CFL Fire Risk?

Happened to stumble upon this entertainingly written blog article, about a very serious issue:

Build a home, work on it day and night, stick a Walmart CFL in it and burn it down

“We are in the finishing stages of a way too long project of building our own home and everything is up to current code or better and has been inspected by the county. So yesterday morning when we smelled what seemed to be an electrical fire we started to do some fast investigating. We went to the breaker panel first then the outlets and switch locations in the dinning room where the smell was the strongest. I then went outside to check the crawlspace vents to see if something was on fire under the house, and nothing.

“So looking up I could see one of the CFL bulbs was no longer lit in a ceiling light and we could see a hint of smoke coming out of it. We flipped the light off and got our tall ladder out. Normally CFL’s are cool enough to unscrew even after they’ve been on for a while. Not this Chinese hunks of shit, it was hot as hell and was developing a zit in the transformer housing of the bulb. If it had been left unchecked there’s a pretty good chance it would have caught on fire. So a word to the wise IF YOU BOUGHT ANY GREAT VALUE CFL BULBS TAKE THEM BACK!”

“I’m really starting to believe that the Chinese are doing this on purpose, what a better way to fight a war than to have you enemy buy the weapons of mass destruction from you, and use them on themselves.”

The CFL ‘zit’ 

A CFL in recessed can starting to burn

A CFL in recessed can starting to burn

So, would the house really have caught fire or was this just the normal way for the CFL to expire?

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (which welcomes product safety complaints) reports on 124 000 recalled CFLs due to fire hazard. And another case of 158 000 3-way CFLs.

CFL burn-out

CFL burn-out (image via Mail Online)

The Consumer Reports 2011 article, Bulbs pose fire hazard reports on another recall for the same reason:

“More than 300,000 compact fluorescent lightbulbs from Telstar Products have been recalled because they can overheat and possibly cause a fire, according to the company and federal authorities.”

And gives an explanation as to how this may happen:

“When a CFL can no longer light, its electronics still try to turn on the bulb, which could eventually overheat and cause the smoke and discoloration.”

However, government agencies and pro-CFL activists such as Project Porchlight, try to reassure us that this is no cause for concern, that actual fires started are rare, and that the foul smoke from dying CFLs is perfectly normal for this product:

It is normal for some CFL bulbs to smoke a little and even show signs of melted plastic on the ballast (the plastic base of the lamp) at the end of their lives. When CFL bulbs burn out, heat builds up in the ballast and the lamp’s safety feature kicks in: the Voltage Dependent Resistor (VDR) – an electronic component that cuts the circuit (like a circuit breaker).

I’m sure it’s not very healthy breathing in fumes from a smoldering or smoking CFL, even if it doesn’t catch fire!!

To minimise CFL fire risk, this is what the San Fransisco Fire Department advices:

The first and most important recommendation from the San Francisco Fire Marshal regarding any product with a
potential fire hazard is to read the instructions for installation, limitations and warnings that are provided with the

Other important safety information (sometimes printed on the bulb itself) related to CFLs that, if overlooked, can
translate into a fire hazard are outlined below:

• CFLs should not be used in track, recessed or inverted fixtures
• CFLs should not be used with a dimmer switch unless clearly marked otherwise
• CFLs should not be used in place of a 3-way bulb, unless clearly marked otherwise
• CFLs being used outdoors must be enclosed
• CFLs should not be used in emergency exit fixtures or lights

I’d also recommend replacing CFLs before they burn out (literally) by themselves, something which you need to do anyway as they tend to get so much dimmer over time.

Do a little test and remove a CFL you’ve had for more than a year (if it has lasted that long) and put in an equivalent incandescent (like the one that you had there before) or a halogen energy saver just to compare the brightness and light quality. You may be surprised!

And never leave any CFLs (or halogen lamps) burning when you’re not home.

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  1. Robert Marchenoir said,

    January 12, 2013 at 5:21 pm

    What happened to the universal advice : when away from home, leave some lights on to deter burglars ? Shall we have to consent to burglaries in order to placate the Green gods ?

    The list of CFL inconveniences seems to be growing by the day. Certainly, this must be one of the worst “innovations” of all time.

  2. lighthouse said,

    January 24, 2013 at 6:46 pm

    More on the CFL fire risk

    As seen, and as you say, even firemen services agree, and they should know!

  3. Dave Conna said,

    February 3, 2015 at 11:44 pm

    I have a house full of CFLs, have used them for literally decades and have some that are over 20 years old (used regularly). I work in the energy conservation industry and have literally seen 10s of thousands of CFLs and have yet to experience any that have started burning as these posts suggest.

    I am not saying that it does not happen – but, of course, the regular incandescent bulb, which runs much hotter, does not get the same scrutiny. In its’ NORMAL operation an incandescent runs much hotter – and thus is a more significant fire hazard. In fact, halogen torchiere fixtures – energy hogs in lighting – have caused fires that have resulted in a number of deaths:

    As far as mercury goes, there is less mercury in a CFL than in the coal that was NOT burned as a result of its usage. So, even if you were to break every CFL lamp at the end of life and release all the mercury (not an easy thing to do b/c the mercury bonds to the glass), you would still have less mercury in the environment than if you didn’t use the bulbs at all. See a technical analysis at:

    All that having been said, LED lamps are a much better option – no mercury, longer life, mostly dimmable and affordable. I’m not going to throw out my old CFLs but I am replacing them with LEDs as they dies and in select locations

    • halogenica said,

      February 13, 2015 at 5:14 am

      Dave, I agree that the CFL fire risk is probably not huge.

      And yes, other lamps can cause fires too, especially halogen torchiers and spotlights placed too close to anything flammable. As for standard incandescent bulbs, they’ve been used for over 100 years without problem.

      As for that absurd mercury claim, it was created by lighting industry lobbyists in order to try and greenwash the embarrising fact that so-called “green” lightbulbs contain something as toxic as mercury.

      Incandescent bulbs contain no mercury at all. As CFSs in actual use indoors save almost nothing when power factor, heat replacement effect, light deprecation and unrealable life span are taken into consideration, there is no reduction in Hg emissions, even if all electricity was produced by coal,

      To reduce Hg emissions into the atmosphere, the natural action would be to stop using fossil fuels. And to ban gold mining using mercury. Do you know how much mercury mining for CFLs has ruined the environment in China? Google “mercury” on this site and find out.

      LEDs are a better option than CFLs – IF over 12 watt, used outdoors and left on for more than 8 hours a day. But the light quality is still about 20% lower, just as in CFLs, and the mining of the rare earth phosphors needed to produce a half-decent warm-white light also ruins the evironment in Asia.

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