What Went Wrong With the CFL?

Posted: December 1, 2008 in General SSL Commentary
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Anyone in the business of SSL has either considered the fate of the CFL lamp, or used it as a whipping boy for marketing efforts. Why can’t this lamp catch a break? Is there anything we can learn from this product in deploying solid-state technology?


This is a residential lamp, rarely used in the commercial sector.

To truly put this in perspective, let’s separate reality from conventional wisdom.

First, the compact fluorescent lamp has been a huge success in the commercial market, where plug-in lamps are used with external electronic ballasts. These small lamps fill 90% of the decorative wall sconces, bowls, and surface ceiling luminaires, and over 50% of the recessed downlights in commercial, institutional, industrial, retail, and health care facilities around the country. The incandescent lamp was kicked to the curb for being an energy and maintenance resource consumer. Plug-in style CFL lamps range from 7 watts to 120 watts, in configurations that include twin tube, triple tube, and quad tube configurations. They are seen in 2,700k, 3,000k, 3,500k, and occasionally 4,100k. While there are many that are dimmed, most operate on simple switches or automatic controls. The hospitality market has adopted this lamp in new products, in combination with the screw-base retrofit lamp to eliminate incandescent table, downlight, accent and wall sconce lighting.

The residential market is another animal altogether.

This is a commercial CFL plug-in lamp

This is a commercial CFL plug-in lamp, using separate electronic ballasts.

The approach to the residential segment of the lighting market was doomed from day one. First, CFL retrofit lamps were not dimmable (still rare), took several minutes to warm up, produced poor light color and quality, flickered, and were either too bright or too dim.

The other major issue was cost. Residential customers rarely know what energy costs are for lighting, so when faced with replacing a familiar $0.97 lamp with an $8.00 CFL, there was resistance. The quality concerns piled on to the perception of high cost. To address this, producers of CFL lamps flooded the market with low grade off-brand products at low cost, often $8.00 per 3 pack. Unfortunately, when applied to dimmers, installed in downlights, in outdoor lamp posts, and when switched often, these cheap lamps burned out quickly. The residual impression with customers continued its downward spiral. Too expensive, low quality of light, short lived, took too long to light up, can’t be dimmed, didn’t fit existing fixtures well, were glaring, etc… Then we have the real nail in the coffin – direct side-by-side comparison with the old-familiar incandescent lamp. Seeing these two lamps in the same space, in direct comparison, ignoring all energy efficiency arguments… the CFL was doomed. Not only was it costly, it just doesn’t look right in the home. Rather than responding with better CFLs that directly addressed consumer conserns, like adding dimming capability, addressing light color quality, reducing size… the approach was instead to offer cheaper, shorter lived, lower quality products. Only in the last 3 years have CFLs actually shown significant improvement in these critical areas, about 15 years too late. There really is no hope here. As LED marketing hammers away at the negatives of CFLs, enforcing consumer perceptions, market absorbtion will remain slow at a time we really need the gains in energy conservation. This is a classic example of a major market failure.

Meanwhile the commercial sector was seeing new products incorporating plug-in CFL lamps in ways to overcome the lamp appearance, were applied in applications already lighted by fluorescent lamps, where incandescent lamps look yellow and make too much heat. Add to the the emergence of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) that required wall sconces to extend no more than 4″ from the building wall  which is enabled by the configuration of CFL lamps, and we see the momentum grow and grow.

In the commercial market, product designers embraced the CFL as an opportunity to create new designs that were impossible with conventional sources.

In the commercial market, product designers embraced the CFL as an opportunity to create new designs that were impossible with conventional sources.

So, what can we learn from this?

Looking at the current market activity, apparently not much. We are seeing an almost mirror image of what has happened with CFLs in the LED market today. The residential market is beginning to be infiltrated by low quality , low performance LED retrofit lamps, with silly unfounded claims, and the same short life, poor light quality and frequent early failures we see in the CFL products marketing in big box retailers.

Meanwhile, the commercial market is seeing a steady emergence of quality products, with standards of performance developing, and accepted. Every month new commercial applications using color or white light are being put in place. Energy savings are becoming real. quality is improving, optical performance is emerging to exceed conventional sources, and the market as a whole is hungry for more.

Can we break this cycle, and manage to succeed with LEDs where the CFL failed? Certainly LEDs have the potential of exceeding CFLs in light quality, instant-on, dimmability, long life, tolerance of frequent switching and cold temperatures. The potential is there. However, if the market’s perception of the technology is tainted by bad experiences from cheap early product entries, what will motivate them to re-invest? How is a consumer who was promised that they had just purchased the “last lamp they will ever need” to re-invest in another “last lamp you will ever need – no really, this time its for real.”

We are at a very unique and important place in the deployment of SSL to the lighting market. We know the concequences of failure, and have all calculated the potential of success. We now have technology that is working very well, and exceeding CFL performance in many cases, and eclipsing incandescent and halogen in virtually all measures. The big challenge now is not technology, it may not even be price… it is the control of perception. If we fail here, we will suffer for it for many years to come.

We as a community must become more vocal in this. Write letters to retailers marketing the low end products that will harm perception, and advise them of the importance of not jumping the gun. It’s better we not have LEDs in the consumer market, than LED products that make LEDs a joke, or worse. Write letters to editors of magazines, newspapers, and industry blogs. We need the NGLIA, the DOE, the EPA, and the residential lighting organizations to get on board – reach out and get them engaged now, and push for restraint and control of this issue.

If we do nothing, and allow the market forces to continue as it is, we will still be looking at the residential market 20 years from now, wondering what happened. There is too much at stake to let this happen without a fight!

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