Beware the PL Lamp!

By Frank S. Johnson
EnviroLight, LLC,
October 2007

When selecting new fixtures, especially for new construction, most people rely on a building contractor, who relies on an electrician, who relies on the building plans, which were drawn up by an architect, who relies on an electrical engineer, who relies on computer programs and manufacturers to decide what you need. If you’re not careful, you can end up with primitive lighting technology that can be very costly and inconvenient to change out after the fact. Not only will you severely limit your choice of light bulbs, it can be extremely difficult to locate replacements and change them out.

In my experience, very few architects know much about lighting. They usually leave that part of the planning up to an electrical engineering firm that specializes in running computer programs that insert a suggested fixture, furnished by a manufacturer. Once the decision is on paper, everyone down the line considers it to be current. But, beware! These insertions can be old, primitive technology, which defeat the goal of saving energy, maintenance, and money. In contrast, they set up the end user for high maintenance costs and very poor lighting.

Many popular fixtures, such as recessed can lights and sconces use an old type of compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) known primarily as “PL Lamps”. Since they are still in use, PL Lamps are frequently confused with the new generation of CFL lamps. Lighting manufacturers like to sell them because once you buy the fixtures, you will be locked into buying the lamps they use. If you don’t know the difference, you may regret “your” choice of fixtures.

The new generation CFL lamp uses a very common Edison (or medium) base that will screw into any common light socket. They are generally seen as spiral-looking lamps, though they are also available in decorative styles. They are rapidly replacing outdated incandescent bulbs since they use the new “T2” technology which will save energy, run cooler, and last longer. This new type CFL lamp has the ballast built into the lamp. The better ones feature no-lead glass and will work in any position, base up, down, or horizontal. These new CFL’s will be modified over the next few years to use a newer “GU-24” base. Though the newer base will “twist-turn” into place, they should not be confused with PL lamps. The new base was designed to prevent the end user from changing back to incandescent bulbs, which have already been outlawed in some countries, and are sure to be phased out here.

With the new generation of CFL Lamps, there aren’t so many limitations. Here are just some of the advantages:
You can change the lamp yourself. All you do is screw it in!
You have the choice of the desired wattage you want out of the fixture, thus how much or what color light you desire.
When the lamp fails, you simply replace it with another lamp of your choice.
The ballast is part of the lamp, so there’s no need to worry about how long it will last or how to change it when it does fail.

The old style, primitive PL Lamp does not have a built-in ballast. It has a base with pins protruding from the bottom, to “plug in” to the corresponding socket. Its ballast is located separate from the lamp. In a sconce, it would usually be located somewhere inside the fixture, but in a can light, it will be on the top or side of the fixture, located in the ceiling between the rafters. It is not accessible from below, where one would normally be replacing a lamp. The average maintenance person is not required to go into the ceiling to walk the rafters and find a particular fixture in a particular room. In most cases insulation will be covering the fixture in the attic, making it hard to locate and change a bad ballast.

Let’s evaluate the PL Lamp. There are many disadvantages!

First of all, there are too many models with bases having different configurations and numbers of pins. They are not interchangeable! Here is just a partial list. There are many more!

They all rely on external ballast that is installed in the fixture. It must be purchased and installed separately (by an electrician).
It is difficult to obtain replacements bulbs. Even the stores that sell the fixtures don’t stock all of the PL lamps available.
PL Lamps are very fragile and difficult to install. Even trained electricians often will break them by holding the glass instead of the base when trying to install them. Its not easy!
They don’t last long. Most are engineered for short life.
They are a poor light source and they run hot.
Once you’ve bought the fixture, you’re “stuck” with the only lamp it will use. You cannot change the wattage, or amount of light it emits.
In recessed can lights, the ballast is located in the ceiling. You can’t get to it from the ladder below, and so are forced to call an electrician.
The whole idea behind CFL’s is to save energy (thus money), last longer (save money), and save labor time (again, to save money). After you have spent the money, the time and the labor to replace a failed PL Lamp, the ballast, or both, any amount of savings is long gone!

Take a look at an all-too-common scenario: You turn on the lights one morning and notice that a lamp has gone out. Either you, or your employee, get out the ladder to remove the old lamp and replace it. You notice immediately that you have to match the base with the special socket, and so you need a special lamp to fit. It will help if you have a number. Where do you find the lamp number? Well, ideally it will be printed on the lamp. In actuality, the printing has probably been too discolored by the heat to read it. So someone must climb up into the attic, walk the rafters to get to the fixture, then remove the dusty insulation packed around it, and somewhere there should be a reference number for the replacement lamp. Okay, so you finally have a number! Now you buy a new lamp and you try to install it. You had a hard time getting the old one out. You assume you can plug this one in and be in business. The lamp fits in horizontally and you finally get it into position, and …. Oops!… it breaks in your hand! Fortunately you purchased two, so that you’d have a spare. So now you work that spare into position and you’ve got it in. Great! Now you turn on the switch, but it doesn’t light up. Someone suggests you call an electrician. Long story short, the ballast in the ceiling is bad and you have to pay an electrician to come change it before your recessed can light will work.

Maybe this story sounds familiar to you. If not, I want to help you prevent this frustration from occurring. This should have been addressed before now to help educate the electrical engineers who are apparently not aware of the consequences of their decision to use these outdated fixtures. I have actually had calls from people wanting to purchase an adapter, hoping one would be available to plug into the PL socket, then turn at a right angle and use a medium base socket so that they could screw in a regular flood lamp. If such an adapter did exist, it could not work with a regular lamp because the fixture would still have the ballast. When I asked why they wanted such a thing, they replied that they needed more light out of the fixture! Unbelievably, this is happening today with new construction.

If you are entering into a building project and want to use recessed can lighting, then you must specify medium base (Edison), or the new GU-24 fixtures, so that you can avoid this trap! If you are going to have 9’ceilings or higher, then you need to purchase fixtures that will accommodate R40 flood light trim, and not the smaller trim designed for R30 floods. That way, you will have more choices as to how much light you need once the wall covering, floor covering, and furniture has been installed.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound ………”