Shelter: Eco Lighting

How many interior designers does it take to change an eco light bulb into something as attractive as

You might guess that Mount Baker-based eco architect Rob Harrison would be a zealot about energy-efficient lighting. But beneath his family’s roof, tucked in among the curly compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), a few energy-hogging incandescent light bulbs still glow. “You can’t create a mood” with energy-efficient lighting, Harrison says, so he reserves a few lamps for old-school bulbs. 

He’s not alone. Although energy-efficient CFLs last six to 10 times longer and use as much as 75 percent less energy than Edison’s old-school bulb, even eco consumers (including some of Harrison’s clients) balk at using them. “I think it’s primarily because of the questions of how flattering it is and how good it looks,” he says.

In fact, the glow of the old-fashioned “A” lamp, as professionals call it, is so appealing, fans have created a “Save the Incandescent Light Bulb” page on Facebook. But someday soon, even those holdouts will be forced to adapt: The U.S. government, following in the path of Australia and the European Union, is phasing out the use of inefficient bulbs, starting in 2012 with the 100-watt bulb. Energy-efficient lighting is in our future, so local home designers are trying to make it work—especially since interior lights are often the Northwest’s brightest hope as winter approaches.

Some promising light technologies, such as energy-saving LED lights (currently used primarily in manufacturing and retail), are more immediately appealing to the eye, but are usually too expensive, not bright enough or otherwise not yet ready for homewide use. But engineers have been steadily improving CFLs to create a clearer, more attractive light, without the buzz and flicker of the fluorescent tubes that started pinging on in American kitchens starting around the beginning of World War II. All fluorescent bulbs (old and newfangled) contain mercury, so contamination from broken bulbs is a concern, but the amount of mercury needed has been substantially reduced in recent years. (Still, consumers must dispose of the bulbs as hazardous waste.)

Even with such improvements, it can be hard for shoppers to sort through the terminology in the expanding energy-efficient lighting market. By mid-2011, a Federal Trade Commission program will help consumers choose between various incandescents, CFLs and LEDs with a nutrition-facts-style label that provides detailed information about a bulb’s quality and appearance.

Brian Hood, a Seattle-based lighting designer for high-end residences, says a couple of statistics on the new label will be particularly helpful for consumers. One is the color temperature (expressed in the scientific scale of Kelvin—for example, 1000K is approximately candlelight, an incandescent bulb is 2700K, daylight at high noon is 5000K), which offers a clue to whether a bulb sheds “warm” (lower numbers) or “cool” (higher numbers) light. (Think about how attractive you look in each of the aforementioned lights, and you get the idea.) Another is the bulb’s color rendering index (CRI) on a scale of 0 to 100. This measurement refers to how colors appear when lit by a particular bulb. Most people turned off by poor-quality fluorescents complain about their tendency to dull colors (including skin tones and eye colors). Hood recommends making sure the CRI number is above 82, preferably 85 or 86. Though the index goes up to 100, the designer says most people can’t perceive the difference in color rendering of bulbs above 90, so it’s not worth the added cost.

Hood also cautions that buying a CFL with a warmer color temperature that mimics incandescents is not always the best choice. “Everybody says the warmer, the better, but that’s not true,” he says. “Skin tones always look better under a warmer light. But [over] a kitchen countertop, the food and utensils—I believe that looks best at 3500K.” (In other words, a cooler light.) Hood is a fan of contemporary linear (or “tube”) fluorescent under-cabinet light fixtures, which he says don’t hum or buzz as in the old days, are even more efficient than curly fluorescents and light countertops beautifully. 

If all else fails, you can always repaint your walls. Janie Lowe at Portland paint company Yolo Colorhouse (yolocolorhouse.com), which specializes in no-VOC paints (with negligible amounts of volatile organic compounds—chemicals found in oil-based paints and solvents), suggests giving thought to how eco lighting affects paint colors. “The light definitely changes the way that color is perceived,” says Lowe. “It can intensify some colors, and some colors it can dull.” Lowe cautions that any color needs to be tested in the space, noting that under fluorescent lighting many yellows can feel acidic and some earthy greens are dulled. For customers wanting to use yellow or green, she often recommends a more neutral brownish yellow or a bright green. The clay family of colors—including terra cotta orange, brick red and chocolate brown—also works because these are rich enough to absorb any greenish tones in fluorescents. Lowe fields so many questions on this topic, in fact, that the company is considering developing a palette of colors that will stand up well to fluorescent light. 

Seems like a good idea, given that Lowe herself hasn’t fully converted her home to energy-efficient lighting. “I don’t have them everywhere,” she admits. “I feel like we should, and we need to, but we’re just too visual. Color is too important to have it be wrong.” 

With any luck, as technology improves, energy-efficient lighting will start to seem right—not just for the planet, but for our locally light-challenged dining rooms, living rooms and bedrooms, too. 

How to get the most out of your eco lighting:
Lighting Design Lab
A Seattle-based education and consulting firm that offers classes and a free green lighting design booklet:lightingdesignlab.com

Efficient Lighting Fixtures
A Seattle City Light and PSE-sponsored website to help consumers find efficient lighting fixtures room by room: elflist.com/index.html

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