Light Impressions – CFL

Thought I’d share som personal light experiences here. (Click on thumbnails for bigger photos.)

Now that leading manufacturers have finally managed to get their phosphor mix right so as to create a more natural looking light, I don’t so much mind warm-white CFLs and mini-tubes, e.g. in wall lanterns or downlights in various office buildings, hospitals, garages etc., where they create a softer and more varied lightscape than the more uniform lighting from fluorescent tubes.

CFL spotlights, Arlanda, Sweden
(photo: Halogenica)

CFL in recessed downlights SEB bank office, Sweden
(photo: Halogenica)

What I do mind is if they use only CFL, as that tends to feel as inspiring as a cloudy november day… Many retail store lighting designers have learned to combine fluorescent, HID and halogen light for best effect. Linear or compact fluorescent for general lighting, HID (often warm-white Metal Halide) for bright floodlighting, and halogen for sparkly spotlighting of special items. In my opinion, this works well enough in a commercial environment.

One might also assume that more CFLs get safely recycled along with the other mercury-containing FL tubes and HID lamps in the public, commercial and industrial sector, than in private households.

At home, alas, CFLs do not work so well…

Most of my friends and family use very little light, but go for quality instead of quantity. They use incandescent or halogen lamps but only a few low watt or dimmed down lamps at a time, and naturally turn them off when leaving the room. Some have pre-installed fluorescent tubes in the kitchen or bathroom. Some use CFLs here and there. But I’d never seen a whole house lit only by CFLs.

The ‘Environmentalist’ family

Then I was invited to the home of a family of passionate alternativists, the type that lives in an eco village and only buys organic food etc. Wonderful people in every way. Unsurprisingly, they had not waited until the ban to replace all their incandescent bulbs with ‘eco-friendly’ CFLs.

This was the most poorly lit house I have ever visited! And I’m not one who likes bright light anyway (I’m often fine with a 7 watt window lamp for room lighting and a dimmed down 40W bulb for reading) so it wasn’t that. It was the combination of very poor light quality and and the CFLs having passed that best-before-date when the light was still bright enough to compensate somewhat for the poor quality. The effect was as if someone had filled the house with a grey mist. I was struggling to see anything and thought it a shame  to show such a nice home in such an unflattering light.

The scary thing is that if one lives in that poor quality and gradually weakening light every day, one adapts to it and doesn’t notice until someone else points it out (which I did, as politely as I could). But it must surely still be straining to never really see well in one’s own home.

It was an interesting experience as I had only suspected it from the information in manufacturer catalogues and consumer tests but never actually seen first hand how dysmal CFL light gets towards the end – except for in a test bulb at IKEA where it was very obvious to me that the CFL did not give anywhere near as much light as the ‘equivalent’ incandescent they showed for comparison.

“Economic life”

Since this light loss is well known in the lighting industry, lamps used commercially are usually replaced long before they burn out. When life rate is calculated, something called “economic life” is used, which it is never the whole life of each individual lamp. That’s why you don’t so often see in public how weak the light gets with time. This “economic life” is of course nothing private consumers are informed about, only that the lamps last so and so many hours before they burn out (on average, at optimal temperature, if not turned on-and-off too often etc). But if that light is pretty much useless for half or one third of those hours, then it follows that their useful life is markedly shorter and that you have to remember to replace them before they burn out.

Compare visually instead of trusting labels

My suggestion is to always keep one new incandescent bulb of each wattage for reference. When you buy a CFL, e.g. one that claims to give the equivalent output of a 60W bulb, compare them to see that it really does so in the beginning, and then again after some time to see if it still does. Keep doing this now and then. (And dust them off  while you’re at it.) Yes, extra hassle, I know. But everything about them from cradle to grave is extra hassle, that’s part of the deal. If you want hassle-free lamps, try Halogen Energy Savers.

The ‘Average Joe’ family

In May, I was invited to the house of a family who I suspect are fairly representative of most middle class Swedes today. They also had a very nicely designed home. But again I was struck by the poor lighting. They had probably not had their lamps for as long as the Environmentalist family, so one could still see well enough. But the light quality left much to be desired.

Dull light from CFL bulbs in the living room, which really took away from the otherwise cosy design. In the entrance hall a floor lamp with a CFL bulb which gave even dimmer light, accompanied by a sharply glaring cool-white LED of the clear bulb type with little dots in it (not meant for use in open luminaire). In the restrooms were glaring CFLs with a pinkish tint that did not complement the otherwise pretty design. And over the kitchen table was a dim CFL bulb with a yellow tone that made the kitchen even more dull than the rest of the house. The only real light in the house was a tiny halogen spotlight in the kitchen that sparkled and glowed. Compared with the golden white, crystal clear halogen light, the kitchen table CFL looked really bleak and dead.

Public restrooms

Using a public restroom in Sweden after the bulb phase-out is a real lottery as far as lighting goes.

• Some restaurants have installed 12V halogen spotlights, which gives an exclusive impression, even if the cheapest wall materials are used.

Halogen in restaurant restroom
(photo: Halogenica)

• Others use recessed downlights with old type compact fluorescent tubes. That works well enough, but doesn’t give that warm and luxurious feeling of halogen, even with better tiling.

CFL tube in gas station restroom
(photo: Halogenica)

• A growing number of shops, restaurants etc have unfortunately started using CFL bulbs in their restrooms – which is The Number One Application CFLs Should Never Be Used For!

1. because of the poor light quality (where many want to check their looks or touch up their make-up); 2. because the bulbs expire quicker and get dimmer sooner if flicked on and off often; 3. because that single bulb is not where you make energy savings; 4. because most CLFs take way too long to light up. One flicks on the switch – almost nothing happens… a dim yellow-grey mist… (Lighting a match would probably give more light, and quicker.) By the time one is finished, the light might have worked itself up enough so that one can see to wash one’s hands. Barely. This is not acceptable.

I’ll post a photo next time I find another poorly lit restroom. In the mean time, here is a picture from a supermarket, where one can see clearly the difference in brightness between curly tube (to the right) and enclosed bulbs (and this is at their brightest and not enclosed in a sealed luminaire):

CFLs in supermarket
(photo: Halogenica)

One day at my local supermarket, I got fed up with the slow and dim CFL and told them they need a regular incandescent or a halogen in the restroom. Nothing happened for another couple of months… So then I went and found a 53W Halogen Energy Saver  bulb in their lamp stall, took it to one of the staff and said: “Put this in! NOW!!” He complied and now one can see again. 🙂

Feel free to do the same if you’re not happy with the light in public restrooms. 😉


CFLs are rarely used for street lighting as they are not as bright or long lasting as High Intensity Discharge (HID) lamps. Here, in a cobbled old part of Södermalm near Mariahissen in Stockholm, I found one exception: warm-white CFLs in downward-facing luminaires with white diffusers. The light colour was good enough but as always with CFLs, it lacked sparkle and life. Some of the luminaires had blackened for some reason, and that did not look good. But overall, they looked better than the horrid old cool-white Mercury Vapor lamps which they replaced.

CFL, Stockholm
(photo: Halogenica)

Another example from the same area. These porch lights had clear glass with a droplet pattern (possibly original from the 1920s). One had a Halogen Energy Saver and the other a fairly new-looking warm-white CFL. The Halogen sparkled and glowed while the CFL looked generally flat (even more so in real life). The indoor lamp in the middle looked like a cool-white CFL in a white globe.

Halogen vs CFL, Stockholm
(photo: Halogenica)

Tip of the day: Never use different types of bulbs together – unless you want to study visible differences in light quality, quantity and colour.