The rocky (buzzy) road to lower energy use

Around here, at least, it sounds as though we won’t be able to buy incandescent lights after 2012.

I think that’s a great idea. In my office (our third and smallest bedroom), I love lots of light; the overhead four-light fan combo has two “40 watt” compact fluorescents and two “60 watt” bulbs, for a total of 50 actual watts and all the light I need. Our porch light is a 10 watt CFL. The most-used kitchen light is a CFL. Other lights that stay on at least 15 minutes at a time are CFLs.

But in our dining ell, we had a sad old 6-bulb chandelier that needed replacing–and that was on a dimmer.

Well, we finally got a new 5-bulb chandelier–and one of PG&E’s many subsidized CFL shipments included dimmable CFLs at two bulbs for $1.00 (PG&E, Northern California’s primary utility company, has been doing a lot of these subsidies. At one chain or another–Safeway, Longs, Rite-Aid or the like–it’s frequently possible to buy four-packs of CFLs for $1, or sometimes three-packs of fancier CFLs.) So I picked up three of the two-packs, each bulb 15 watts (the light equivalent of a 75 watt incandescent). The dimmables only came in 15 watt and 23 watt (100-watt equivalent) sizes.

Today the chandelier was installed. (It’s a modest little unit, but a whole lot better than what was there before.) I screwed in the bulbs. We turned on the light and used the dimmer.

And they buzz. Apparently, the high-frequency transformer built into each bulb (the reason CFLs don’t flicker and don’t buzz) deals with reduced voltage by reducing the frequency and, presumably, the percentage of the time it’s on. With even a little dimming, the buzz was at a frequency my wife could hear. At the level we’d actually use during dinner, I could hear it and she could barely stand it.

OK, there’s also the fact that these particular CFLs are that unpleasant cold light (other CFLs are much better) and that they’re big enough to be sort of ugly in the fixtures. Those we might be able to live with. The buzz…not so much. (If you turn them down to a romantic glow, it’s even worse: They start to flicker very obviously.)

So, for now, back to the store for some incandescents.

Our other sad experience (other than lights that only get used a minute or two at a time, where the 8,000-hours supposed life turns into 8,000 switch cycles) was with a three-way CFL: The lower setting burned out after a year or less, probably because it has to be switched on and off twice each time you use the light.

The solution should be LEDs: Even better efficiency, no mercury, even longer lifespan and they should be dimmer-compatible. But that requires LEDs in consumer-friendly packages at consumer-friendly prices. Here’s hoping we get there soon.

4 Responses to “The rocky (buzzy) road to lower energy use”

  1. GeekChic Says:

    Yick. I loathe CFLs because they trigger my migraines (just like standard fluorescent lights). I have not tried LED lights but I can only hope that they are better than CFLs or I’ll have to start hoarding incandescent bulbs!

  2. Mary Beth Sancomb-Moran Says:

    Oh,dear – that’s what I was afraid of. I’m like you wife, with what my husband affectionately calls Bat Hearing. That buzzing will drive me….well, batty.

    Interestingly, we have two CFL lamps in the kitchen that aren’t dimmable, and they don’t buzz at all.

    I must admit, I’ve been tempted to buy a bunch of incandescent bulbs before they’re extinct…..

  3. walt Says:

    Mary Beth: Regular CFL’s shouldn’t buzz; my wife’s stood within inches of my four-CFL light (and regularly stands right next to the kitchen CFL) with no reports of trouble.

    The migraine problem is different, I suspect, and may have to do with very high frequency flicker or even the odd color spectrum of some CFLs. This is an area I know nothing about.

    I really hope LEDs (which would not flicker and should have a proper 6500K white) come down in price soon enough…they’re the “preferred future,” I think.

  4. Jill Hurst-Wahl Says:

    I notice the “buzz” when we switched some of our bathroom lights to more efficient ones. Since these are the lights over the vanity (and not the ceiling light), I am likely the only person affected in the household (being the only female) and the sound has not yet driven me made. Thank the heavens that these bulbs aren’t in a fixture that is used more often!


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