A Home Inspector’s Weblog by Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

exploring homes and the lives in them around Houston

Heading Towards the Light- Part 2

Oh, give me a simple light bulb, but wait, there are so many choices. Not so long ago, we would install an incandescent bulb for all of our needs. With current concerns (environment, cost of energy, or some other), many of us have switched to compact fluorescent, but LEDs and halogens are on the scene as well.

About fifteen years ago, I was exposed to the myriad world of lights by being placed in charge of a facilities department of a store. The experience was a good exposure to various lighting systems, since this location used lights in various ways. I remember a former engineer from GE selling me on the idea of using compact fluorescents,which really were not too compact at that time. I discovered low voltage systems, and uses for halogens and LEDs. The residential market is making more use of these types of bulbs, so let me give you a brief overview.

Incandescents are still around, and they still have a place in the home. They are not energy efficient, but my favorite application for them is when I need a special shape or color to accent a fixture. They work well for general lighting. If you read the first post, you will see that I have a reason for having mentioned Casper Neher. Technology has not lead to the creation of more energy efficient bulbs in interesting shapes, so an incandescent will fill your needs here. If the fixture makes the outline of the bulb’s shape visible (or if you can plainly see the bulb), consider finding a bulb with a nice shape to fit. For example, in my dining room, I have some wall sconces that I do not use often, but during a party I want them to look nice, so I use a bulb in the shape of a flame. I have seen people use colored bulbs when making a fun statement with lighting. There are even frosted glass bulbs to help you create a look. You may not be looking at the fixture when it is on all the time, but heed Neher’s attention to detail to set the scene when you want when you want your guests to appreciate your home’s design.

Compact fluorescents have come a long way in the past few years, but I still have not seen their designs take on creative shapes (and coloring seems limited). Fluorescents come in warm white (WW on the bulb) and cool white (CW on the bulb). Most stores that sell fixtures will have a display with both lights. Hold a piece of fabric or color sample under the light to see how it effects your homes decoration. I have always preferred cool white, with the thought that I get a cleaner, crisper look under this light. Warm white produces what I think of as a cozy, intimate feel. Check it out to see what you think. Compact fluorescents need a ballast, which is built into the unit, but the fluorescent tubes have a ballast built into the fixture. When the ballast goes out in the fixture, you can replace it, but this is not the case for a compact unit. If no new bulb will work in the fixture for a tube fluorescent, it will be the ballast. I use these compact units wherever no one will see them, or the look is not so important.

Halogens are great for creating a spot of light. If you are using them in a general lighting scheme, you will find the need for many of them. Each bulb may use less wattage than an incandescent, but the number needed for a general lighting task may cause them to use more watts. I see these bulbs as great for task lighting, where you need a good pool of light in one area. These bulbs become very hot very fast. Any bulb will generate heat, but I am always cautious around halogens. Halogen light always seems to provide a slight rainbow effect to me. The center of the beam will be a pure white, with the edges showing other colors in the spectrum.

LEDs are just coming into residential use more often. They can provide a great deal of light with little energy. In fact, there are many battery operated fixtures. I used these lights to give me a clean, bright, focused light in dark work areas, so I still think of it as a task light, but it can be used as an accent light. I mainly seem them used under the top kitchen cabinets or as a sort of night light in a guest bath.

I think an explanation of some terms is in order. I see lights as divided into four groups: general, task, accent, and spot. General lighting is what you need on a day to day basis for living in your home. It is a light that shines on all corners. A task light is used for helping you illuminate an area for a certain task. For example, the light over a cooktop is a task light, but you could have a specific light for your food prep area or work desk. An accent light is used only to highlight a specific location in your home. An example would be a table lamp in a private nook. A spot light hits one specific point, like a painting. If you want to create an impression or make the best use of a light, you need to consider how the light will be used or if you need a better light for your needs. In my kitchen, I have a general light. Most people only use this fixture when working in their kitchen, but I block this light when I am at the counter chopping vegetables. I use a task light under a cabinet to help me for this job. However, I also switch this task light on when having a party, instead of the general lighting. I want a certain look to make people think what a pretty home, while also hiding in shadows parts of the kitchen which show that I have been working there to prepare the meal. I do not mean to confuse, but you should realize that maybe your lighting schemes could do double duty.

Low voltage systems first came into residential use for outdoors accent lights. Solar lights are becoming fashionable for this purpose, but I find that you have to be careful with the placement of the solar units, so they get enough sun to recharge. Now I see low voltage systems mainly used as accent lights in homes. The bulbs are usually LEDs or halogens. I have never seen them give off enough light for general lighting, but that could change soon.

When considering your lighting design, think about the fixture and you need for that light. Then go to a shop which has a variety of bulbs to see your choices. Maybe take some notes before you buy, to discover if the bulbs are the right ones for you. One fact that an engineer mentioned to me was that manufacturers of light bulbs expect a ten percent failure rate in their units within the first month. This means that a bulb may not work when installed or it will fail after installation during the first month. This statement might not be true, but when I replaced all of my bulbs to fluorescents in my new home, I had about a ten percent failure rate. Hopefully you will consider a new type of bulb for your home the next time that you shop. The next post will discuss how to set up lights for different uses.

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