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Efficient Lighting Lessons From TOH TV

At the TOH TV Bedford project house, experts helped the homeowners navigate new bulb and fixture options. What they learned can help you, too

The Truth About Efficient Lighting

Photo by Keller + Keller

Like all remodelers, Joe and Becky Titlow, owners of the This Old House TV Bedford project house, wanted their house's new lighting to complement its style. "We also needed to cut energy use," says Becky, not just to save money but also to meet a state code requiring 50 percent of lighting in any remodel (and new construction) to be energy efficient. It's a common challenge, as some 20 states have adopted or are adopting similar codes.

The Titlows soon found that shopping for energy-efficient lighting is a herculean research project these days. As incandescent bulbs disappear from store shelves, the bulbs that are replacing them have changed dramatically in the past few years. To get a better grasp on their options, the Titlows turned to lighting designer Susan Arnold of Wolfers Lighting in Allston, Massachusetts. We spoke to her, and a few other experts, to examine the pros, cons, myths, and realities surrounding this latest generation of lighting. Here's an incentive to keep reading: Joe and Becky's choices may slash their lighting energy bill by as much as 60 percent.

Shown: TOH general contractor Tom Silva places a wall sconce above the fireplace in the new family room. "We're using CFLs in these fixtures," says homeowner Joe Titlow.

The Truth About Efficient Lighting

Photo by Alison Rosa

You Don't Need to Stockpile Incandescents

The 2007 federal energy bill didn't outlaw incandescent technology; it just set stricter efficiency standards for certain bulbs. Most incandescents—namely, the Edison-style bulbs we're all familiar with and that use 40 or more watts of energy—aren't efficient enough to meet the new standards. The phaseout will be gradual; only 100-watt bulbs will vanish first, starting on January 1, 2012. Next up will be 75-watt bulbs, in 2013; then 60- and 40-watt bulbs, in 2014. And despite the phaseout, a few types of incandescents will continue to be available. Utility bulbs for things such as appliances weren't covered in the bill. The same goes for low-wattage decorative bulbs, like the exposed-filament bulbs that have become popular recently, so feel free to invest in fixtures that use them. While the Titlows are largely eschewing incandescents, they've opted for exposed-filament bulbs in a few lights, such as wall fixtures on the support columns between the family room and kitchen, to bring a period look to the new space.

Bulbs that meet the new, stricter energy standards include (A) the 72-watt general-purpose halogen bulb from Sylvania, (B) the Ultra Mini CFL from Satco, and (D) the AmbientLED from Philips. Decorative bulbs, such as (C) the 40-watt 1900 Tungsten bulb from Rejuvenation, are exempt from the standards.

You Can Keep Your Old Light Fixtures

While hundreds of fixtures now bear an Energy Star rating, you won't save more by using a rated fixture versus simply screwing energy-saving bulbs of equivalent wattage into your existing lights. "It's all about the bulbs a fixture uses," says New York–based light-fixture designer and architect David Bergman. Energy Star fixtures are designed to accept only efficient bulbs, not incandescents, so that's primarily how they save.

CFLs Can Look Great with Traditional Fixtures

Photo by Ed Honowitz/Getty Images

If you've been avoiding CFLs because the spiral-shaped bulbs look weird in your fixtures, you're in luck. Most manufacturers have figured out how to hide the spirals in glass housings that are shaped like the bulbs we use today. (For the classic Edison shape and size, look for the term A19 on the packaging.) CFLs last 6,000 to 12,000 hours—a lot longer than the 750 to 1,500 hours you'll get from an incandescent—and use only a fraction of the energy. At $3 to $20, you'll pay slightly more for them but will quickly reap the benefits with lower energy bills. The availability of nonspiral and specialty-size CFLs was welcome news to the Titlows, who will use candelabra-style bulbs in a chandelier with glass and linen shades that will hang in their new family room.

In terms of looks, the only thing that's still a sticking point with CFLs is the ballast, the device that houses the bulb's circuitry. It's usually enclosed in plastic right above the screw-in base. "Some consumers think ballasts look bulky or distracting," says Arnold. Manufacturers are learning to make them more discreet; for now, opt for fixtures with shades that conceal them, like the Titlows' new chandelier.

For the new family room, the Titlows picked a chandelier from Troy Lighting, with shades that conceal candelabra-style CFLs from Bulbrite.

Your Fixtures May be Shortening the Life of Your CFLs

Energy Efficient Light Bulbs Photo by Ed Honowitz/Getty Images

By now, most of us know these bulbs will burn out quickly if they're turned on and off too frequently or placed in enclosed fixtures that don't let heat dissipate. But the same thing can happen if the bulb is installed upside down, with the ballast above the bulb. One theory is that excess heat from the bulb rises, potentially damaging the ballast components. "That's why many recessed CFL ceiling fixtures are designed with the bulbs oriented horizontally, not vertically," says Bergman, referring to U-shaped CFLs with prongs instead of screw-in bases. To avoid this potential pitfall, the Titlows chose fixtures with bulbs that are horizontal or upright.

LED Lightbulbs are Now Widely Available and They Look Great

Light-emitting diodes—technically, semiconductors that glow when a current runs through them—may already play a role in your house as the numbers in your digital alarm clock and the light source behind your flat-screen TV. You might even have LED puck lights for bright, direct undercabinet lighting. But today, manufacturers are turning out overhead lights that use LEDs, along with multidirectional LEDs that are housed in bulb-shaped coverings and suitable for lamps and everyday fixtures. They last a whopping 25,000 to 50,000 hours and use even less energy than CFLs, so experts think they'll make major inroads into the replacement-bulb market.

The Titlows are installing these low-profile, surface-mount LED panel fixtures from Philips on their kitchen ceiling, which is less than 7 feet high.

The Best Plan is to use Pricey LEDs Strategically

The extra-long life of LED bulbs was a big draw for the Titlows, but at about $25 or more per bulb, the couple couldn't afford to use them everywhere. Instead, they targeted the fixtures they leave on for hours at a time, like a lamp in their front foyer. In the kitchen, where exposed wood beams and an under-7-foot ceiling height left no room for recessed cans, they're putting in low-profile, surface-mount LED light panels made by Philips.

As of January 1, 2012, a modified version of this label will be required on all bulb packaging to help consumers make informed choices.

Yes, CFLs and LEDs are Dimmable but There's a Catch

Photo by Alison Rosa

If an efficient bulb is dimmable, it will say so on the packaging. CFLs can be dimmed to 15 to 20 percent of full brightness; LEDs are a bit better, adjustable to 10 to 15 percent. Both are a far cry from the barely there 1 percent that incandescents can achieve. If you're determined to get that glow from your efficient bulbs, switch out old dimmers for newer ones that are specially wired to work with the circuitry of these bulbs, lowering their brightness to a twinkly 1 percent. The Titlows are installing LED-compatible dimmers for their overhead kitchen lights. "We're glad to have the flexibility to turn these fixtures way down," says Becky.

Lutron's CL Dimmer is wired to work with dimmable CFLs and LEDs.

New, Easy-to-Read Labels Will Make Picking the Right Bulb a Snap

Starting in 2012, information labels similar to the one shown will be required on all bulb packaging, so we'll know exactly what we're buying. If you want a bulb that's as bright as a 60-watt incandescent, look for a brightness of 700 to 850 lumens; the higher the lumen count, the brighter the bulb. Light appearance (or color temperature), measured in kelvin, indicates how warm or yellowish the light is. Look for a number around 2,700 kelvin, roughly equal to that of an incandescent. (As a comparison, candlelight measures around 1,700 kelvin, and daylight, 6,500 kelvin.) A third figure, not on the label but often listed on the bulb maker's website, is the color rendering index (CRI). It ranges from 0 to 100 and measures how well a light illuminates colors. While incandescents rank close to a perfect 100, any bulb with a CRI of 80 to 90 suits all but the most discerning eyes and will let you see colors accurately.

As of January 1, 2012, a modified version of this label will be required on all bulb packaging to help consumers make informed choices.

If You love Incandescents, You Still Have Options - For Now

Photo by Keller + Keller

Halogen bulbs, which have been on the market for years, are incandescents with a pressurized capsule containing a tungsten filament and a small quantity of halogen gas. The technology allows the filament to emit more light per watt burned, resulting in about 25 percent less energy use during the bulb's life. Today you can find screw-in halogen bulbs that work with your existing fixtures; the packaging might read "incandescent that uses halogen technology." One example is Philips's EcoVantage bulb, which uses only 72 watts of energy to burn just as bright as a 100-watt incandescent.

And if you're still not wild about your options for efficient bulbs, you can probably wait things out a bit while your incandescents still work. "The technology's only getting better. Manufacturers are working hard on improvements," says Arnold.

Pictured: Homeowner Joe Titlow reviews fixture options with lighting designer Susan Arnold.