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Published on October 21st, 2007 | by Stephanie Evans


A Brighter Future with Eco Home Lighting

Sunlight floods our planet during daylight hours, providing natural lighting, warmth, and a clean-energy source for things like solar space heating, solar water heating, and solar energy/photovoltaic applications.  Nighttime hours are a different story, however, during which human reliance on energy-inefficient artificial lighting sources is cast into the spotlight.

Traditional lighting options in use today warm the planet a bit too much for our collective comfort.  However, the advent of forward-thinking regulatory agencies and technological advances are beginning to provide us with a new view of how our future will be lit.

Lighting is a substantial part of each household’s electric bill—the EPA estimates that home lighting accounts for an average of 15–25% of the total cost.  And while natural solar light gives homes, office spaces, and schools room to breathe, light bulbs are the real energy efficient lighting superheros of the artificial light realm.

The Basics

Monitoring your personal light-use habits and looking for opportunities to conserve this energy expenditure are a must, but it’s also important to consider some very basic facts about your lighting—type of bulb, type of fixture, and type of power supply.

Keep these general rules in mind:

  • Remember to turn off lights when you leave a room, unless you plan to return to the lit area frequently within a short period of time—turning the light on and off can devour energy and decrease the life of a traditional bulb.
  • If you leave a bathroom light on at night, consider installing a night-light or a well-placed, accessible touch lamp instead.
  • It may seem to be a small measure, but keeping your lights and light fixtures sparkly clean will drastically improve their efficiency by allowing the light to shine unimpeded through a clear surface—spot check your lights during weekly cleaning.
  • When purchasing any product that boasts “energy efficient” on the label, make sure to look for standardized markings such as the Energy Star label.

Bulb Type

lighting2.pngThe traditional, incandescent light bulb shines as it always has since Thomas Edison developed the technology in 1879.  The actual light “glow” is created as electricity heats the filament—a metal thread inside of a sealed glass bulb—to approximately 2,300 degrees Celsius.  As one industry source elegantly puts it, “(E)lectricity creates heat, heat creates light.”  So very simple, but not so very energy efficient: 90–95% of the energy used by incandescent bulbs goes into heat, not light.  This creates a secondary negative impact by increasing the power load on air conditioning.

Big industry is starting to catch on to the waste—energy efficient light fixture design is proliferating, sensor-activated switches are now part of many state and local building codes, and advances in technology are, arguably, allowing alternative energy sources to be increasingly recognized as viable energy supplies.  Governments of some countries, including Canada and Australia, are announcing plans to phase out this energy-consuming, heat-intensive technology in favor of options with a lighter environmental impact by the year 2012.  A coalition of environmental groups has teamed up with the world’s largest lighting manufacturer (Phillips Lighting) on an initiative to transition the United States to Compact Fluorescent Lighting (CFLs) by 2016.

A recent report by the International Energy Agency claims that the world could reduce its energy use by almost 10%—more energy than that produced by hydro or nuclear stations—by switching to energy efficient lighting.

How do these measures relate to us?  Just how bright will the future of lighting be?  Let’s take a look at some of the technologies dawning on the horizon.


Often compared to a soft-serve ice-cream cone for its distinctive spiraled, swirly shape, the compact fluorescent has been theCFL darling of the energy efficient lighting industry since its introduction in 1980—despite initial complications such as unnaturally bright light and distracting humming sounds.  These long-lasting, eco-friendly light shedders save you time and money, and lessen the energy burden on the earth.

The EPA’s Energy Star program strongly endorses CFLs, especially in primary areas of energy use:  the kitchen, living room, and outdoor porch or walkway.  For many consumers though, the verdict is still out on the widely-available CFLs designed to replace incandescents in household fixtures.  Let’s shed a little light on the facts:


  • CFLs use less energy—about 75% less—by producing more light per watt.
  • CFLs last much, much longer than incandescent options—in the neighborhood of 10,000 hours, compared with 750–1,000 incandescent hours.
  • Less energy + Longer life = More $ savings.  Savings range anywhere from $10–$50 per bulb.


  • Mercury.  Controversy abounds—critics cry “toxic,” while environmentalists counter that by requiring less energy, CFLs actually cut down on mercury pollution produced by coal burning, and the EPA agrees.

And while the amount of mercury in CFLs is minimal—the EPA says 5 milligrams in new CFLs, compared with 500 milligrams in older thermometers—precautions still need to be taken during bulb transport, placement, removal, and recycling.  Mercury is a neurotoxin and environmental contaminant that can present hazards if bulbs are broken or disposed of improperly. Visit the Energy Star program’s CFL and Mercury FAQ for detailed information about how to approach a broken bulb situation. If you’re in need of a safe disposal facility, the EPA recommends their Mercury-Containing Bulb Recycling Programs site (searchable by state), or Earth911.  Also look for “low-mercury” on product labels.

  • High initial cost.  Thinking long-term here is key—the higher up-front cost is justified by a longer lifespan and many companies currently offer rebates on packaging.  Look for CFLs in many well-known national chain stores and hardware stores.
  • Newer bulbs may not be a perfect fit for older fixtures, though cost and energy savings can make replacement a worthwhile investment.
  • Visit this Energy Star program’s CFL product information sheet for more CFL facts and specific information about how to choose a CFL appropriate for your fixtures.

LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes)

The LED is waiting in the wings to claim the “most eco-friendly light” title.  Reported to be six times as efficient as a traditional incandescent bulb, this technology is more commonly associated with the tiny red and green lights on electronic gadgets, though scientific breakthroughs in the past year now extend this to white- and blue-light emitting capability.

LED Holiday LightsBasically, LEDs are just tiny light bulbs that fit easily into an electrical circuit and are illuminated by the movement of electrons through semiconducting material, producing only light, not heat.  Most LED light fixtures currently on the market have the bulbs built into them so you buy the whole unit, and there are a few online sources for screw-in type LED lights.  Currently, traffic lights, Christmas lights, flashlights, automotive lights, and mobile phones are the most widely-used applications for LEDs, though major manufacturers like G.E. Lighting and Philips Lighting are seeking to take them mainstream in the next few years.  Look for strings of LED lights for the holidays in nationwide chain stores, and solar lights with LED bulbs for your outdoor walkway and garden areas.

Let’s look at the pros and cons for some clues about an LED-lit future:


  • Mercury-free!
  • LEDs are small and extremely durable—made of plastic, not glass, so there’s no waste.  And they never need to be replaced.
  • LED lights produce only light, not heat, which means lower greenhouse gas emissions and reduced air pollution.
  • Big savings.  Modest LED lifespan estimates range from 50,000 to 100,000 hours—sources claims that LEDs last anywhere from 5-10 years to 20 years, compared with the 1-2 year incandescent lifespan.
  • Manufacturers estimate that kinks will be worked out within the next few years, making the product widely available in the near future.


  • Currently expensive
  • Currently susceptible to overheating
  • Currently focuses light into one place, as opposed to distributing it in a usable mode

Energy Efficient Fixtures and Controls

An increasing number of fixture manufacturers are seeing the light and designing their products for optimal efficiency.  In order to qualify for the Energy Star Program, a fixture must:

  • Use one-fourth the energy used by standard light fixtures
  • Distribute light evenly
  • Be dimmable for indoor fixtures
  • Employ automatic daylight shut-off and/or motion sensors for outdoor lights.  In some states, the main light in both the kitchen and bathroom must also be operated by motion sensor.

Other types of switches also help to save electricity:

  • A three-way snap switch lets you turn off unused lights from one or more locations.
  • Photocells respond to natural light levels by switching on at dusk and off at sunrise.
  • Mechanical or electronic timers allow you to determine the length and time a light is on or off.

Just because your light fixtures are energy efficient does not mean that they must sacrifice the shine of aesthetics.  For an elegant and sophisticated look that inspires a nostalgia for historic times-gone-by, consider eco-friendly light fixtures such as lanterns made with earth-conscious materials.  Oil lanterns simply will not do, as they require petroleum for fuel.   Here are some better picks:

  • Lanterns powered by clean-burning natural gas are more cost effective than other options such as liquid propane, though natural gas does not burn nearly as hot—it is piped to the lighting appliance from gas service lines.
  • Liquid propane (LP) is another non-electric source that burns about three times hotter than natural gas.  LP is stored in a tank outside of your home.
  • Redouble the “lightness” of your eco-friendly efforts by purchasing lanterns made from materials such as copper.  Copper lighting options are showing up more and more because copper can tolerate inclement weather conditions, it’s more durable and longer-lasting than many other materials, and it’s completely recyclable.

A Little Help from the Sun—Skylights

Don’t forget the most energy-efficient and economic source of all—tap into that 5-billion year old fusion reactor, the sun.Interior Daylighting Incorporating skylights into homes, offices, and schools inspires a natural, welcoming feel, and has positive environmental, economic, and psychological effects on those that spend time inside.  Studies correlate exposure to sunlight with increased worker satisfaction, higher student test scores, and boosted sales.  Several states are now implementing Daylight Collaborative programs, especially in grade schools.  These programs focus on properly lighting every building with daylight by integrating factors relating to window placement, even light distribution, brightness control, and minimized glare.

The commonly tossed-around phrase “Change a light bulb, save the world” may seem a bit exaggerated, but consumer interest, industry research, and corporate development efforts are producing results that don’t require exaggeration to be impressive.  A recent report by the International Energy Agency makes claim that the world could reduce its energy use by almost 10%—more energy than that produced by hydro or nuclear stations—by switching to energy efficient lighting.  What can we do to help the effort along?  Take a look around our homes or offices and start counting and replacing!

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