You buy a compact fluorescent lamp. The packaging says it will last for 6000 hours—about five years, if used for three hours a day. A year later, it burns out.
Last year, IEEE Spectrum reported that some Europeans opposed legislation to phase out incandescent lighting. Rather than replace their lights with compact fluorescents, consumers started hoarding traditional bulbs.
From the comments on that article, it seems that some IEEE Spectrum readers aren’t completely sold on CFLs either. We received questions about why the lights don’t always meet their long-lifetime claims, what can cause them to fail, and ultimately, how dead bulbs affect the advertised savings of switching from incandescent.
Tests of compact fluorescent lamps’ lifetime vary among countries. The majority of CFLs sold in the United States adhere to the U.S. Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star approval program, according to the U.S. National Electrical Manufacturers Association. For these bulbs, IEEE Spectrum found some answers.
How is a compact fluorescent lamp’s lifetime calculated in the first place?
"With any given lamp that rolls off a production line, whatever the technology, they’re not all going to have the same exact lifetime," says Alex Baker, lighting program manager for the Energy Star program. In an initial test to determine an average lifetime, he says, manufacturers leave a large sample of lamps lit. The defined average "rated life" is the time it takes for half of the lamps to go out. Baker says that this average life definition is an old lighting industry standard that applies to incandescent and compact fluorescent lamps alike.
In reality, the odds may actually be somewhat greater than 50 percent that your 6000-hour-rated bulb will still be burning bright at 6000 hours. "Currently, qualified CFLs in the market may have longer lifetimes than manufacturers are claiming," says Jen Stutsman, of the Department of Energy’s public affairs office. "More often than not, more than 50 percent of the lamps of a sample set are burning during the final hour of the manufacturer’s chosen rated lifetime," she says, noting that manufacturers often opt to end lifetime evaluations prematurely, to save on testing costs.
Although manufacturers usually conduct this initial rated life test in-house, the Energy Star program requires other lifetime evaluations conducted by accredited third-party laboratories. Jeremy Snyder directed one of those testing facilities, the Program for the Evaluation and Analysis of Residential Lighting (PEARL) in Troy, N.Y., which evaluated Energy Star–qualified bulbs until late 2010, when the Energy Star program started conducting these tests itself. Snyder works at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Lighting Research Center, which conducts a variety of tests on lighting products, including CFLs and LEDs. Some Energy Star lifetime tests, he says, require 10 sample lamps for each product—five pointing toward the ceiling and five toward the floor. One "interim life test" entails leaving the lamps lit for 40 percent of their rated life. Three strikes, or burnt-out lamps, and the product risks losing its qualification.
Besides waiting for bulbs to burn out, testers also measure the light output of lamps over time, to ensure that the CFLs do not appreciably dim with use. Using a hollow "integrating sphere," which has a white interior to reflect light in all directions, Lighting Research Center staff can take precise measurements of a lamp’s total light output in lumens. The Energy Star program requires that 10 tested lights maintain an average of 90 percent of their initial lumen output for 1000 hours of life, and 80 percent of their initial lumen output at 40 percent of their rated life.
NEXT PAGE: What causes CFLs to fail early, and how that affects the payback equation.