one drawback and it's only fair to mention it. Your entire investment of $1.09 is at-risk for loss from mishaps such as someone knocking over the lamp, strong electrical spikes in the power grid, lightning strikes to your home AC-power entrance panel, etc. that could quickly wipeout your entire investment (see below). Then you would need to invest another $1.09, but then you can replace a bunch of the CFLs before you're loosing money on this investment in power savings.

Do what you can without seriously compromising your quality of life. Substituting CFLs for incandescent light bulbs in most fixtures is quick and easy and pays back fast. At Harbor Freight Reviews we believe that every killed kilowatt counts, so kill a kilowatt or two when and where you can. We invest in these small-scale systems to make a small contribution while sometimes bringing electricity to a hard to reach area around our home or shop.

There are a few things to note about compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL).

Modern CFLs are available in styles that replace most incandescent lighting including full-spectrum, shatter-resistant floodlights, and a rainbow of basic colors. There are even CFLs which work in three-way sockets giving three different levels of illumination and CFLs which emulate halogen lighting. And they all produce flicker-free, quiet lighting in their compact packages which fit standard lamp sockets eliminating the last excuses for not going green and making your contribution to saving-the-planet while saving yourself some money too.

1000Bulbs.com carries a very wide assortment of CFLs as well as LED and other types of lighting. Read through their online listings carefully to find the CFLs that best suit your individual needs. Don't be overwhelmed with all of the choices -- buy a couple of different types (e.g., color temperatures, styles) and experiment to find what works best for you.

A Special Problem for Some Users

We use a lot of X10 circuits in our home to control lighting and other electrical devices. The X10 circuits do NOT work with standard CFLs. This has to do with the way these two devices work -- the CFL requires a large current influx to start the fluorescence (AKA the "light"); the X10 circuits require that a small electrical current be constantly present on the load (e.g., the light bulb). Oops, this doesn't work. The CFL is confused and in fact often damaged by small but constant trickle of electricity required by the X10 control device. So how do you solve this and still go green?

Certain dimmable CFLs work well with X10 and similar control circuits. These cost a premium but for those of us who must have the X10-control of certain lamps, it's well worth the added price. For those of you who have no idea what we're talking about here, X10 controls allow remote control and programming of electrical loads. You can plug your lamp into an X10 lamp control module and control it from anywhere in your home or shop. You can also program it to respond to certain events such as motion detection or to simply cycle on-and-off similar to a simple timer. I personally no longer recommend X10 controls for most people. The move to green with CFLs largely conflicts with this system and at best complicates it somewhat. Technology may eventually provide a simple solution, but for now it's costly and remains somewhat risky because even dimmable CFLs that work for months can fail one day abuptly with X10 control. Then you're buying another premium-priced CFL or just giving up and switching the lamp back to a traditional incandescent light bulb.

Now, the problem I just described for X10 users applies equally to most dimmer switches. They too require a small electrical current or use a type of electronic switch which is incompatible with most CFLs. So choose wisely and understand that going green cost more than just a few extra bucks for the light bulb; it also involves for many users some changes in lifestyle or changes in electrical control devices and switches.

Harbor Freight has put together a nice little 45-watt solar panel kit that's sufficient to drive several of these CFLs: their kit includes two 5-watt compact fluorescent light bulbs with fixtures, a charge controller, and three 15-watt solar panels. They even provide the necessary cabling, albeit flimsier than what you may want. All you add is a storage battery, preferably a deep-discharge type but anything 12-volts will get you started. On a bright day, the 45-watts of solar power should keep your two 5-watt compact fluorescent lights easily running 24/7. In fact, this system should be able to easily support two regular 15-watt compact fluorescent bulbs, but on a bad day hope you have some charge leftover from the previous sunny day.

One Last 'Note'

We wrote this entire article discussing CFLs without mentioning that greenhouse emissions are killing our planet or without boring you with statistics on how if everyone switched to CFLs it would decrease these poisonous gasses so dramatically as to save-our-planet with one dramatic move. Well, it wouldn't. We're in more trouble than that, unfortunately. But even 25% of the population switching to CFLs would make an important difference and slow progression to the big hothouse as well as get the rest of the public more aware of the importance of conserving energy (e.g, social modeling and flocking effects). The title of this article should be self-explanatory aptly revealing our position on this topic -- see the light yet?. B)

Here at Harbor Freight Reviews we feel that everyone should do what they can, but nobody needs to surrender that comfortable 20th Century lifestyle we've all come to love and enjoy. Where you can switch to CFLs do so and do so now; start saving-the-planet today. Where you need or just want to bath in the warmth of a truly warm light (remember, 98% of the energy is produced as heat), go for it. Meanwhile, do what you can and you can easily switch to CFLs for most lighting. (End of editorial commentary ;) for now.)

Click here for a wide selection of energy-saving CFLs are discount prices. Remember that the higher initial cost is quickly recovered in energy savings and that you're doing the right thing by helping to save-the-planet too.

Bottom line: Compact fluorescent light bulbs (CBL) are the only way to go for most applications including not only solar but conventional grid-powered lighting. They provide equivalent illumination at much less cost, both energy-wise and replacement-cost-wise, and they do this while helping to save-the-planet.

Copyright 2010 Beaux Arts USA   (Reproduce freely, but play fair, cite the source.)

See Harbor Freight Reviews Discussion Forum for other product reviews.

We have lots of items currently being evaluated at Harbor Freight Reviews. It's often a slow, tedious process to review each item personally but we're banging them out as we can. We hope that you find our first-person reviews useful in your purchase decisions and that you visit our website regularly for updated material. Happy Sa(i)ling at the Harbor!


Copyright 2010 Beaux Arts USA

Last revised: 08 September 2010 04:49 (EDT)

Contact: info@HarborFreightReviews.com