The average home is incredibly inefficient, and nowhere is this more obvious than the ubiquitous electric lightbulb. Compact fluorescent (CFL) and LED lights are an order of magnitude more efficient at converting electricity to lumens rather than heat, but making the switch is not simple. The limitations, pricing, and sheer variety of lighting options are daunting.
1 kW No One Could See
When I moved into my house, I was dismayed to find more than 1 kW of outdoor lighting. The previous owners had installed 150 Watt flood lights in every fixture under the eaves. You could probably land an airplane in my driveway, even in the fog. But these lights were completely invisible to the occupants (us!), and were often left on for long periods of time.
This is actually a fairly typical situation, with many homeowners opting for 100 W incandescent bulbs inside as well. I have long been a believer in 40 and 65 W bulbs, and preferred specialty 25 W bulbs for bedside lamps. And I’m dismayed by the sheer number of bulbs and fixtures all calling out to be filled: Both the master suite and children’s bathroom had 8 light sockets above the mirror, each with its own 100 W bulb!
Since incandescent bulbs convert most of their electricity into heat, rather than light, the average house has a lot more in common with an Easy Bake Oven that most homeowners are willing to admit. Although they would be hesitant to leave a hairdryer blowing all day long, they don’t notice their kitchen lights turning just as much electricity into heat!
Immediately after moving in, I replaced many of the “utility area” incandescents with compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs. The porch, eaves, garage, and basement were the first areas upgraded, dramatically reducing power consumption and waste heat. I also unscrewed every other bulb in the bathrooms, and no one has complained yet.
Next, I replaced some of the most difficult to reach bulbs with CFL’s in hopes that they would last longer and produce more light. This includes the dramatic, but insanely placed floodlight in the cathedral ceiling of our living room. It required an extension ladder to reach, so I certainly hope that bulb lasts the advertised 8000 hours!
No Perfect Alternative
One result I can share right off the bat is that today’s products really are cutting-edge. There are many circumstances where an energy-efficient alternative is simply not good enough to be accepted by the whole family. Less enthusiastic family members will not appreciate the long warm-up times typical of CFL bulbs, the dim output and weird coloration of inexpensive LEDs, and the strange behavior of dimmer switches.
Rather than switch to CFL bulbs in the kitchen, I installed a high-tech electronic dimmer in hopes that we could throttle back the power usage of its 7 recessed lighting cans. This experiment ended in failure, since the dimmer was often pushed to the max.
Once CFL bulbs begin to start faster, I experimented with the “dimmable” variety came away unimpressed. They don’t dim all that much generally and were incompatible with my fancy electronic switch. I finally removed it, swapping in a plain old switch and a boatload of CFL bulbs. The whole kitchen now uses 105 Watts rather than the 525 the lights previously drew, and it’s brighter too!
We must also consider the cost of upgrades like this. CFL bulbs are definitely on the mass-produced/bargain and of the spectrum, with questionable quality and reliability. They’re now inexpensive enough to casually purchase and install. LEDs, on the other hand, are just barely becoming attainable, much less affordable. Sadly, energy efficiency is sometimes still a game for the rich.
Swapping out of box full of 100 to 150 W outdoor floodlights was a slam dunk, in my opinion. The replacement CFL’s produce more light, less heat, and draw less power on the whole than a single bulb before. The same goes for replacing utility lights, which are seldom used and often left on. But it is far more difficult to attack the core lighting used by family members every day. That is the topic of my future posts.