Hang a bare lightbulb in a room and turn it on. You’ll see that a large portion of the light shines on the ceiling, where it’s only useful to your local spiders or to make stick-on stars glow. Very little shines where you need it. Now put a reflector behind the lamp, and your useful light levels have increased with no increase in energy use, and your spiders are out of luck. Your great-grandmother probably knew all about this, too—kerosene and gas lamps back in the day didn’t produce much light. But by positioning the lamps at strategic locations and placing reflectors behind each, she could maximize the useful illumination. In more modern homes, lighting fixtures serve the same purpose, redirecting light to where it’s needed most, but different lamp technologies cast light in a variety of patterns and intensities, called “candela distribution.”
“Lumens measure light emitted in all directions,”says Rea. “Candelas measure light emitted in a specific direction. With the lumens per watt standard, we completely misrepresent any situation where we are not lighting the entire room, such as with undercabinet lighting for kitchen counters.”<
Your great-grandmother probably would not have approved of much indirect lighting, either. Valance, cove, and soffit lighting can create ambiance, but also waste a portion of your lighting energy budget. If you have the luxury of building a new home or remodeling an old one, you can plan ahead and consider the optimum locations for your fixtures. Do you really need to brightly light up your entire home office (ambient lighting), or would your energy be better spent on illuminating just your desk and other work surfaces (task lighting)? Consider your kitchen—it doesn’t take much light to navigate around a room without tripping, but you certainly want bright, high-quality light focused on the cutting board. The spillover from task lights may be enough to safely illuminate pathways. Avoid wiring lighting circuits that put more than one fixture on a switch, as you can end up lighting areas that do not need it.
At the hardware store, don’t just fill up your shopping cart with a pile of energy-efficient lamps. Quality of light, brightness, candela distribution, and color temperature vary significantly between manufacturers and models, even when the lamps show similar specifications on the package. Instead, buy a variety of single lamps and try them in different rooms and fixtures until you find what you like.
Rea also cautions against relying too much on “equivalency ratings” printed on CFL and LED lamp packaging that claim, for example, a particular 26-watt CFL makes as much light as a traditional 100-watt incandescent. “Don’t believe it,” Rea says, “Such ratings are based on industry standard test methods that often do not reflect how the products are actually used in the home. Consumers need to try different lamps themselves, and find what works best for them.”
Stick with the major lamp manufacturers. This used to be just the “big three”—Philips, Sylvania, and General Electric—but in recent years several other manufacturers have entered the market (see “Access”). However, avoid imported lamps that are not UL-listed or Energy Star-rated; some are so shoddily made that they pose a fire hazard.
Make sure the lamp you are interested in purchasing is compatible with the fixture in which you want to put it, and with any dimmers that will be involved. Write down brand names, model numbers, and manufacturer websites so you can research options on the Internet, and do your homework before you call.
“Lamp manufacturer technical support departments are used to working with large-volume buyers such as big-box stores, not directly with individual consumers,” Rea says, “but if you can make your questions very specific, most will be happy to help educate you about their products via phone or email. However, vague questions about ‘light quality’ and so forth won’t often receive a detailed response.
“Don’t be afraid to put the burden back on your local retail store, either,” says Rea. “Ask them if you can compare different lamps in different fixtures right there in the store.”
Consider installing occupancy sensors if family and friends are in the (bad) habit of leaving lights on when rooms are not in use. The sensors present a small phantom load, though it’s usually less than 1 watt.
Author and educator Dan Fink has lived 11 miles off the grid in the northern Colorado mountains since 1991. He teaches about off-grid systems and small wind power, and is the executive director of Buckville Energy Consulting, a NABCEP/IREC/ISPQ-accredited continuing education provider. Dan is the coauthor of Homebrew Wind Power.
Lamp & Fixture Manufacturers:
APRS World • aprsworld.com • DC LED lamp & fixture
Cree • cree.com
Enduralite LED • enduraliteled.com
Feit Electric • feit.com
General Electric • gelighting.com
Lighting Science Group • lsgc.com
Lights of America • lightsofamerica.com
Lutron • lutron.com
Osram Sylvania • sylvania.com
Philips • usa.lighting.philips.com
Seesmart LED • seesmartled.com