Compact Fluorescent Lights – Exploding Onto the Scene (Literally!)

While the term “exploding lights” may conjure memories of majestic firework displays, in this particular treat that term pertains specifically and only to the common eco-friendly residential and commercial bulb, the compact fluorescent light.

Today, the meritorious attributes of CFLs are well known. The dark side of this lighting source is, regrettably, lesser known. In this matter, what you do not know really could hurt you – or the ones you love.

On December 23, 2010 in Hornell, New York, a CFL in the ceiling suddenly overheated, exploded, and caught fire, destroying the room where the fire started (along with everything in it) and caused extensive smoke and water damage in the reminder of the home. Steuben County Fire Inspector was quoted as saying, “Those are the lights everyone's been telling us to use.

There are still more reports of similar CFL failures leading to explosions, fires, and deaths.

The question then is why do some compact fluorescent bulbs overheat and explode? Further, what percentage of these bulbs experience such faults?

The answers are not immediately forthcoming, owing to CFL manufacturers and salespeople downplaying the dangers publicly. Not all individuals who devalue the risks of this lighting source do so maliciously; these bulbs have been in use for a relatively short time as far as product lifespans are concerned and information on their performance is therefore scant and potentially conflicting.

Answers can be found, however, by a simple inspection of the mechanics and engineering of the bulbs, themselves.
CFLs are constructed differently than their predecessor, the incandescent bulb. Instead of being filled with inert gas, CFLs contain mercury vapor which glows with ultraviolet light (invisible to the human eye) when an electric current is passed through it.

So, how does the light get converted into a wavelength that the human eye can see? The bulb is coated with a substance called “phosphor” which then gets radiated outside of the bulb as visible light.

That sounds innocuous enough. So, where does the danger enter in? What precipitating factors enter in that result in spontaneous bulb explosion?

CFLs operate with something called a ballast, which is a device for maintaining the current in a circuit. A fluorescent bulb can not maintain its own electrical resistance (the amount of current let through) Without a ballast to regulate the current, it grows to an unsafe level, causing overheating and electrical shortcomings which in turn cause faults up to and including explosions and fires.

It is unknown what percentage of CFLs which will have ballast failure. That CFL in your lamp could very well be in that percentage. Anyone care for a game of Russian Roulette?

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