The awful tale of the spiral CFL

Ladies and gentlemen, here is an awful story about light bulbs and why they now SUCK.

In the early 1900s, we had incandescent bulbs with carbon filaments, then tungsten filaments. The earliest bulbs were very low brightness and could only be pushed to burn a sort of orange color at very low efficiency. As time and technology advanced, incandescent bulbs became more and more efficient. In general, the hotter you burn the filament, the more efficient the bulb. Since the bulb is emitting light as a black-body radiator, the visual quality of the light increases with higher filament temperatures as well. Larger wattage bulbs produce more lumens per watt than smaller ones.

The halogen bulb, which dates all the way back to the earliest efforts to prevent the glass from becoming darkened from evaporated filament material on the earliest bulbs, was found to work really well if pushed to super high temperatures using quartz as an envelope material instead of typical sodalime glass. Iodine is used inside the bulb as a cleaning agent; once the quartz envelope and filament reach typical operating temperature, the iodine scavenges the evaporated tungsten back off of the quartz. Pretty cool, really. Of course since these bulbs run so hot, it’s easier to squeeze better efficiency ratings out of them!

So we have those two coiled filament brothers… They’re simple resistive loads, easy to manufacture using no hazardous materials, and they just work. Well, ’till they don’t… then you just change it out, inexpensively.

The problem with them is that they generate a LOT of waste heat, and result in very high energy consumption. As energy shortages become problematic in modern urban areas, and the pollution and other effects from generating this energy using fossil fuels or old nasty-ass nuclear power technologies from the 1970s (I’ll yell about this in another post!) become troublesome, the desire became strong for much higher efficiencies.

Enter the discharge lamp.

The first very high intensity discharge lamps were carbon arc. These predated even the incandescent bulb. They operated in open air using two carbon rods which were slowly consumed as the lamp operated, requiring a regulating mechanism to keep feeding fresh carbon. Some of these lamp regulators are truly beautiful and clever clockwork! They were practical for street lighting and lighting large building spaces, but never made it into the home. Fire hazards? Oh, you betcha. 😉

The carbon arc lamp may still be found in some applications including spotlights that are aimed into the sky. It provides a very harsh, bright light.

Later, in the early 1900s, there were efforts made to use discharge across a low pressure gas inside a glass tube for lighting. Different gases or mixes of gases were used. They all required some pretty scary voltages to strike the arc (3-15 kilovolts depending on gas type and arc length). Daniel McFarlan Moore invented an early practical lamp using carbon dioxide for a nice daylight color, which was used for photographic and color matching applications for some time.

The mercury vapor lamp had been around since the early 1900s as well, but it produced a nasty blue-green light and was not really pleasant for indoor lighting use. In the 1930s, General Electric started lining mercury vapor tubes with phosphor to correct the color and provide enhanced light production, and the modern fluorescent lamp was born.

It flickered, of course. The magnetic ballast transformers needed to regulate the current to the lamp all just feed it 60 cycle AC current.

The fluorescent lamp was introduced to the public at the World’s Fair and Golden Gate Exposition, and it wound up in millions of homes and businesses. The classic fluorescent lamp is a linear tube, and requires fixtures shaped to hold it. Probably the most common form is a 48 inch long form factor that’s available as a 30 or 40 watt lamp. Higher efficiencies are possible in thinner bulbs.

Color rendering was, and still is, fairly awful. There are bands of color simply missing from the lamp’s output. Ott-Lite has some tubes that are reasonably better, through the addition of more exotic and expensive phosphors, but for some reason nobody else ever caught onto the idea that people actually see in color.

Efforts to get away from the long straight tubes have included the “Circline” lamp which is an almost closed C shape with a plastic bracket/connecting plug occupying the space between the ends, and the U-bend tube.

Lights of America used to produce screw in adaptors that worked well in a lot of table and ceiling lamps. They contained a small ballast inside a bracket that screwed into the socket, and had a T-shaped holder that clipped to a Circline bulb and held it in place. To install it in a table lamp, you would remove the shade, unclip the harp (for some reason knowledge of what this is called is uncommon!) from its bracket near the socket, screw in the adaptor, reinstall the harp, put the tube on the arms, and put the shade back on.

This could have been, technically, the first compact flourescent to gain widespread market in the US.

Old_compact_fluorescent_lampPhillips and some other companies also had screw in self-ballasted CFLs. They usually used a magnetic ballast – a very heavy transformer, and would knock over your table lamp. In addition, the magnetic ballast fed the lamp 60 cycle AC current which made it prone to visible flicker.

The electronic ballast eventually showed up, resolving the flicker problem, but also adding a bonus side order of radio/tv interference problems in some designs.

In the late 1990s, Enron put California’s balls in a vise. Through creative accounting and generating more artificial energy shortages than actual energy, they got people used to rolling blackouts and the need for extreme conservation measures. We looked at the incandescent lamp again and realized it was time to ditch it for the higher efficiency of flourescent. LED lighting was out there, but it wasn’t ready for prime time; the first practical white LEDs were just barely enough for a flashlight.

The PL type flourescent lamp, basically a super compact version of the U-bend bulb, finally got paired to a miniaturized screw in miniature electronic ballast and produced as the first modern style CFL in the late 1990s. They were kind of an expensive curiosity at the time and faced with lots of technical difficulties. First off, this represented the first time in US history that manufacture of light bulbs jumped completely offshore to China.

American electronics manufacturing had been so heavily offshored at this point that nobody was ready to manufacture the electronic ballasts stateside. A small but growing number of brands of Chinese imported CFLs became available, and they were all… okay. They had build quality problems, were prone to detonating and filling a room with smoke and/or causing fires, and NONE could be run in a totally enclosed fixture because the ballasts got too hot.

Interestingly, the worst CFLs I have ever seen came out around this time: the GE Biax. The GE name wound up being associated with these either because GE bought production runs from a Chinese manufacturer to have them custom branded for them, or simply because they licensed their brand name and trade dress to an importer or retailers to place on Chinese bulbs themselves. The Biax, however, managed to be prone to downright malevolent failure. The bulbs would be unusually dim and difficult to start from day one, which would indicate either a bad tube or problems with the ballast. By day four or five, the bulb would be flickering or dead, and when they died they tended to fail catastrophically with the ballast area catching fire and breaking open.

If you look at these early CFLs they all had the same sort of appearance. They had a series of U-bend tubes coming out of the base, usually with thin pips connecting them together. They were made in the same molds and machines that were used for “PL” size fluorescent tubes. This form factor was chosen as a compromise between good performance and compact size. Some light is lost in a PL bulb where the light from one tube simply gets absorbed into the phosphor on an adjacent tube, but it really wasn’t half bad. Some of these tubes were even made with really good “daylight” color.


The spiral fluorescent lamp was experimented with by General Electric in the 1970s. At the time, they shelved it because they could not figure out how to adapt it to mechanized manufacturing. It did not look like the modern spiral CFL; it was a much more widely spaced tube to avoid the occlusion problem wherein the turns of the spiral block light output.

The Chinese took a look at this design and figured it’d work right into their marketing strategy. See, the way I’ve analyzed it, and feel free to laugh at me if I’m wrong, is that the Chinese really love to make themselves spaces to sell on the American market by using technologies adapted or outright stolen from elsewhere, then mass producing a product that may be of inferior quality, but has a lot of flashy features added to entice the consumer to buy theirs through simple comparison shopping. “But does the American made washing machine have Bluetooth and a bunch of LEDs all over it and play a song when it’s finished? No? Okay, let’s buy the Chinese one that does.”

In China, labor standards and employee compensation are NOT what they are over here, so cheap human labor is often sought over safer but more expensive production methods.

Remember how I said the spiral bulb didn’t lend itself well to mechanical production?

Well, Shanghai Xiangshan saw the spiral lamp and decided to enter mass production… employing dozens of glassblowers to manufacture the bulbs. Very soon afterwards, the glassblowers began to fall horribly ill from exposure to the mercury used in the bulbs.

Problem? Your glassblowers are all dying of mercury exposure.

Solution? Sweep it under the rug with a big iron broom. CAPITALISM!!!!!

Pissbulb shortly after powering on.

Now, remember how I said the Chinese really like to get consumers drunk on flashy but useless features? The spiral bulbs, looking like soft-serve ice cream dispensed into a cup, did indeed have a “wow” factor about them…. Followed soon afterwards by a “yuck!” factor because the quality of light from these bulbs

The cheapest, nastiest phosphors were used shortly into the production runs, owing to the wonderful Chinese business core ‘value’ of quality fade. They look like someone took a piss on the bulb. Additionally, the quality of phosphor coating inside the handblown glass tube is extremely variable, and it’s not uncommon to have large dark spots where the phosphor is too thin or too thick. Just eyeballing one on my desk here, I’d say that about 50% of the light, if not more, gets fired into a useless space inside the spiral where it doesn’t escape, or into adjacent turns of the tube.

Then the clever, evil marketing showed up. The spiral bulbs were foisted upon the public as being the best new thing, just because they were new and looked cool and unique! Nevermind that a U-bend type CFL of the same wattage, placed alongside the spiral, would show just how pathetic the light output and performance of the spiral is.

Flash forward to today… you cannot find the U-bend CFLs anymore. They have reached near industrial extinction in favor of the “ice cream whip” spiral bulb. Only a few special application high wattage CFLs still maintain the old, more efficient, mechanically produced tubes that didn’t require a glassblower to slowly poison themselves to manufacture it.

It’s the horrible end of a vicious cycle that will be very difficult for the industry to ever pull itself out of.

Fortunately, the LED bulb has become practical and is now technically superior. The CFL’s only remaining advantage is that it can be cranked out cheap as hell.

Do the entire world a favor and buy LED instead.


  1. You missed out a complete category, one that has an efficiency higher than CFL and produces a spectrum like real sunlight: the Philips “Alto” – I have a 150W lamp here with a 3000K temperature and it is a delight. The only problem: needs a ballast just like a mercury vapour lamp.

    1. I’ve been using the Philips Alto F40T12 tubes in the office for a while now. They put the old ‘cool white’ and ‘warm white’ pissbulbs to shame with a nice daylight color. From what I understand they use a different phosphor and gas mixture which also allows them to reduce (though not eliminate) the mercury.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *