Help me find the right CFLs for my outdoor light?
December 17, 2010 9:36 AM   Subscribe

Help me figure out if compact fluorescents are the right lights for my outdoor light fixture? Difficulty: the fixture is on an electric eye, the weather gets really cold in the winter, and the lights will be oriented vertically (with the sockets on the bottom).

I have a lamp next to my driveway that has long held incandescent light bulbs (the kind with the small base). Unfortunately, the lights are controlled by an electric eye with no switch, so they are on a lot. (I'm not in a position to be able to do any rewiring, so this situation cannot be changed.)

I would like to switch to CFLs to save money and hopefully avoid replacing the lights as often, but the various warnings on the CFL packages dissuade me. Every package I see says the same thing: that you can't use them on fixtures with an electric eye and to avoid using them in the cold. Oh, and some also say that orientation matters and that the base should not be down.

So my question is this: should I use CFLs at all, or will the combination of cold, electric eye, and orientation end up killing them prematurely? Would I actually save any money or would I be replacing expensive mercury laden lights as often as I do now with cheap incandescents?

If I can use CFLs, are there any that are better suited for this purpose? Where can I find them? Are there other kinds of lights that would work better?
posted by fremen to Home & Garden (17 answers total)
I have and compact light outside and I live in ND, it get very cold and I would not recommencement it, for some reason when I turn the outside light on during winter it doesn't produce alot of light. it takes 10 - 15 min to warm up so if you have a motion sensor light, it wouldn't help much since it will only be on for a few minuets at a time
posted by armyofone at 9:54 AM on December 17, 2010

I should clarify what I mean by electric eye. It's not motion sensitive, it's light sensitive. The lights turn on automatically after it gets dark and stay on all night.
posted by fremen at 9:56 AM on December 17, 2010

Ahh! In that case, I don't see any problem with using CFLs for this.

Yes, they will take a long time to warm up in the cold but that shouldn't be a big problem since they only turn on once per day.

As for the orientation - isn't the base (socket) part of a light bulb normally on the bottom? As in a normal lamp? Either way, I've run CFLs base-up and base-down for years and never encountered any trouble.
posted by Juffo-Wup at 10:00 AM on December 17, 2010

I have a garage light with an eye using a CFL bulb - in St. Paul. There are CFLs made for outdoor use that have a ballast which is intended for colder temps. I would keep looking for something like that - and/or ask a clerk. Maybe try at a corner hardware store vs. a big box.

I don't recall noting anything on the package for what I have regarding use with a photo-switch (pro or con). It's been going strong for a few years now. Catch - I use a floodlight style bulb. Not sure if that would fit your situation.
posted by thatguyjeff at 10:08 AM on December 17, 2010

I had a problem with electronically switched fluorescents, and an electrical engineer told me to hook a 5 watt incandescent light up together with it. It did switch properly after that. You could use a screw in Y socket that splits into two sockets.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:13 AM on December 17, 2010

Can you use an LED? Those things never wear out.
posted by chocolatetiara at 10:34 AM on December 17, 2010

For once a day switching, a CFL should be fine. But if you want to completely eliminate any problem with cold or switching (and go even more green), how about an LED bulb? I bought an LED flood light at Home Depot for the motion-sensitive light on our garage, and it works great. They are still a bit expensive, though, and bulb selection is somewhat limited.
posted by partylarry at 10:37 AM on December 17, 2010

Socket down orientation isn't going to be the problem, IME (CFLs usually have more problems with the socket at the top). I'm surprised that the bulbs say not to use them on an 'electric eye', though. Hrm. That particular restriction may be due to an assumption that the 'electric eye' is a motion sensor -- fluorescent bulbs in general don't last well in situations where they are turned on and off frequently.

The problem is going to be the cold. Fluorescent bulbs in general take a while to warm up, the colder it is, the longer they take to get to full brightness. As thatguyjeff points out, you may be able to find an outdoor CFL rated for colder temperatures. (well, and in the summer, the heat, especially if it's an enclosed bulb.)
posted by jlkr at 10:43 AM on December 17, 2010

To further my own confusion, here's the GE FAQ on CFLs. Question #1 supposedly answers the question without answering it at all.

Does anyone know of a light brand that will work with photocells?
posted by fremen at 10:52 AM on December 17, 2010

I don't know the particular brand but I replaced my backyard floodlights with a CFL encased in a floodlight-style cover. It has worked well for a few years on a motion sensor fixture. This is also Wisconsin and it gets cold here. It takes a couple of minutes to warm up but has no problems otherwise. I think these are the ones.
posted by JJ86 at 11:44 AM on December 17, 2010

I have used CFLs in a similar fixture with mixed results. Most fared well, but a few seemed short lived. I usually just use whatever is cheapest at Home Depot at the time.
posted by caddis at 12:33 PM on December 17, 2010

We're using an LED in the cold (no light sensor) and it works much better than the CFL that we were using last year. It's much brighter and is immediately on when we flip the switch.
posted by leahwrenn at 1:39 PM on December 17, 2010

If the photocell fixture is the type that switches on and off distinctly, a CFL will probably be OK.

The problem with some photocell fixtures and CFL warnings is that some of those fixtures don't switch as much as they gradually turn on the light. This works fine with incandescent bulbs, where the effect is more like a dimmer, but can cause problems with CFLs. And possibly LED bulbs. I tried an LED bulb in such a fixture to find that it never really turns off so much as it just dims. Most CLFs seem to have warnings about dimmer use, but some newer ones are compatible, and might be OK with the gradual type photocell control.

Regarding ambient temps, I can't offer much about cold performance. But I have seen some failures of CFLs due to what I think were excessively hot temperatures. This might be an issue in the summer if the fixture is not well ventilated and in a place prone to heat build up.
posted by 2N2222 at 2:48 PM on December 17, 2010

2n2222 is exactly right.

I have had CFL bulbs on outdoor lights, and their lifespan was no worse than the same brand indoors. Which is, of course, far less than the rating on the package.
posted by gjc at 6:54 PM on December 17, 2010

They make exterior CFL flood light bulbs.You should not use just any old indoor CFL - you need on that is sufficient protected from the weather
posted by Flood at 6:30 AM on December 18, 2010

you need one that is sufficient protected from the weather

Good point. Although if it is in a housing, I doubt it will matter.
posted by gjc at 8:48 AM on December 18, 2010

2N2222 - I think you got it. I have no idea if my photocell is gradual or instant, so I should probably avoid CFLs in that fixture.
posted by fremen at 9:16 AM on December 20, 2010

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