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I enjoy seeing what I’m looking at, particularly when I’m loading the car up in the pre-dawn hours for one of my son’s long-distance hockey games, unloading the car in the pitch black after coming home from the game, or shoveling the driveway in the dead of winter. Needless to say, my driveway’s three garage-mounted fixtures and the light pole out front need to be bright, but it seems like they’re constantly burning out. It’s annoying because it seems like I replace them at least twice a year. This time I’ve decided to run a longevity test to see how long the bulbs last and inform you of what happens.

For the garage-mounted fixtures, I’ve chosen 23W compact fluorescent bulbs, both for the 100W equivalent light and the electricity savings. I only had to replace one today, so I selected the Sylvania CFL23EL/MICRO/827 because it’s what I had in inventory. The garage fixtures are on a timer set for about 30 minutes before sunset to 30 minutes after sunrise.

For the yard light pole I’ve chosen three Phillips Energy Saver 40 decorative candles since that’s what was on the shelves at Wal-mart when I stopped by there this morning on my way to work. Again, I like the 40W equivalent light with the electrical savings the fluorescent bulb provides. The yard light pole is always on, but has a sensor to activate the light when it gets dark outside. I had the fun of replacing the sensor for the first time last summer.

I plan to update this post as the lights burn out and I replace them.¬†Hopefully you won’t hear from me again on this issue for quite some time. Only time will tell.


30 Responses to Exterior Light Bulb Experiment

  1. BigEdJr says:

    I would really like to get on board with the CFL thing, but the few that I have tried have not lasted as long as the claims state they should.

    I replaced a standard flood light type bulb in our kitchen when it burned out with a CFL, it lasted less than a year, while the other standard bulbs are still going. Maybe there is something wrong with fixture itself, but I just can’t get excited about these things yet.

  2. Patrick says:

    I put 23W in my outside fixtures and both burned out within 12 months, running on a sensor for about 6 hours per day. My experience with the CFLs is that they last about 1/2 as long as an incandescent in the same on/off applications.

  3. dazrin says:

    We have had the same issue. If your outdoor lights are operated on a sensor I would stay away from the CFL lights, they seem to last the shortest amount of time, by a significant margin. We also tried some LEDs (cheap ones, I admit) and they didn’t last. Anything that requires a transformer basically probably won’t like the sensro. The halogen type* bulbs seem to be the best for us, with normal incandescent in the middle.

    *I can’t find a product at Amazon that matches the style of bulb we try to get – they are typically more of a cylinder with a bulge in the middle. I think they are halogen, might be metal halide or something else though. They fit in a standard socket.

  4. Josh says:

    Be careful while you do it, but check the AC voltage of the socket of the timer when it is off. I’ll bet you have a poor switch in there that keeps a low voltage going through the light even if it doesn’t illuminate. This seems to damage the CFLs *much* faster than a constant on.

    I’d rather see some comparisons on the timer switches and light sensors that *actually* switch off when “off”, and are fully on when “on”. I found a great one that I use in my garage because it makes an audible click when it cycles. The one on the patio doesn’t make noise on cycle, but it also leaves a not insignificant amount of voltage on the bulb when turned “off”.

  5. johnnyp says:

    Save your receipt and return the burnt out bulb.
    I have at least a half a dozen cfls go bad and not once was I denied a replacement.Also be aware of the fact that some bulbs have either horizontal or vertical applications.

  6. Steve says:

    I moved into my place over three years ago and have only replaced with CFLs. Out of the 20 or so bulbs in my house, I have replaced about 3 CFLs after the first time. And this was soon after they were installed. I think they have a high defect rate in the short term, but when you get a good one it sticks. I can’t remember the last time I changed a light bulb.

  7. Big Dave says:

    I have nothing but CFLs in my outdoor fixtures. Some have been in there over 6 years, burning 12 hours a day. Still waiting for one to burn out. In fact, except for two decorative bulbs in 2 chandeliers, all my bulbs, inside and out are CFLs.

    • I can second some of Big Dave’s experience. My three outdoor fixtures have had 60W equivalent CFL’s (just off the shelf no-name brand) for at least 5 years without needing replacement. They are sheltered by my house, but I live in Minnesota so they still see -10F to 98F temperatures.

      I can’t say as much for CFL flood lights. I’ve had problems with them burning out after about a year. Plus they are too slow lighting up in the winter. I don’t mind my house lights being slow, we just turn them on when we’re expecting somebody late, but the flood lights illuminate the back yard so we can can find the dog at night — I don’t want to wait five minutes.

      I do have a problem with my garage door opener. Normal incandescents will last a few years, but CFL’s burn out in about a month.

    • Josh says:

      I third that, we have ours on every night until I manually turn them off in the morning, so usually 8 hours. Winter, they can be 12 hours. We’re at 3 years with the sylvania cfl’s out front.

  8. ToolGuyd says:

    Be sure to read the warnings on the bulb packages. I haven’t needed to buy new CFLs in a while, so I’m going on memory here, but don’t most of these bulbs come with a warning to not use them in any enclosed or recessed fixtures?

  9. FredB says:

    I use 9W stick type fluorescent lights outdoors. They last about 3.5 years. Changing a light means swapping the lamp and keeping the base.

    They are rated for 10,000 hours and I am getting about that.

  10. Ben Granucci says:

    When I went to put in a light sensor in our porch light a few years ago, it clearly said not to use CFLs. The same is true with some timer switches. You have to find one that says it will work with CFLs. They need to have a real mechanical relay in them. Solid State relays still pass a small amount of voltage. I have 3 13w CFLs in a lamp post with 3+ years of intermittent usage with no problems. I had another CFL in the porch light run on a timer from roughly sunset until 10PM as well as 2 120w equivalent R40 CFLs in a driveway light that both ran well until they were replaced with LEDs over the past year. The driveway light was replaced with a dedicated LED fixture, the porch light got a screw-in LED replacement. The LEDs have performed admirably. The one problem that I have with CFLs outdoors is the warm-up time during the colder months here in the northeast. They take several minutes to get up to normal output and when it is really cold they are really dim at first. Honestly, outdoors is the only place where I can justify the added cost of LEDs right now. The energy savings are minimal compared to CFLs and the inital cost is MUCH higher.

  11. Rico says:

    Just shoved in a 40W LED into my outdoor garage light. Looks white and dim. Can’t find 60W nor 100W. Those ratings are just equivalents though. CFLs are too large, and any size don’t turn off in my garage door opener nor outside. Some day there will be a solution. More LEDs? Why they’re not being made, I don’t know.

  12. Paul says:

    My wife and I bought what I guess qualify as some of the first cfl bulbs sold at home centers in 1992. They were modified circline fixtures made to go in lamps. You had to take the harp off, screw in the ballast/lamp holder, install the (replaceable) tube then replace the harp and shade. They were billed to last up to seven years and both lasted well over that. The new crap on the other hand seldom lasts more than a year. I’ve heard the problem with the present cfls is poorly built ballasts. On the other hand I replaced two of the “twisty” looking ones in my basement yesterday that both had cracked tubes within a quarter inch of the ballast.

  13. Bill says:

    Bob is absolutely right, CFLs are generally very unhappy in fixtures controlled by photocells or timers. Incan bulbs are very tolerant of partial voltages or frequency, hell, they’ll even run on DC. CFLs want clean 120v 60hz power. Anything more or less will shorten the life of their ballasts considerably.

    I have a CFL 3way bulb in my reading lamp, going on 5 years of regular use. I have had a few CFLs that didn’t last as long as they should have, but at a dollar or less a copy, I’m really not complaining.

  14. Wheels17 says:

    My pole lamp has some sort of an old light dependent resistor/bi-metal/mechanical contact daylight sensor, and the CFL installed about 3 years ago is still going strong. http://www.acetek.co.uk/id73.html has a page explaining why their electronic version is superior, but there’s a picture of the old gizmo on the page.

    Now, if you are talking about 60 watt floodlight replacements for reflector cans, I’ll talk at length about slow starting, dim output, dramatically falling output over the life of the bulb, and extremely short life.

  15. Eric says:

    Cfl’s don’t last outdoors, they don’t like heat or cold. Every time we have tried to use them outdoors at work we end up replacing them once or twice in the winter, and then again in the heat of summer, it’s just more cost effecient to keep using the halogens. Another thing we have noticed is that they last a lot longer in rooms that the lights are usually on for extended periods of time, and go out pretty quickly in rooms that are lights on for only a couple of minutes at a time.

  16. Mitch says:

    @Eric – I have had the opposite experience. I’m going to repeat points already made to more weight to them. I have 12 outdoor lights so that meant replacing a bulb every month which got annoying. They all have CFLs now and I replace a bulb once a year if that.

    They’re on timers (mechanical!) so run dusk to dawn all year. I live in Milwaukee so it gets both hot and cold. They’re 9 watters so all 12 are using the electricity of about 2 60 watt bulbs. I actually don’t like bright outdoor lighting and 40 w equiv are fine for me. My eyes adjust and I use LED headlights if I need more light.

    I also got one LED 40 watt equiv to try out. No problem for the last 8 months.

    They’re ramping up LED production with predictions of under $10 bulbs in 2 years. Switch is coming out with 60, 75, 100 watt equiv LED’s this fall, supposedly. And they’re supposed to be cheap! Well, cheapest LEDs so far at $20. http://www.slate.com/id/2298444/

  17. Mike47 says:

    I never use CFLs outdoors. I use a lot of CFLs indoors, and I track longevity by marking each one with a date installed. Most last less than a year, and some only about 6-8 months. This is far less life than my experience with incandescent bulbs. I’ve also noticed that the base of a CFL gets very hot (too hot to touch), which seems counter-intuitive for an “energy-saving” bulb. Seems the CFLs are not well-suited to home lighting usage if you are in the habit of turning off lights when you leave a room. That seems to reduce their life.

  18. Stu says:

    I have had CFL’s in my exterior lights for almost 5 years now. So far, so good.

  19. Charles Anderson says:

    Take a sharpie and write the date you put them in service on the base. That way you will know without having to keep extra records.

  20. PutnamEco says:

    Paul says:
    My wife and I bought what I guess qualify as some of the first cfl bulbs sold at home centers in 1992…

    The new crap on the other hand…

    I too, was an early adopter, and noticed this as well. What I also noticed was the early bulbs/systems were made in USA and now they are all being manufactured in China. I have to wonder if it is a quality control issue.

    I haven’t burned out an LED yet.

  21. metis says:

    good heavens there’s some misunderstandings out there, and some good notes.

    light bulbs (lamps), like many things are built for different purposes, and interact with the systems they’re attached to. a 8″ cross cut blade on a 10″ table saw to rip 1×4’s will probably work, but it’s the wrong tool for the job.

    *most* consumer grade lamps don’t have readily available spec sheets to explain what you’re getting, or what applications they’re apt for, and likewise, most dimmer/timer systems assume you’re using a tungsten filament lamp.

    if you go to a real lighting store, (as in all they sell are light fixtures, and not crappy ones) and ask them for lamp choice help they’ll be able to point you at something appropriate. you may even try giving a local lighting consultant firm a call and see which store they recommend. odds are you’re not going to find the lamp they suggest at a big box store.

    personally, i’d say you want one of the newer halogen high efficiency lamps as it’s burning a significant # of hours, or to swap out your crappy timer that’s cooking the cfls for one designed for florescent. you CAN get long life lamps, but they are less efficient.

  22. Mike says:

    I’ve had decent luck with CFL’s outdoors in St. Louis. I run two porch lights on daylight sensors with standard curly CFL’s and a dusk to dawn security light with CFL flood lamps. I haven’t marked the bases to really track life, but I seem to be getting more than a year out of each one. Considering that they might have about 3,000 hours of use in a year that’s not too bad. For the exterior motion sensor lights I stick with standard halogen flood lamps. The CFL’s take too long to get to full intensity to be useful in a security light. Especially in the winter.

  23. Amy Rybacki says:

    I wish I could get on board with this, but I just hate that cold tone of CFLs. By now the manufacturers should have come up with a better CFL. If anyone knows of one I would love to know. I don’t mind using them in utility rooms or the basement, but can’t bring myself to put them anywhere else.

  24. Blair says:

    I’ve had a few CFL’s, and my results have been spotty, and mostly beyond what I am able to diagnose, one, on a pfoto cell, indoors lasted about two years,one in a bathroom , lasted about a month(light off, and on for short periods, then off again did that one in), and a porch light, on a normal switch, in Ohio, where we get some cold weather too, has lasted at least three years, and that one came from the dollar an item store, go figure.

  25. JB says:

    I got partial case of NIB old traffic light bulbs from the Regions Bank headquarters building in Alabama. I guess they used them in the building and didn’t need them anymore. I think they’re 100w. I kept burning out or breaking normal incandescent light bulbs in my trouble light. I’ve had the same traffic light bulb in it for over 3+ years and I have to say I’m impressed with the durability of those bulbs. They do give off a lot of heat, but they work great and are bright.

  26. Lanternman says:

    I’ve a CFL in our carriage light that I put in when the light was new – c. 2004. It’s on a sensor so is on while it’s dark. Haven’t replace it, yet. (FWIW, I’ve another CFL twisty that I put in in 2000 and it’s still going strong after 11 years.)

    Keep in mind that you can have the CFL on for a long time with no problem. If you turn it off, though, try to wait 15 minutes to let it cool. While it doesn’t produce the 90% heat of an incandescent, it still warms up and that’s what contributes to its demise.

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