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.
John Dias says
I’ve long been a believer of using lower wattage bulbs – I just don’t understand why people HAVE to have 60 or even 100 watt bulbs. In every apartment or house I’ve resided in over the years has had one thing in common – the fixtures (even multiple bulb fixtures such as vanity or ceiling fan) have had no less than 60 watt bulbs, usually 4 of them for a single fixture! I use no more than 100 watt outdoors and only turn them on as needed.
People thing I’m a fanatic, but I always complain when I can’t find 45 watt bulbs at the hardware store (and they are hard to find for some reason). I challenge anyone to be able to tell the difference in a room lighted with 45 watt bulbs versus 60 or 100 watt! And the power savings, given the every bulb in your home, is pretty significant as you’ve pointed out here.
Higher wattage bulbs also increase the heat in your home, in a southern climate (they do very little to warm a home, really nothing in the north) causing an increase in your summer A/C bill.
If folks had not been addicted to high wattage household bulbs we probably wouldn’t have regulations telling us what kinds of bulbs we could buy!
As someone who pushes for energy efficiency I understand the desire for lower wattage bulbs. BUT – for me, the extra lumens are highly desirable. As my eyes get older the extra light helps me see, but more importantly the brighter lights help with my mood. Call is SAD or whatever I don’t care, but I know I have a much better mood when there are more lights on.
So – for me, I love CFLs because now I can put a 26-29W CFL in the fixture rated for only 60W bulbs and have the light of a 100+W incandescent.
More lumens and less heat from a tricky socket is a major win for CFL. I did the same in my office, where I installed a crazy-bright daylight-colored CFL in the one and only lighting socket. Now I’m dazzled!
That’s a great point!
Scott Lowe says
I started playing around with “instant on” CFLs last year and have been very happy with the results. We’re using those in the vanity on the bathroom and they are pretty much instant on. That said, they still take some time to come to full brightness, but they start at an acceptable level. My other CFLs have pretty much sucked… too long to warm up and extremely unreliable.
I’ve considered playing with LEDs, but haven’t yet jumped into those waters. I’m tempted to try it out in a high traffic area to see what happens.
I’m using LEDs in stairways and such and they’re excellent and worthwhile. Instant-on and fully-bright to make the family happy, plus low power consumption to make me happy. Plus, they won’t die when flipped on and off 20 times a day!
Good point about “instant-on” CFLs: The new generation are instantly fairly bright but still take some warming up to reach max brightness. It’s like a 40W bulb instantly, then a 75W later. This works well in rooms where people come and stay. But CFLs are not suitable for switching on and off all the time, as in a hallway or bathroom.
I have moved most of our house to LED based bulbs – indoor and out. I have found a few types that I am pleased with and have been installing them as time allows. One problem I have ran into though is dimmable LED lights – it is difficult or expensive to find a good dimmer switch to run them. Since they are such a low wattage, they are below what a normal dimmer switch is designed to support.
Where I still have CFL bulbs (vanity fixtures), I have installed 1 LED in the middle with two outer CFL bulbs. The LED is instant-on and allows sufficient light in the room to survive until the CFL come up to temp.
One other benefit of LED outside, there are no UV light to attract bugs 🙂 Makes for sitting outside in the summer much more comfortable as you never turn on the OPEN FOR DINNER light for the mosquitoes.
I never considered that LEDs don’t attract mosquitos! Nifty idea!
I’m working on a similar strategy to balance LED and CFL, since LED bulbs still cost 5x more. And I’ve been testing LEDs in secret at my house! Shhh!