Bright Lights Made Easy: Make Your Home Lighting More Energy Efficient

Lime Energy makes it easy for small businesses to upgrade to more efficient lighting, but small business employees don’t have the same luxury for their homes. Making your home more efficient doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are some tips to help you enjoy the benefits of energy efficiency on the job and at home.

Inspired by my recent home purchase (and by a similar, useful article by Vox’s Timothy Lee), I set out to replace the lighting in my home and write about it. My hope is that narrating my own efforts to navigate the confusing landscape of lighting options can help others doing the same.

The benefits of LED bulbs are written everywhere on this website. New lights are brighter, last longer (up to 20 years!), and use much less electricity than older incandescent bulbs. While they cost a little more upfront, they save you money in the long term, often repaying their value after the first year. Based on back of the envelope calculations and assuming average usage and electricity rates, I expect my new lights to save me about $122 every year. And I don’t expect to replace these LED lights until 2036.

Even with all of these benefits, energy efficiency is not always easy. To an uninformed buyer, there are simply too many choices and too many decisions. How many lumens do I want? Will this bulb work on a dimmer switch? Following these five simple steps will help simplify the process.

1. Identify the fixtures you want to upgrade.

This one is the easiest. Walk around your house and find any fixtures that could benefit from new LED bulbs. Make note of any enclosed fixtures you want to upgrade. You will want to buy ventilated bulbs for your enclosed fixtures to prevent overheating. While LED bulbs have a much longer life than incandescent bulbs (again, 20 years!), heat is one of the things that can shorten that life. And although LED bulbs produce a lot less heat than their incandescent cousins (this is what makes them efficient), they still produce enough heat to warm up an enclosed space. For this reason, avoid buying LED bulbs for areas that are regularly hot (alongside your fireplace, for example) and check labels for bulbs designed for enclosed fixtures.

The lighting tour of my house took only a few minutes. I wanted to replace the old bulbs in the recessed can fixtures upstairs – ten bulbs. I installed a new fixture for the bathroom above the vanity – three bulbs. I also bought three new enclosed interior fixtures and three new enclosed exterior fixtures that each needed ventilated bulbs. That’s 19 total LED lights to purchase. That number doesn’t include the new high hats already installed by my contractor in the living room, dining room, and kitchen (14 total, all LED already – hooray). That number also doesn’t include the four bulbs in my basement. It is still creepy and dirty down there so I’m rarely down there at night. I didn’t feel the need to replace the lights I hardly use and you shouldn’t either.

2. Determine the brightness of the old bulbs.

In the old days (like 2010) you could just determine the wattage of your dead bulbs and replace them with new bulbs of similar wattage. Swap a new 40W bulb for your old 40W bulb and you were all set. But watts are a measure of energy consumption, not brightness. And you are buying LEDs because they consume less energy and therefore have lower wattage. A more accurate way to determine brightness is to use lumens. A brighter lightbulb produces more lumens of light. As the Department of Energy explains, lumens are to light what pounds are to bananas or gallons are to milk. Once you have identified which bulbs you want to replace, locate the wattage on those bulbs. For a 40W incandescent bulb, you will want to replace it with an LED bulb that produces about 450 lumens. A 60W LED replacement should produce about 800 lumens, a 75W replacement should give about 800 lumens, and for a 100W equivalent, look for about 1600 lumens. Of course, if you want brighter or dimmer, feel free to adjust your lumens up or down and don’t feel wedded to precisely 450 or 800 lumens. The difference between 800 and 815 lumens will be minimal. Also, lighting manufacturers usually include the wattage equivalent on LED packaging to simplify the process – use this information as guidance not gospel and remember that lumens are more precise.

The flood lightbulbs I purchased for the upstairs recessed lighting produce 650 lumens. I opted for brighter lights for the bathroom (800 lumens), entryway and exterior lights (815 lumens). For whatever reason, ventilated bulbs for 60W enclosed fixtures seem to produce 815 lumens while regular LEDs produce 800 lumens. I’m not sweating the difference.

3. Choose your desired warmth.

Just like brightness, choosing your preferred color temperature will affect the appearance of your new lights. Color temperature, the warmth of your lights, is expressed on the Kelvin (K) scale. Warm lights, the yellowish to reddish colors that come from traditional incandescent lights, have a lower color temperature, usually below 5000 K. Cooler lights, a more blue-hued light that is similar to daylight or florescent light bulbs, have color temperatures above 5000 K. Homeowners tend to prefer the softer glow of warm LED lights. If that’s you, look for bulbs in the 2700 to 3000 K range. If you like your home to have the same feel as a sunny day or an office building, you’ll want to find bulbs closer to 5500 K. There are two important things to remember when choosing warmth. First, not all LED bulbs have that painfully blue color adopted for LED street lights or first generation LED string lights – the appearance can be remarkably similar to your old bulbs. And second, don’t confuse brightness for warmth. You can get a soft, orange-y light that is just as bright as a cooler bulb. More lumens equal brighter lights; more K does not.

In my experience, most bulb manufacturers only give you two options – soft white or daylight. If you want warm lights, they will be labeled 2700 K. Cooler lights will be labeled 5000 K. And if you want a color temperature elsewhere on the spectrum, you may have to shop around. The dimmable lights I bought also come with a feature where their color temperature gets warmer the more they are dimmed – as I turn them off, they go from 2700 K (on), to 2400 K (dimmer), to 2200 K (dimmest). This is an unnecessary feature and one I hadn’t even noticed until I looked at the packaging, but if you want extra warm lights when they are at their dimmest, this option may suit your needs.

4. Decide how awesome you want your bulbs to be.

Not all LED bulbs are created equal, even those with the same brightness and color temperature. If you desire any of these features, look at the bulb and the packaging to make sure they fit your home.

Dimmable – Not all LEDs work on a dimmer switch. If you plan on dimming your lights, buy bulbs that say they will work on a dimmer.

Filament – LED bulbs don’t require a filament to produce light like their incandescent ancestors. Furthermore, the bulbs themselves often have a cloudy, translucent appearance. You won’t be able to see the filament unless you buy special bulbs for this look. So if you want that retro, Edison-bulb style look, you may need to shop around for the best looking option.

Shape – Some LED bulbs, especially bulbs manufactured a few years ago, have some funky shapes. If you are particular about the shape of your bulbs, there are plenty of LEDs to suit your needs as long as you are careful.

I went for medium awesomeness for my bulbs. The lights for my bedrooms are on a dimmer switch, so I opted for dimmable bulbs. I was pleasantly surprised that most of the LED options qualified. I also have a fixture that came with Edison-style incandescent bulbs. I replaced my other lights, but I didn’t like the filament-style look of the available options at my local store. I’m still shopping for the right look to replace my current, less-efficient lamps with LEDs that still maintain that retro style. I will probably buy them online where I have a wider range of choice.

5. Check for incentives and shop away.

The final remaining step is to check for potential savings opportunities. Many utilities offer incentives to residential customers who are upgrading to LED lights. My utility, for example, has an online marketplace offering about 20 different discounted LED bulbs, some for as low as $2. Few of the available discounted bulbs fit my particular needs, but when I replace some of my other fixtures, the utility incentives will be much appreciated. Don’t forget that if you own a commercial property, utilities offer great incentives for those as well. After you have investigated potential incentives, head to your desired lighting retailer – local hardware store, big box store, online shop – and pick out the bulbs you want. Expect to spend anywhere between $5 (more common) and $12 (for your fancier or more unique options). All of the bulbs I bought cost between $5 and $7. If you need many of the same light, multi-packs will save you at least a dollar or two per bulb.

I bought my lights at the big box store down the street. My options were more limited but I saved time and still got the lights I wanted – dimmable, warm, and with the proper brightness. I spent $103 dollars on my bulbs and with the $122 I should save in year one, I expect to see a positive return on my investment after only 10 months. By the time I replace these lights, they should save me close to $3,000, as long as they last the projected 25,000+ hours. Even after writing 1,600 words on upgrading my lighting this still seems like a stunningly high savings total. My fixtures look great and I’m already saving money. Hopefully my advice helps you do the same.

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