How to Conserve Energy at Home
By Zolton Cohen
Electricity consumed for lighting typically constitutes just under 10 percent of the household energy budget. One way to reduce that number is to replace frequently used incandescent lights with compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs. These long-lasting bulbs use about one third of the power required to produce the same amount of light that is produced by a standard incandescent bulb.
CFLs offer other advantages, too. Standard incandescents give off a substantial amount of heat. Just ask someone who has tried to unscrew a blown bulb with bare fingers after it has failed. That heat, while perhaps welcome in the winter, adds to the cooling load during the summer. And a hot bulb is a mark of inefficiency. Any electricity used to produce heat is not going toward the production of illumination. On the other hand, CFLs run cool; they don't contribute to heating load and can be used safely in any fixture that can handle an incandescent -- except those controlled by a dimmer switch.
Older versions of CFLs had a few problems, such as unattractively colored light, noise, flickering, and slow startup. Those issues have largely been resolved in the bulbs currently on the market. The light color is similar to that produced by an incandescent bulb, and electronic ballasts produce flicker-free and noiseless light. Moreover, the new bulbs start right up when switched on -- though they may require a few minutes to achieve full brightness. New CFL bulb shapes mean you can put a CFL anywhere an incandescent can go; the bulb shapes have become more compact and "standard-size" over the years.
The price of CFLs has fallen in recent years as well, from double digits to under three dollars each when purchased in multi-packs or on sale. That's still more than incandescents, but with a projected bulb life of as much as 10,000 hours compared to an incandescent's 800 to 1,000.
So in the long run they're a bargain. Plus they save a lot of electricity along the way. An 11-watt model can replicate the light produced by a 60-watt incandescent. That's a savings of 49 watts per hour of operation! Multiply that by the number of lights in your home and their hours of operation, and you'll quickly realize that CFLs are not only the light of the future but also of today.
Another way to cut down on the amount of energy consumed for lighting tasks is to increase the use of daylight for illumination. Skylights used to be the only pathway through which natural light could enter rooms near the center of a house. But new products on the market, "light tubes," "sun tubes," or "tubular skylights," have proven to offer many of the benefits skylights bring to the table, and at lower cost.
Light tubes consist of a flexible metal tube that connects a light-gathering dome on top of the house and a light-emitting dome inside the house. Daylight hits the exterior dome and is beamed inside the shiny tube. It bounces around there and comes out through the ceiling-mounted dome. On bright days a light tube can produce more light than a 100-watt bulb.
Because of their modest size and flexibility, light tubes can be installed between standard framing members, requiring no cutting (and thus no re-supporting) of those members. The dome that mounts on the roof is supplied with flashing that integrates with the existing roofing, and the interior dome mounts in a simple hole cut into the ceiling. Because light tubes are not as large as most skylights, the heat loss at night is less by comparison.
Although light tubes work only during daylight hours (and not as well on cloudy days), some brands offer optional light fixtures inside so the dome can be used at any time of the day or night. Still, these products offer an interesting and energy-efficient option for continuous daylight illumination of areas of the home that might otherwise remain dark.
Motion sensors, either built into a light fixture or retrofitted as an add-on to a bulb socket, are usually associated with outdoor applications. And they work well for that purpose. Before motion-sensing lights were invented, homeowners wishing for greater security outside their homes were forced into leaving on outdoor lights all night to illuminate garages, barns, and back doors. That burned up a lot of electricity. Now motion detectors can provide you with illumination when you need it and allow for energy-saving darkness when you don't.
Outdoor lights that come on suddenly due to an activation of the motion sensor can also surprise and thus deter thieves. When someone is caught in the beam of a suddenly illuminated landscape, he or she doesn't know whether the light came on because of a motion sensor or because someone has flicked on a floodlight switch.
Motion-sensing lights can also alert a homeowner that an intruder is passing through a yard. It might only be a neighbor's cat, but sometimes the backyard light suddenly coming on can reveal unexpected occurrences. Virtually any exterior lighting fixture can be upgraded to motion-sensor light status with a simple adapter.
Another benefit to installing motion-sensing lights outside your home is the safety they can provide in lighting your way as you walk to and from your garage. The lights allow you to become aware of any potentially dangerous circumstances and also to illuminate walkways and sidewalks so you can avoid obstructions.
Motion-sensing lights are increasingly making their way inside the home as well. They're handy for places like the landing area at a back door, where you might often enter with your hands full. Closets and pantries are also good candidates for motion-sensor light adapters. You're usually bringing something into or removing something from those areas, so trying to switch on or switch off an overhead light can be challenging. And since the light is only on when you're in those specific areas, the bulb doesn't burn for any longer than necessary -- and that saves electricity.
Low-Voltage Exterior Lighting
If you'd like your outdoor landscape to be illuminated at night for safety or for aesthetic reasons, there are ways to do it that don't require much electrical power. One product that is popular for such applications is low-voltage lighting.
While low-voltage lights won't illuminate the entire side of a house or reach to the deepest stretches of a lot like a line-voltage system (120 volts) can, they can guide the way up front steps or along a walkway, or they can accent a landscape feature without making the electric meter spin too rapidly. Another benefit is that, because they are dimmer than line-voltage systems, they don't contribute to light pollution, and neighbors are unlikely to complain that the downward-facing lights keep them awake at night.
Many low-voltage outdoor lighting systems operate at 12 volts, which makes the installation safe for use when children or pets are around. There is no shock hazard should a wire get cut accidentally. Because the lights can be easily moved around the yard, you can change the display to suit the season, adding or subtracting lights as needed. For even better energy performance, putting the system on a timer turns off the lights when they aren't likely to be needed and on when they are.
Solar-powered landscape lights, which cost nothing to operate, are also available. Installation involves pushing the support stake into the ground. Each light is equipped with a small solar panel on top and a rechargeable battery and bulb inside. The panel charges the battery during the day, and the light stays on all night. Some solar landscape lighting is equipped with bright and high-efficiency LED (light emitting diode) lights for lower energy consumption, durability, and longer-lasting performance.
Every little step you take helps you to save energy and lower your utility bills. In the next section, we'll have even more tips to help you conserve energy in your home.