I broke a fluorescent U shaped bulb yesterday evening in my kitchen.  I was attempting to set it on the counter so I could remove the bulb that was in the fixture and it tapped the counter ever-so-slightly, shattering into a million pieces.  I attempted to follow the EPA guidelines for cleaning up the mess, mercury and all, but it's not easy.  We have hardwood-like floors in the kitchen, so after opening a bunch of windows and going in another room for a bit, I was able to scoop up most of the glass and powders that were near where the break occurred.  But then there's glass everywhere, and I mean everywhere!  Little tiny shards of it.  It was a pain to clean up.  After cleaning up, I proceeded to freak out about mercury.  How much is in the air?  What's too much?  Am I breathing it?  What's the impact on me, my wife, and our cats?  I proceeded to cleaning of the entire kitchen: floor, counters, and stove top, multiple times.  Windows and doors were open with fans running full blast for about 3 hours.  That should get it all out, right?

Come today, I'm still paranoid.  Who can I call about this on a Saturday?  Well, the National Poison Center is open 24/7, so I called them.  A very professional woman answered all my questions, told me the way I cleaned up was fine, and reassured me that even cleaning up just one bulb completely the wrong way on wood flooring is nothing to get concerned over if I've had windows and doors open.  It made me feel a whole lot better.
I still cleaned the kitchen again after hanging up.  Just to be safe :)

Why am I so concerned over this?
It's because there's no sure way to know what the heck is going on with mercury.  I'm no expert but I do know about RoHS, and mercury is definitely one of the restricted substances (ironically with an exemption for fluorescent bulbs).  It can't be good for you.  But you can't see it (when it's vapor), smell it, taste it, or easily test what concentration it exists in with a DIY kit.  Thus, I was paranoid about it.

I don't want this to happen ever again.  But how can I ensure that this doesn't happen again?
Getting rid of all my fluorescent bulbs seems like a decent answer.  But incandescents use quite a lot more electricity and don't really come in tube sizes so they're not really an option.  What about LED lights?

LED lights aren't really easy to buy right now.  Home Depot lists quite a few different types of bulbs (84 in the LED lighting section) but many are only available online and some of those listed are holiday lights.  None of those listed are tube type that can replace fluorescent bulbs.  All are expensive (think 10x the price of incandescents or CFLs) and generally have lower light output compared to fluorescent or incandescent bulbs.  I searched around online and found some places selling tube type LED lights but every single one I found requires you to rewire the fixture to bypass the ballast and starter.  Some even require an external power unit (I assume to convert the AC to DC) that has to be wired in. 

I can rewire my fixtures to support different types of bulbs (I'm an EE and I know my way around a wire nut) but I don't want to do this.  I'm pretty sure no body wants to do this, they just want to buy a light bulb and put it in.  That's how light bulbs are expected to work.

I think this is a market ripe for innovation.  With upcoming US regulations requiring higher light output per watt combined with people's dislike for CFLs (and fluorescent bulbs in general [warm up time, flickering, buzz, cold weather performance, lack of dimming, etc]), the LED market place is going to experience rapid growth.  Right now the growth seems to be in normal screw in type bulbs with some less elegant systems for tube bulbs.

I'd expect the LED tube bulb market to be the largest market, yet there doesn't seem to be a (literally) drop in tube LED bulb out there at any price.  Schools, corporate facilities, and hospitals use tons of tube lights and are often concerned about mercury releases, energy consumption, and "green-ness."  These same institutions also don't want to have to pay an electrician to rewire every single light fixture.  Tube LED lights that are a drop in replacement for tube fluorescent bulbs would sell like hotcakes!  Even if there was a price premium, early adopters would pay extra to get their benefits.  This would drive volume and technology development, ultimately bringing prices down.

Maybe I should design a tube LED lighting system...


Yes its mostly due to cost. Look at Plasma and LCD TV's they use florescent back lights and they are cheap in comparison to the cost of an LED TV. In my opinion someday LED's will be cheap enough to replace other light sources. They also last so much longer and use less power.
I found one company that is making drop in tube LED lights: EverLED in Vermont. They ask $129 for one 4' tube. That's a bit pricey but I did some research and it would be hard with today's white LEDs to make a profit and compete with tube fluorescent bulb light output for under $100 (retail).

I still think this is an area that's ripe for innovation and I'd expect some creative thinking could get the prices lower even with today's LEDs.


20 November 2010