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
product.

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.

CFL Fire Hazard

My translation of a news clip from Swedish national television, SVT titled Lågenergilampan – en brandrisk:

The CFL – a fire hazard

The compact fluorescent lamp is becoming more common in Swedish homes, with the phase out of the incandescent bulb. But the lamp has proven to be a fire hazard in itself.

The problem with CFLs is that the plastic surrounding it easily burns at high temperatures.

– Unfortunately it leads to many bigger fires when the plastic starts burning. In some cases there is only a smaller incident but those in turn may lead to more damaging fires. In the worst case scenrio people can die if you’re in a house and don’t get out in time, says fire investigator David Wiklund at Södertörn’s fire department to Rapport.

Common cause

Counted in numbers, fires started by lamps is a big problem. Between 1996 and 2008 1 033 fires were started by lamps. During the same period, only 96 fires were stared by coffee machines and 63 by irons.

How many of these were started by CFLs specifically, the statisics does not tell us. But a CFL is filled with technology which may catch fire – and the lamp [base] is enclosed by plastic.

In Sweden there are no rules requiring the lamp to go out by itself at high temperatures.

David Widlund wishes there were stricter regulations for the lamps than what currently exists.

-It is not at all good to have a type of plastic in the lamps that may catch fire. We would rather see a fire-proof plastic, he says.

Regulation lagging behind

As incandescent bulbs are phased out, the demand for CFLs has increased. But regulation has not caught up.

-There has been little awareness of these problems, they have only arisen as demand has increased to rapidly. But STEM, the Swedish Energy Authority, will inform the EU commision about these problems, says Kalle Hashmi who is lighting expert at STEM.

Today there is nothing one can do to make sure the lamp doesn’t start burning. The safety markings on the CFLs themselves give no guarantee.

-Compared to an incandescent bulb which in itself cannot burn, we are replacing it with this product which can start burning. That is of course a poorer alternative, David Wiklund thinks.

For those of us with lighting as a special interest, this is old news. [1]

However, to be fair, most of the fires mentioned in the statistics above were probably started by wrongly installed recessed halogen lights, or by halogen spotlights used too close to something burnable. They get very hot and the focused beam needs at least 50 cm distance or more. Recessed halogen lights should always be installed by an electrician. Especially dicroic halogen lamps where the heat is reflected backwards to avoid getting too hot in the direction of the beam; instead these get very hot at the base and constitute a fire hazard if not installed correctly, with enough ventilation. If a wrongly installed lamp is found after a fire, your home insurance company may hold you responsible and I’m sure you can guess what that means. [2]

But back to CFLs. Many appear to have some safety thing that makes them give off a lot of foul smelling smoke as they go out but not actually burn. But if they do catch fire to the point where the glass cracks, that will add the additional hazard of releasing its mercury vapour content into the air.

Do use all lamps with care:

• Always follow safety instructions.

• Don’t use a higher wattage lamp than the luminaire is marked for.

• Don’t install recessed spotlights yourself.

• Don’t use halogen spotlights too close to anything burnable (including house plants, which may dry out if not burn).

• Don’t let children handle CFLs or halogen lamps, and do not use such lamps in luminaires which may get knocked over by playing children or pets.

• Be  extra careful with lamps left on when you’re asleep or not home. Don’t leave lamps with a paper shade unattended. Safest (and most economical) lamp to leave on would be LEDs which do not get hot at all.

References

1. Should There Be a Ban on Incandescent Light?

2. “Populära lampor kostar försäkringsbolagen miljoner” (Swedish article called “Popular lamps cost insurance companies millions”)