Why you hate cfl lamps

Efficiency:

Well, you can't hate something because its too efficient, except maybe an ice cream cone that doesn't last long enough or a vacation to some south seas island... Some things are best when enjoyed at leisure, or with imperfections and inconvenience held intact.

Those 'squirrely bulbs' that everyone is so excited about surely are efficient, by some estimates, 5X over incandescent bulbs. How can you complain about lowered electric bills?

The problem is not just that governments are insisting that you use them, or that incandescent bulbs heat your home at the time when you most often need heat... You may want to buy incandescent bulbs in the future but will be denied that freedom. OK, one small loss of freedom for the... what is it again? Global warming?

The problem for me is that they look bad.

Why you are made to think CFLs look OK:

You can cruise the web today and find sites that compare the light output of a CFL to that of an incandescent bulb, measured with very sensitive and noble equipment, always coming to the conclusion that the CFL puts out more light and less heat than the incandescent bulb, and consumes less power to boot! They will even claim a higher color temperature, implying that the CFL produces light that better approaches sunlight. -A compelling argument that makes you wonder why such a wonderful thing could make everything look so horrible.

I suggest that the magician behind the curtain doesn't want you to know why these things are so ugly... In fact, he wants you to believe that CFLs are better than incandescents without objection, so just stop believing that they are any different, but better instead!

The devil is in the details: Incandescent lamps are true 'blackbody radiators', much the same as the sun, while those little curled up tubes are essentially fluorescent lights. A blackbody radiator is simply a hot object, which emits a smooth spectrum of light. The higher the temperature of the emitting body, the brighter the light and the bluer the color. Low temperature objects around us emit infrared and no measureable visible light, but at perhaps 600C the light given off is deep red. The filament of a light bulb runs at about 2500C and is of course, much brighter, including colors up through blue. However, the spectrum of the bulb is smooth and continuous, perhaps a bit brighter in the yellow and less in the red and blue, but all visible colors are represented. Light from the sun is also smooth and continuous, and due to the higher temperature of the sun, its light leans more toward the blue. The keywords here are smooth and continuous, light that we have evolved to see things most accurately with. The problem with CFLs is the spectrum of their light is NOT smooth and continuous.

This is not advertised though, especially in a world marching toward government control of our lives, while bureaucrats stand at the ready with their well-intentioned 'hammers'.

The CFL spectrum:

A CFL lamp actually produces purple and ultraviolet light, which is then modified by phosphors on the inside surface of the squirrely tube. The light produced within the tube is the spectrum of mercury, which contains so few of the colors we can actually see that the phosphors are required to convert the ultraviolet light to colors we can appreciate.

To improve bulb efficiency, the manufacturer chooses phosphors that absorb the ultraviolet and emit visible colors that, in summation, provide a good balance of red, yellow, green, blue and so forth. The measuring equipment used however, mimics the human visual response, assuming that we only see in three color bands.

This is a crappy photo of an old CD, refracting the light from one crappy CFL and one incandescent bulb in a crappy ceiling fixture:

The spectrum on the left is from the CFL, which has a few 'hot' spots in the green, red and purple, vs. the incandescent on the right which is perfectly smooth. Notice the gap in the CFL spectrum between yellow and green.

The manufacturer has a wonderful flexibility in this formulation of phosphors to use; he can choose to make the bulb a bit more red by using more of that phosphor, or blue, or green. -He can produce any color you like.

So you go into a lamp store and look look at some light bulbs... They look great. Hold a lit CFL up to a lit incandescent, and it's obvious that the efficiency is wonderful and the color is almost exactly the same! What a wonderful leap in technology.

Uhh, not so fast....

How we perceive light:

The visible spectrum, that band of light that we can see, ranges from about 400nm (purple) to about 700nm (red) in wavelength. Our eyes divide the spectrum into three overlapping bands that allow us to identify a given color. Purple light will affect only the purple light receptors, red light affects the red receptors more than the others, and a color like yellow affects two receptors at once; the ratio tells us what shade of yellow... Is it an orange-ish yellow or a green-ish one?

A rainbow is a natural spectroscope, a device that pops up occasionally in our environment, spreading out the colors of light that come from the sun. The rainbow shows red, orange, yellow, green and blue, and all colors in between. To most observers that is an adequate description, in that a band of color we would call 'yellow' is yellow in the center and quickly fades to green on one side and orange on the other. The rainbow spreads out the wavelengths from the sun and shows us that the sun's light is continuous from red to blue.

When we look directly at a light bulb of any kind, we see a range of mixed colors and decide if we like it, whether it's pure white or some off-shade of white. CFLs can look really acceptable, even identical to incandescents, so what's the problem?

How we perceive objects:

The color of an object has to do with which wavelengths of light that the object reflects. If the object doesn't reflect light, we call it 'black'. We see something as 'red' if it reflects light in the red band to which our eyes are sensitive. Red however, could be any wavelength between about 630nm and 700nm.  If an object reflects light in the band between 500nm and 560nm, we call it 'green'. Blue could be any wavelength between 440nm and 490nm.

It does not matter to the eye whether light is just a narrow band around say, 530nm or a wide band that covers the entire 500-560nm band, we call the two different light sources 'green'. Our eyes cannot distinguish color accurately enough to tell the difference between these two very different types of reflected light.

Colored objects however, often reflect light over narrow bands. -And THAT is the problem.

Why CFLs make things look bad:

So you look at the CFL lamp, then you look at the incandescent lamp. They both look pretty much the same. You buy a bunch and swap out the old incandescents in your home. You're really proud of your contribution to Mother Earth (without thinking about it much more), and find that although the lamp's color looks good when you look directly at it, everything in your house (including the spouse) looks different than it did under either sunlight or those old, evil incandescent lights that are now in the trash.

The reason is that many familiar objects only reflect light at specific, narrow bands of color, and while the incandescents produced ALL colors, the CFLs only produce a few very specific colors, enough to fool your eye that the color is just like the old evil ones when looking at a white object or directly into the lamp. -Looking at the lamp is different from looking at objects (or people) that are illuminated by them.

The phosphors used in CFL manufacture produce a minimum number (4 or 5) of very narrow bands of color, the minimum required to make the light, when viewed directly, acceptable to consumers.

If an object reflects a rather narrow band from say, 660 to 700nm, but the only 'red' phosphor in the CFL produces a narrow 650nm band, then the object will not reflect the CFL light, because it doesn't reflect at that wavelength; The object may look very dark, even black! Most examples are not so extreme, but this explains why colors are so distorted when viewed under CFL light. Oranges can appear either red or yellow, and greens can get really screwed up. Further, not all things we call 'orange' reflect the same band of light. Two different objects that have an identical color under sunlight will very often have very different colors under CFL light.

Why CFL lighting will always look bad:

The narrow bands of light produced by the phosphors of a CFL are narrow, because broad band phosphors are inefficient when converting the UV light of a mercury lamp to visible colors. Most CFLs have a low efficiency phosphor tossed in to provide at least some broad-band light, but increasing this phosphor will lead to the bulb's inefficiency. -It's only tossed into the 'mix' so that consumers don't immediately see the problem!

Further, the number of different phosphor types used in these lamps must be some small number (like 4 or 5) because each phosphor will absorb some of the mercury UV light and convert it to only one color. If more phosphor types are used, to make the spectrum more smooth and continuous, then the lamp will become more inefficient; the spectacular efficiency numbers of CFL over incandescent will no longer be so attractive.

Don't expect that we live in a time where we just need to 'improve the technology'. Fluorescent lights have been around a long time, and most people hate 'em. The technology is about as improved as it can get. One solution however, is to make the CFLs less efficient but better looking. Oh sorry, we're doing this for a reason. (what was that again?)

The only way to make CFLs acceptable:

Well, the only way to make CFL light look good, or better put, to make objects viewed under CFL light to look good, is to take away our bias toward sunlight! After all, it is simply our experience seeing objects under sunlight that makes those same things look so strange under CFL light. And we all know, prejudice is everywhere; the 'ugly' side of humanity.

It's easy, the first part will really get the attention of government, as it empowers them to do the only thing to which they seem inclined: Regulate commerce. You simply pass a law that all CFL lamps produced use specific phosphors, so all lamps made by all manufacturers have exactly the same spectrum. Let's say, purple, blue, green and red, in whatever proportions (but not wavelength) the manufacturer wishes. -This gives the authorities the ability to pretend that there's still some freedom available to the manufacturers.

Then you issue special glasses to everyone, glasses that only pass these narrow bands of color. -This will be great, as it can be a juicy government contract for a 'special' friend of a few of our lawmakers, and another fine place to spend cash from the public treasury.

The glasses will make everything look the same, whether viewed under sunlight, CFL or incandescent, because they only transmit those narrow bands that the CFLs produce. They won't transmit the colors that are missing under CFL light, so sunlight and incandescent lights will be, for all practical purposes, the same as the CFL. In time, we get used to the new 'look' of things. But of course, the incandescents will be still be illegal.

Finally, you can't take the glasses off, or you'll be exposed to the 'natural world', spoiling the illusion you've spent so much time acquiring!

We do this so that we can... Uh, why was that again?

Update:
The march to accept something that is otherwise unacceptable, for purely political purposes, continues.

Here's a link to follow: Link

It seems that manufacturers can't deal with the color problem, so they just use similar words to confuse the public. GE is implying that the ugliness of a CFL is due to it's shape, and they're going to fix THAT, by golly!

Quite frankly, I prefer the squirrely shape, can you do that in an incandescent?

This is politics, totally. Watch the way GE 'shapes' the argument, hoping that folks reading their propaganda will be thoroughly indoctrinated into a reflexive response to the 'CFL is ugly' argument: "No, that's not true! GE has fixed it!".

I'm shocked... GE also makes power plants, but they must be making more profit from the bulbs than the generators!