Creative Uses of Fluorescent Lighting

Energy-efficient fluorescent lighting need no longer play second fiddle to incandescents.

September 01, 2004
September/October 2004
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2004 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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                                Researchers and public policy advocates have long known that fluorescent lighting saves energy and reduces atmospheric pollution, but public acceptance of this technology has been slow to grow. Many people still hold negative impressions about fluorescent lighting that are based on longoutdated lighting technologies (see “Lighting Technologies,” p.15).With current lighting technologies and lighting designs, today’s energy-efficient lighting systems can enhance the appearance of homes.
        In 2002, to encourage more widespread use of energy-efficient lighting, the Lighting Research Center (LRC) specified several energy-efficient lighting effects in a designer showcase home in the upscale community of Saratoga Springs,New York, and opened the home to public tours. In designing the lighting systems for this home,we strove to minimize glare and use improved color rendering lamps (lightbulbs) and ballast technology. Soffits and valances were used to integrate the lighting with the home’s architectural features. In most decorative fixtures, CFLs replaced incandescent lamps.
        The Lighting Research Center surveyed the opinions of 400 visitors over the course of three weekends. These visitors replied to general questions comparing the house to ten others in the designer showcase tour.A second questionnaire was distributed to 27 paid experimental subjects who were asked to compare the lighting in the demonstration house with that in an otherwise similar home equipped with incandescent lighting.This comparison home was located on a nearby street, built by the same builder, in a similar traditional architectural style and size, and had been used in a previous showcase of homes. Survey respondents were not told that they were evaluating energy-efficient lighting.
        Both random visitors and paid subjects rated the energy-efficient lighting not merely as high as the incandescent lighting, but in fact, even higher! Visitors rated the attributes of energy-efficient lighting as equivalent or better on all questions, including those on color appearance, brightness and dimness, shadows, humming sound, light distribution, appearance of people, flicker, visual comfort, visibility, and overall appearance of the home. Nearly 90% of the respondents said that they would like to have this type of lighting in their house.
        What follows are tips for making energy-efficient lighting effective and attractive in the home.To maximize energy savings, these techniques should be applied in areas where homeowners spend most of their time, such as in the kitchen, family room, or living room.

One-for-One Substitutions

        For general lighting, many homeowners use surface-mounted diffusers— ceiling-mounted diffusers, pendants, and wall sconces—that send light in all directions.Although incandescent fixtures are most common, fluorescent lamps are ideally suited for diffuse light distribution.When selecting a new fixture, consider choosing one that allows for some ventilation rather than one that is tightly enclosed, as high operating temperatures can degrade the electronic circuitry. Many styles of residential surface-mounted light fixtures are now available that meet Energy Star specifications. For the latest list of light fixtures with the Energy Star label, go to
        Energy Star light fixtures typically operate pin-based CFLs.Alternatively, homeowners can use screw-based CFLs in their plug-in table lamps or diffusing hard-wired fixtures. CFLs now come in a wide range of wattages and sizes; a few are even designed to be operated with a standard incandescent dimmer (see “CFL Dos and Don’ts”).

Architectural Integration

        To make fluorescent lighting attractive in the home, integrate uplighting with such architectural features as cabinetry and vaulted ceilings. Uplighting allows light to bounce off the ceiling or walls before it reaches the eye (see photos, p. 14 and 15). Using the architecture to diffuse light will enhance the appearance of the home to create a pleasant, glare-free environment. However, these strategies will work only with light paint colors and matte finishes; dark colors will absorb the light, and glossy finishes will create glaring reflections. Examples of architecturally integrated lighting are valances, soffits, and coves.These effects may require custom wood trim in order to conceal the lamp and promote an architecturally integrated appearance.

Recessed Downlights

        Recessed downlights are currently very popular in homes (see “Recessed Lighting in the Limelight,”HE Jan/Feb ‘04, p. 12).There are cases in which CFL recessed downlights are an appropriate strategy to use for general lighting. Downlights provide good general lighting in rooms with dark, nonreflective colors on their walls. Some homes have low ceilings that preclude the use of uplighting. Or some homeowners may simply want to avoid having surfacemounted
light fixtures in view.Although recessed downlights are not the best use of fluorescent lights, they are more energy efficient than incandescents when used for general lighting. For recessed lighting in shower areas, choose products that have the damp or wet rating required in your area.Although recessed CFLs are appropriate in some cases for general lighting, they should not be used for accent lighting.

Accent Lighting

        Accent lighting fixtures, such as recessed adjustable downlights or surface-mounted track lighting, can help to draw attention to displays of cherished possessions (see photo, p. 17). In order to use lighting to accent objects, there must be a ratio of 3:1 or higher between the brightness of an object and the background. (Brightness is measured using a luminance meter, in units of candelas per square meter.) To maximize visual impact and minimize energy use, accent lighting should be used sparingly, and should be operated by means of a separate switch or dimmer.
        When the goal is to highlight special objects and not light the surrounding environment, incandescent accent lighting is actually the most energy-efficient solution. Reflectorized incandescent lamps more effectively focus the light on a small area, without spilling light on surrounding surfaces. Fluorescent lighting is diffuse, not directional, which makes it ideal for general lighting, but not appropriate for accent lighting. In order to achieve equivalent light levels in a small area using fluorescent lamps, more watts are necessary, and most of the light would be wasted when absorbed by baffles.

Task Lighting

        In the home, people engage in many visually intensive—and sometimes dangerous—tasks, such as chopping food in the kitchen, operating tools, stepping out of the shower, or simply reading.These are instances where task lighting can not only improve visibility but also promote safety. Fluorescent task lights are especially appropriate, because they provide diffuse light and do not burn the skin or other materials when accidentally touched.When providing any kind of lighting, it is important to prevent a direct view of the lamp to minimize glare.
        Although these fluorescent lighting techniques may cost more to install than incandescents, they are a good choice for high-use spaces such as kitchens and living rooms. Homeowners who use them can save money over time and can enhance the appearance of their homes.

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