Light Bulbs and Safety

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Published: 20th May 2010
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Despite the many jokes associated with light bulbs, they are no laughing matter. When handling and changing light bulbs, care should be taken to avoid doing any harm to your home, your self, and the environment.

Avoiding Electrocution when Changing a Light Bulb

When changing a light bulb or doing electrical work of any type, it is important to do everything possible to minimize or eliminate the threat of electrocution. This means cutting all power to the light fixture before proceeding with any work.

Simply turning off the switch is not enough, as there have been incidents of people being electrocuted while working on fixtures that were turned off at the time. If the bulb is in a lamp or other fixture with a cord that plugs into a wall socket, unplug the fixture before removing the old bulb and inserting the new. If the fixture is hard-wired into the house, as in the case of a chandelier or ceiling fan with lights, it is best to turn off the power to the circuit at the electrical box.

Light Bulbs as a Fire Hazard

Incandescent light bulbs (the rounded, screw-in type that have a glowing coil at the center) generate large amounts of heat. The coil, called a filament, is heated using electricity until it glows white-hot. This large amount of heat output makes incandescent light bulbs a potential fire hazard. (For this reason, it is also important to allow any in-use incandescent bulbs to sit turned for several minutes to cool before handling to avoid burns.)

To avoid a fire started by an incandescent bulb, there are several important things you can do:

* Always use the proper wattage of light bulb for the fixture. Different lamps and other light fixtures are rated for different bulbs, and using a bulb that is a higher wattage than recommended in a fixture could cause a fire.
* Always keep flammable materials away from incandescent light bulbs. For instance, do not drape fabric over top of a lamp shade, as the portion of fabric directly over the bulb could heat to the point of combustion.
* Try switching to compact fluorescent (CFL) light bulbs. Not only do CFL bulbs operate at a lower, safer temperature, they also conserve energy and save money.

While fluorescent bulbs do not generate heat, there are still fire risks associated with fluorescent light fixtures. Fluorescent bulbs require a ballast to operate, which is often separate from the bulb itself. When a separate ballast needs replaced, it should always be done by a licensed electrician. Improper wiring of a light fixture ballast can cause it to heat to extreme temperatures and possibly catch on fire.

Fluorescent Light Bulbs and Mercury

Fluorescent light bulbs do contain trace amounts of mercury. Because of the presence of this toxic element, care should be taken when both handling and disposing of them.

Fluorescent bulbs should never be incinerated. Since mercury that ends up in landfills can pollute groundwater and begin to accumulate in aquatic life, fluorescent bulbs should also not be thrown away in household trash. A growing number of municipalities and waste management companies offer fluorescent light bulb disposal services; find out if such services are available in your area by calling your local government or waste management service. Some retailers, like IKEA, offer safe fluorescent light bulb disposal to their customers.

If you find yourself with no other option than to put burnt out bulbs in the garbage, take precautionary measures to prevent environmental contamination. Wrap the bulbs well with a plastic bag or place them in a sealed container before throwing them away.

Cleaning Up Broken Light Bulbs

As with any broken glass, care should be taken when cleaning up a broken light bulb. The most important thing to remember when cleaning up a broken bulb is to never use bare hands. Wearing heavy gloves for protection or, if cleaning up a broken incandescent bulb, using a broom or vacuum cleaner is a wiser, safer idea.

Rather than placing loose glass pieces in the garbage, it is a good idea to first place them in a plastic bag or a sealed container. This will help prevent rips or punctures in the garbage bag from the sharp edges of the glass as well as reducing the chances of receiving lacerations while taking out the trash.

When cleaning up a broken fluorescent bulb, extra safety precautions must be taken because of the bulb's mercury content. These safety measures should be observed:

* To reduce exposure to mercury in the air, open a window for at least 15 minutes. Keep any pets out of the room and do not let anyone walk through the area.
* Never use a vacuum cleaner to clean up a broken fluorescent bulb. The vacuum will disperse harmful mercury into the air, increasing inhalation exposure.
* Use a broom and dust pan to clean up as much of the broken glass as possible. Any small pieces of glass that remain can be picked up using the sticky surface of a piece of tape.
* Place all pieces of the bulb in a glass jar with a lid or a sealed plastic bag before disposal.
* To clean any remaining residue off of hard surfaces, use a damp cloth or paper towel. The cloth or towel should then be placed in the jar or bag with the bulb fragments for disposal.

In some cases, such as a bulb that breaks on deep-pile carpeting, vacuuming may be unavoidable. Be sure to clean up as much of the bulb as possible by other means before vacuuming. After finishing, the vacuum's bag or the contents of its canister should be placed in a glass jar or plastic bag for safe disposal.

Most safety issues concerning light bulbs can be addressed or eliminated using common sense and basic safety procedures. Always observing these simple safety tips will greatly reduce the chances of bodily harm, property damage, and pollution.

Check out more light bulb how to articles.

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