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Lighting: When No Bulb is the Best Bulb

Creative use of paint, task lighting, and other ideas can fill in lighting gaps and save electricity in your home.

Cheap energy has brought us ugly light -- ceiling lamps that flatten rooms by casting out every shadow. Yet before the invention of the lightbulb, people found inventive and aesthetically pleasing ways to light their homes and supplement candles and lamps, which were expensive to fuel. Ancient Egyptians used mirrors to reflect sunlight deep into the interior of the pyramids. And the white marble, high-arched porticoes and reflecting pools of Moorish architecture scattered light deep within buildings. Optics are the same whether you live in a palace or a bungalow, so as you replace your next burnt-out bulb, consider the following alternatives:

A fresh coat of a soft white interior paint will not only renew the look of your interior but will help bounce light further into your home. "The glossier, the shinier the paint the more light it will reflect," says David Bergman, founder of David Bergman Architects and Fire & Water, a lighting and furniture design firm. "A completely flat paint is easier to put on the wall, but if you put at least a bit of a sheen -- like an eggshell finish -- that will help a bit." And you don’t need to avoid color, but Bergman recommends using deeper colors as an accent surface, for example on a single wall or column -- after all, there’s no law that says every wall in a room must be the same color.

Living in a dimly lit New York apartment for years, the only sunlight that actually made it inside was that reflected off of my neighbors’ windows. However when the sun set the results could be striking as fiery reds filled the space. Well placed mirrors can take advantage of the sun at different points on its daily path, bouncing dawn light into dim rooms or scattering afternoon light from skylights through a living room. It's worth experimenting with a lightweight mirror or two to see where they work best before you buy more. For aesthetic reasons, Bergman recommends avoiding large mirrored spaces but thinks framed mirrors can be beautiful.

Task lighting
"Use of multiple sources of light is big because it allows you to put light where you need it," notes Bergman. "And it makes for a much more pleasing room -- a single source of light makes the room very dull in most cases." In many cases a desk lamp or floor lamp with a lower wattage bulb will do the job as well as if not better than overhead lighting with high wattage bulbs. For a study, kitchen and garage workspaces it's more important for the task at hand to be illuminated properly than for the entire room to be flooded with light. Often a compact fluorescent will serve well for this purpose. However, Bergman points out that lighting controls are important -- particularly dimmers which will help save energy. Most CFLs can't be dimmed so look for "dimmable" on the package. And it’s worth keeping in mind that aging eyes need more light for reading tasks, a limit that office lighting specialists are running up against.

Indirect light
Compact fluorescent lights generally lack the full warmth of incandescents, but it's interesting to note that they are much more commonly deployed in homes in Asia -- where indirect lighting is standard -- than in the United States. Bergman says that he employs indirect or cove lighting above kitchen cabinets and has used shelves near the top of the living room walls because it creates a very pleasing ambient light. "You would use it with task lighting," he says, adding that such light "gives you another tool and if it’s dimmable, with a reading lamp, it can be more efficient way to light a space."

Although not common yet in homes, many offices use "light shelves" -- horizontal surfaces usually above eye level that serve to bounce sunlight further into the a building. They are best used in tall windows where they won’t block views and exterior shelves have the advantage of blocking direct light during the same which helps reduce solar gain.

Blinds and drapes…and flooring
Although we usually use blinds to keep light out of our homes, it's important to remember to pull them back up when the sun is out instead of reflexively reaching for the switch. If you have wood flooring or tiles that reflect light, don't cover them up with carpets -- allow sunlight to bounce off the floor up into the room. For that matter, in dark halls leave a door open on a room that gets good sunlight. Some people also use birdbaths or fountains outside of windows to reflect their rippling light indoors, though these obviously require more maintenance and are a matter of taste.

Finally, shadows aren't always a bad thing. The human eye is very capable of distinguishing forms and colors even in low light and it's not always necessary to flip a switch as you putter about picking up after the kids or retrieve a book you want to read in bed.

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Paul McRandle edits NRDC's Smarter Living and Smarter Cities websites. He previously served as the deputy editor of National Geographic's Green Guide magazine, which won a Min Hottest Launch Award in 2008. He has spent much of the last decade encoura... READ MORE >
I didn't see a mention of solar tube lights. There are even fiber optic connected lighting. I have 2 solar tube lights and they let in pure sunlight yet becuase of the relection in the tube don't pass Ir or UV so no heat (IR) and no fading materials (UV). Sure they don't work at night, but they are back on early in the morning with no energy use or heat. I also use only LED lights that are very efficient and don't make heat. A light that really is a light.