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Green Guide: Spotlight on Green Lights

If there’s one bulb that goes off in your head, it should be green. Energy-efficient lighting is a relatively quick way to reduce energy consumption, green your home and save cash in the long term.

Edison’s light bulb was a techno-miracle of metal, glass and gas that revolutionized our lives. But in today’s energy-conscientious world, that miracle bulb is a techno-nightmare, because the majority of its energy consumption goes to producing heat, not light.


On average, lighting consumes 15 percent of the electricity in a typical American household. So if we all converted to energy-efficient lighting, it would save energy in the short term and cash in the long term. Each energy-efficient lighting technology “has its benefits,” says Bryan Alu, president of Polar-Ray.com, a Web-based LED lighting retailer headquartered in Boulder. But the best lighting schemes will involve several technologies appropriate for the space and task, he says.

Green lighting technology is moving ahead at lightning speed. Here are current options, along with the pros and cons of each:

Compact Fluorescents (CFLs)

Pros: Squiggly CFLs are de rigueur these days. Far more efficient than incandescent bulbs, CFLs use only 20 percent of their energy to produce the equivalent amount of light, and they emit far less heat. They’re also longer-lived, about 10 times longer than an incandescent bulb, and can screw into existing fixtures.

Purchase prices continue to drop, and rebates from Xcel Energy bring prices down even further. An Energy-Star-qualified CFL will save about $30 over its lifetime and pay for itself in about six months. When savings over time are calculated, CFLs are a winner, both energetically and economically.

Cons: CFLs have lousy “Color Rendering Index” (CRI), which refers to “how ‘true’ a light makes objects appear,” Alu says. The CRI of sunlight, for example, is 100; halogens are in the upper 90s; and LEDs range from the low 80s to upper 90s. Common fluorescent bulbs at hardware stores “are down in the 70s,” Alu says, “which is why we all look ghgreen-lights1-lgostly under office lights.”

Some people may not notice this difference; others are quite sensitive to it. If you’re in the latter group, buy higher-priced CFLs, which have a CRI in the 90s. Two other cons: Nobody likes a CFL’s warm-up time—or the flicker—when it first is turned on. And because mercury is a component in every CFL, expired bulbs should be disposed of at the Boulder County Household Hazardous Waste Facility at 5880 Butte Mill Road, which “costs” convenience and time.

Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs)green-lights2-LED

Pros: LEDs are a magnitude above CFLs in efficiency. They also last longer—up to 20 years for a single bulb. With no flicker, no turn-on warm-up time and great CRI in the most modern LEDs, these lights are a win-win. “Switching to LEDs, where appropriate, is the easiest way to green a house,” Alu says. LEDs use just 10 percent of the electricity to produce the same amount of light as an incandescent bulb, and are now available in units that can screw into existing fixtures.

Still, lighting designers continue to create a variety of mostly modern LED-only fixtures. Currently, LEDs are a tiny fraction of the lighting market, but in a few years they’re predicted to become more than half.

Cons: LEDs are quite expensive, anywhere from $20 to $100 per light. But you have to weigh that against the light’s long life and energy efficiency. “Usually, you’ll recoup an LED’s initial cost within three years in terms of energy savings and fewer bulb replacements,” Alu says. And LED light quality has improved dramatically in the past few years, offering traditional warm-looking light. Unlike CFLs, many LEDs are compatible with dimmers.

Currently, LEDs are best for applications like track lights, cans, spotlights, task lights and porch lights. When a new home mortgage can absorb the price of LED fixtures, it makes sense to build in LED-only fixtures. Otherwise, make the change to LED one bulb at a time, beginning with the room that consumes the most lighting energy: the kitchen.

Solar LED Lampsgreen-lights5-SolarLED

Pros: If you need to light a small area, solar LED lamps might be the ticket. From European manufacturers like Stéphane Maupin and Od-do Arhitekti, solar LED lamps use photovoltaic technology to power energy-efficient LED lights.

Od-do Arhitekti’s day/night sculptural-like lamp is a large disk that tilts 180 degrees during the day to harvest solar energy from a sunny window. After dark, the circle tilts horizontally into a flat plane to cast light downward by using the stored energy in the onboard battery to power the LEDs.

Stéphane Maupin’s Saint Clair lamp has photovoltaics in the base, which detaches from the lamp and suction-cups onto a window during the day to absorb sunlight. At night, the reattached base powers the lamp’s LED lights.

Cons: The day/night lamp’s coverage is sufficient for the corner of a room; the Saint Clair’s is best for a desk or as an overhead spot.

Plasma Bulbs

Pros: Remember those popular Tesla globes from the 1980s? You ran your hand over them and little bolts of electricity seemingly followed your fingertips. Well, those were plasma bolts, and although plasma bulbs aren’t the same as Tesla globes, they’re rooted in similar technology.

Dime-size plasma bulbs can produce 140 lumens per watt, which translates to a LOT of light. In comparison, an incandescent bulb emits 15 lumens per watt, and a standard LED emits 70.

Cons: Plasma bulbs are very expensive and best suited for high-intensity applications, which probably aren’t in your house: theatrical stages, lobbies, parking lots, streetlights, airplane runways, retail centers and industrial buildings.

Halogen Lights

Pros: These bulbs have a “cool” factor that’s currently hot in contemporary homes. But they’re really just one version of an incandescent bulb, except for a tungsten filament and halogen gas that make a halogen’s life cycle and luminosity somewhat more than an incandescent bulb’s. Halogens also emit a very high-quality light, which is why people like them so much.

Smaller halogens work well as pinpoints of light, such as you might like at a desk or over a kitchen cutting board.

Cons: Halogens aren’t practical for large spaces because they’re not energy efficient. They also emit a lot of heat, which could be problematic.


Pros: Dimmers let homeowners control a room’s mood with the twist of a knob. Everyone likes them, and they save energy because the less light you use, the less energy you consume.

Cons: Alas, most dimmers only work well with incandescent bulbs. CFLs that are said to be “dimmable” only dim to 80 percent of full light, which isn’t a big change, energy-wise. With LED lights, be sure to look for dimming as a feature, and read the dimmer’s fine print: An off-the-shelf dimmer may not work.

Motion Detectors

Pros: It doesn’t matter what kind of bulb you have, it saves the most energy when it’s off. Think about closets and garages, where light is needed only briefly—and yet when they’re mistakenly left on, they suck electricity for hours.

A motion detector shuts off the light after a few minutes, saving hours of light. It also saves you the effort of turning on the light in the first place.

Cons: Motion-detector switches can be easy to install, but some of them use batteries. If you use a motion detector outside, wind blowing a tree branch, a neighborhood dog, or roaming wildlife could trigger it, which might be disruptive if it’s located near a bedroom window. Also, motion sensors may not work with CFLs.

Smart Homes

Pros: How about using computers to turn off lights when you’re out of the house or asleep? So-called “smart-home” systems do just that, as well as control window coverings, televisions, alarm systems, surveillance cameras and more.

DIYers can install the simplest systems; more elaborate ones require an engineer and rewiring.

Cons: Sophisticated systems are very expensive and have a sizable learning curve.

Natural Light

Pros: The best and least expensive light is, of course, daylight. People are happier and more productive in natural sunlight. With more than 300 days of sunshine a year, Boulder County homeowners should take advantage of natural light when remodeling or building anew.

Cons: Energy-efficient windows and skylights aren’t cheap.

Lighting Designgreen-lights4-LED

Pros: In years past, builders installed a ceiling light fixture in every room, and that was that. Now, lighting designers work magic with spotlighting, task lighting, party lighting, mood lighting, up lighting, down lighting and other options. A single room, for example, could contain bright lighting for a party, wall sconces for intimate dining and up or down lights for highlighting artwork.

Always consider what a light needs to do. For example, vaulted ceiling lights must be much brighter than overhead lights to provide the same amount of light at human eye level.

Cons: It’s hard to retrofit an entire house for core lighting design, but redoing one or a few rooms during a remodel is feasible.


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