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Hannah Wilber

This article is the third installment in a series of tips and best practices for making your home more sustainable. Read the first article and the second article.

Lighting your home accounts for roughly 5% of its total energy usage—for the average U.S. family, that equates to around $110 each year. Luckily, switching to energy-efficient lighting is one of the fastest and easiest ways to reduce your energy consumption and keep more of that money in your pocket. 

Efficient lighting is so essential to a sustainable home that it can even count for up to two points in LEED BD+C: Homes if the project team is able to use energy-efficient fixtures and lamps to meet residents' illumination needs while reducing the home's total wattage from set baselines.

But for those of you looking to up your efficiency game without designing an entirely new home don't worry, you can still make a major difference with a few easy do-it-yourself changes, starting with your lightbulbs.

Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs)

You've probably seen those peculiarly spiral-shaped light bulbs on a recent trip to the grocery store. While their contours may have caught your eye, what you should really pay attention to is their energy-saving potential. Results vary slightly depending on design, but replacing the old lightbulbs in your house with CFLs dramatically reduces your energy consumption—ENERGYSTAR®-qualified CFLs use approximately 75% less energy than traditional incandescents! Plus, CFLs can last up to 10 times as long. While the initial cost may be higher, these bulbs pay for themselves in less than nine months, and continue to deliver energy savings long after.

The trick to getting the most out of your new CFLs is proper installation and maintenance. These bulbs are sensitive to extreme temperatures, so be sure to use them in open fixtures rather than enclosed or recessed ones, which reflect heat around the bulb and consequently reduce its lifespan. You'll also maximize your energy savings by keeping lights with CFLs on for at least 15 minutes at a time, something to keep in mind before you flip that switch to the "on" position.

Since CFLs do contain small amounts of mercury it is important to properly recycle them after use, and to take special precautions in the event that one breaks. Find tips on cleanup and safe disposal

Light-emitting diodes (LEDs)

LED bulbs are a more recent development in the world of efficient lighting. These bulbs use only 20-25% of the amount of energy consumed by incandescents, and they last approximately 25 times as long. Due to more durable designs, LEDs can be used both indoors and outside, and are available in a range of colors for anyone looking to add a little extra flare to their space.

While incandescents and CFLs emit light in all directions simultaneously, LEDs emit light in one specific direction. This enables them to be more efficient, but also means a little extra consideration has to go into how they are used or which particular LED bulb you buy. For example, you might not want to use an LED bulb in a table lamp, since the light will be directed straight toward the ceiling, unless you've purchased a bulb specifically designed to mimic the spherical light emission of CFLs.

As with CFLs, heat management is the most critical factor in ensuring the life of your LEDs—higher operating temperatures mean faster degradation, so it's important to be sure to purchase bulbs that are compatible with your fixtures. 

Picking the right bulb

Since CFLs and LEDs use so much less energy than traditional incandescents, knowing which bulbs will suit your lighting needs may take a little time to figure out. To match the light intensity of the bulbs you're replacing check the package of your new bulbs for lumens (an indicator of brightness), rather than watts (a measure of energy use). Use the chart below to get started.

WattsMinimum Lumens
40 450
60 800
75 1100
100 1600
150 2600

CFLs and LEDs also come in a variety of color temperatures, another thing to keep in mind when you're trying to decide which bulb is right for you. Color temperature is measured on the Kelvin scale, ranging between 2700K and 6500K. The lower the K value, the warmer the light (meaning it gives off a more yellow tone); the higher the K value, the cooler the light (giving off a more blue tone).

Dimmers and sensors

Want to take your lighting efficiency overhaul to the next level? Consider installing some of these features throughout your home to further maximize your energy savings.

  • Dimmers: dimming switches enable greater control over indoor lighting, rather than simply turning a light on or off. Dimming a light reduces its wattage and output, saving energy and increasing the lifespan of some lightbulbs. Check the packaging to make sure the lightbulbs you're using are compatible with the equipment you install
  • Occupancy Sensors: these devices automatically turn lights on when someone enters a room, and turn them off again after a short period of inactivity—perfect for those of us who just can't seem to remember to flip the switch once we leave the room. Sensors come in two varieties, ultrasonic (which detect sound) and infrared (which detect heat and motion). Just be sure to place your sensors where they will detect activity in every part of the room.
  • Photo Sensors: make sure your outdoor lights are only operating when you need them with photo sensors. This technology works by detecting ambient light levels, and turning lights on once the natural light becomes inadequate. Many outdoor LED lights actually have this feature built in already. 

Feeling inspired? I certainly hope so—despite all the jokes, changing a lightbulb is really an easy thing to do.

Now get out there and start lighting your way to a more energy-efficient home today!