After providing a FirstEnergy phone number to about 729 readers who apparently couldn’t find it in the middle of my column, I thought I was finally finished with the subject of Ohio Energy Conservation Kits.
It’s back with a vengeance, thanks to a new twist. Or, should we say, a new crack.
Bob: I used your article on FirstEnergy’s CFL [compact fluorescent light bulb] program to request our “free” CFLs. Wouldn’t you know it? The package rattled something awful when it arrived, and on the advice of the nice USPS driver, was refused as damaged.
“Don’t they know that shipping a product that contains a dangerous substance — mercury — requires a little more forethought that just placing the light-bulb boxes in a larger box and shipping it?
I wanted nothing to do with opening that package in my home.
Can FirstEnergy screw up this program any worse?
Paul E. Drake II
Paul: Yes, I am confident FirstEnergy could screw this up even worse.
But I can assure you the company isn’t trying to, because even enormous utility conglomerates are looking for love. That’s why they put their names on football stadiums.
Unfortunately, Paul, yours is not an isolated incident. I have been contacted by three other readers who reported that at least one of their bulbs arrived in pieces. And if four people called me, we can safely assume that at least a couple hundred others in Greater Akron have experienced the same thing.
Another victim was Geine Richardson of Fairlawn, who was horrified when she opened her box of alleged goodies.
“Mercury is supposed to be a hazard, right?” she asked in a frantic phone call. “Now everyone at the Fairlawn post office has been exposed to it, I’m exposed to it ... .What am I supposed to do with the mercury? Put it in plastic bag? Take it to a dump?”
Richardson called a poison control number and was told to seal the mercury in a plastic bag and toss it in her dumpster.
That advice was sound, but it didn’t address situations in which the broken CFL isn’t already contained in a box — say, when somebody knocks over a lamp and the bulb winds up in pieces on the floor. For that we turn to the federal EPA, whose website provides step-by-step instructions. Here’s a condensed version:
• Get people and pets out of the room.
• Open a window and air out the room for 10 minutes. Shut off your central forced air or heat.
• Do not vacuum except as a last resort (only if broken glass remains in the carpet after all other cleanup attempts).
• Round up stiff paper or cardboard, sticky tape, a damp paper towel or wet wipes and a glass jar or plastic bag that seals.
• Use the stiff paper to scoop up glass fragments and powder. Use the tape to pick up any remaining small amounts, then wipe with the wet towel. Put everything in the bag and take it outside to a trash container.
Unless you touch the mercury and then lick your finger, the danger lies in the vapor.
But there’s no need to panic. Keep in mind that the amount of mercury contained in one CFL is about the size of the period at the end of this sentence. The amount of mercury in a traditional glass thermometer is about 100 times greater.
On the other hand, even a small amount of mercury is nothing to mess with.
Beyond the safety issue, we also have an economic issue: We are paying for these bulbs through our electric bill. Is FirstEnergy shipping them with less padding than high school bleachers?
“In our program in Ohio,” FirstEnergy spokesman Chris Eck said Tuesday, “253 customers have reported broken CFLs out of 87,131 kits delivered.”
That’s a breakage rate of about 0.3 percent, which seems more than reasonable — as long as we can assume that everyone who receives a broken bulb reports it to FirstEnergy, which we can’t.
Eck says his troops are actively trying to reduce the breakage rate to about 0.0 percent.
During the past month, the company has been testing new packaging that includes bubble wrap and an additional cardboard insert. Eck says that should push down the breakage rate to very close to zero.
As I first reported in June, you already are paying for these kits, but you won’t get them without asking. (The fee isn’t shown on your monthly bill because it is part of the overall FirstEnergy rate structure approved by the Public Utilities Commission.)
The packages are supposed to contain nine unbroken bulbs of various wattages, as well as a “smart” power strip with a surge protector, two LED night lights and a gizmo that hooks onto your furnace filter and emits a whistle when the filter needs to be changed.
If you haven’t ordered your kit (retail value about $80) and you’re willing to risk mercury poisoning, you can call one of two toll-free numbers any day but Sunday:
By the way, if one of your CFLs burns out rather than shatters, you can recycle it for free the next time you’re at a Home Depot or Lowe’s.
If your CFL shatters on the sidewalk on your way into the store — well, you’re on your own.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or email@example.com.