Fire danger from CFL bulbs?

OlychickApril 26, 2011

Hi, I just had to call the fire department because a cfl bulb in my entryway pendant light fixture started smoking when I turned the switch on. I turned it off right away, but it continued to send out smoke and I was worried it might burst into flames. It didn't, they removed the bulb and there is a dime sized hole burned into the ballast. I got onto the internet and found something on Snopes that kind of dismissed burning cfls as an urban myth, but the picture they posted looks exactly like my bulb.

So, I am unsure if I have misused this bulb in the wrong fixture, or if I have a defective bulb (the packaging is long discarded) and if that's the case, whether I can ever trust a cfl again.

The pendant light has a glass globe that is enclosed but is at least double the bulb size. The wattage was much less than the fixture is rated for. I have replaced almost all my fixtures with cfls but am now panicked to think if I leave one burning when away from my home that a fire could happen.

Anyone else with this experience or thoughts/ideas?

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brickeyee

Make sure you get CFLs that can burn in the position they will be used in the fixture.

At least some of them should not be burned base up.

    Bookmark   April 26, 2011 at 3:51PM
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DavidR

There are components in a CF that can overheat, and may indeed do so (but far from inevitably) when the lamp fails. For that reason the base material of CFs is supposed to be flame retardant. You might indeed get some smoke in rare cases, but the lamp is extremely unlikely to catch fire.

A very small number of CFs have been recalled for not meeting this standard (note however that the "standard" is, astonishly, voluntary in the USA). You can find them by searching the database at cpsc.gov (Consumer Product Safety Commission). I think most of those recalls were around 5-6 years ago. Some of the brands involved were Globe, Trisonic, TCP, Durabright, Commercial Electric, and Ten Fei.

Snopes suggests that UL that burn marks and smoke are more or less normal at end of lamp life. I wouldn't say "normal," but I might say "not much to be concerned about." I've been using CFs since the early 1990s, and have never had this happen.

But then I've mostly used higher quality, more expensive CFs. I still have in service some rather old ones that cost in the $10-20 range each.

IMO it's not possible to build a really good quality CF retrofit lamp with ballast and sell it for $2 or less, but that's what people expect to pay for them today. (FWIW, the Ten Fei lamps that were recalled sold for 99 cents at dollar stores.)

As I say, you may very rarely get a CF that emits some smoke when it fails. It's unsettling, I'll admit, but the lamp is very, very unlikely to actually catch fire. If it ever happens again, just shut off the switch and ventilate the area. If it makes you feel more comfortable, you can keep a small fire extinguisher handy (something I think every home should have anyway).

    Bookmark   April 26, 2011 at 7:17PM
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Olychick

thanks for your input. I, too, have used cfls for years without problems. I don't shop at the $.99 store and buy name brand products - try my best to not buy stuff from China. This either came from HD or maybe Ace, probably with a rebate from my power company. I saw the snopes posting about expecting some smoke, but this was different. It was a hole burned through the plastic encasing the ballast. I can't see how that could be acceptable/normal. The fumes were acrid and I'm sure poisonous. After I switched it off, the smoke kept coming, which is why I decided to call the fire dept. I do have a fire extinguisher, which I had standing by should the flames start coming. Because this is a light I often leave on for security when I am away from home, it was especially disconcerting. If I was away, would the house have burned down? Still am shaken by the experience.

    Bookmark   April 27, 2011 at 3:37AM
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brickeyee

"buy name brand products - try my best to not buy stuff from China. "

Even many of the "name brand products" are made in China.

    Bookmark   April 27, 2011 at 11:42AM
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Olychick

so true, brickeye...I just was trying to say that I usually don't by "off" brands because so much of that stuff is from China. But I do sift through the rest to try to get non-china imported stuff. Tougher and tougher...I may be naive, but I have some faith that US companies selling name brand products, even made in China, have higher standards for products than off-brand things sold at the $1.00 stores. I'm pretty sure I haven't been able to find any light bulbs anywhere locally that are made in USA. As I was composing this, I looked online and there are some companies making bulbs in USA. Perhaps I'll switch to internet sales in order to purchase them, if my local stores won't stock them.

    Bookmark   April 27, 2011 at 3:36PM
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DavidR

What brand was the lamp, OC? Just curious.

The situation does sound unsettling. I don't know whether the fumes are toxic, but I think I know the odor you mean and it's definitely not pleasant. That's why I suggested you ventilate the area.

The issue of where CFs are made is a thorny one. IIRC, only the very earliest retrofits (early 1990s) were US made. Most of these were magnetic ballasts with replaceable 2-pin GX23 lamps. In the mid-90s some Osram-Sylvania CFs were made in Germany. As recently as the mid-2000s, Philips Marathon CFs were still made in Mexico.

For many years Lights of America boasted that their CFs were made in USA. However, every component inside them was from China and other low-wage nations. I found most of these painfully unreliable and short-lived, although the last several US-made examples I bought in the mid 2000s have proven to be quite good. Current LoA CFs are made in China.

All the CFs I see now at the big box stores, including HD and Ace Hardware, are made in China.

The reason for this is pretty easy to understand. Consumers demand low price above all else. Chinese labor is so cheap that some of these CFs are literally hand-built and still they can be sold for a couple dollars each.

That said, China is now beginning to experience labor shortages, so wages there are rising. The new trend among Chinese manufacturers is to outsource assembly work to other, less developed Asian nations. I wouldn't be surprised if we soon see CFs made in Vietnam.

I hear that Panasonic CFs are made in Japan and Indonesia. They're rather difficult to find, however, even online. If you find other CFs made somewhere other than China, please post the information.

    Bookmark   April 28, 2011 at 1:05AM
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Olychick

David, it was a Greenlight brand. Interesting about what is going on in China that you report. Being a conscious consumer is almost impossible these days. I was just visiting with some young friends who are very environmentally aware and they had an LED lightbulb in their mudroom, just the bare bulb, no fixture cover and it was GREAT! I am going to go buy one to replace the CFL because I don't want to worry about it catching on fire, and the fixture is one that is not easy to get to, so I want long life there. It is going to end my worries about using cfls.

    Bookmark   April 28, 2011 at 1:39AM
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DavidR

OC, just so you know, LED retrofits have electronics in them too.

Plan 9 LED light recall

Eco-Story LED light recall

Don't forget that many fires have been set by halogen torchieres. Overlamping fixtures with incandescent bulbs has also caused fires. Flammable material in contact with hot conventional incandescent bulbs is a hazard too.

No matter what you use for lighting, there will always be some fire hazard. Be aware, keep a fire extinguisher handy, maintain your smoke alarms, and don't leave appliances and lights operating unattended.

And then don't let it make you lose sleep. Everything in life has some risk to it. But do check that night light before turning in.

    Bookmark   April 29, 2011 at 12:10AM
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Olychick

David, you crack me up. I was going to reply that I'm going back to candles, but my friend's home burned down because of a candle - so I don't use those anymore either. :-"

I do heat my home with a wood stove, so I do accept some risk in my life. I do all the things you recommend, but I will always leave lights burning when I am away from home. Just makin' sure the homeowner's insurance is always paid.

    Bookmark   April 29, 2011 at 1:15AM
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greencleaning

Because compact fluorescent light bulbs do not get as hot as incandescent bulbs, they present less of a fire danger than traditional bulbs.

    Bookmark   April 29, 2011 at 11:12PM
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brickeyee

"No matter what you use for lighting, there will always be some fire hazard."

And candles and oil lamps are4 an even larger hazard.

Plain old incandescent A type bulbs at or below the rating of a fixture are a rather remote hazard.

"Because compact fluorescent light bulbs do not get as hot as incandescent bulbs, they present less of a fire danger than traditional bulbs."

Except for the power density in the electronics needed for the high voltage for starting and operating the lights is a fire hazard.

The margins are so small on some brands they cannot be safely used 'base up.'
In that postilion they overheat and burn, occasionally with actual smoke and destruction of the electronics.

    Bookmark   April 30, 2011 at 6:27PM
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project_gardener

I had one set my bathroom on fire. Yes they are dangerous. I made a video of the fire destruction and tips on how to use them safely. It really scared the crap out of me because it happened while we were sleeping.

CFL Fire Story and Safety Tips

Here is a link that might be useful: CFL grow light information

    Bookmark   January 6, 2013 at 11:04AM
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brickeyee

The 'magic smoke' in electronics stinks VERY badly.

A lot comes from the insulating oil used in aluminum electrolytic capacitors, but even epoxy packaging ad various insulation types have a strong stink.

We always joked about not letting the 'magic smoke' escape from components.

    Bookmark   January 6, 2013 at 2:03PM
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