An illuminating website

Like many other aspects of home design, options for lighting have proliferated over the past decade

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Like many other aspects of home design, options for lighting have proliferated over the past decade or so. Even buying a light bulb isn’t as simple as it used to be. In fact, the incandescent type invented by Thomas Edison soon will be a thing of the past.

In May, to address aesthetics, energy efficiency and effectiveness, the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy launched an interactive website for homeowners, contractors and builders that can help them choose the right light bulbs and fixtures. The project is funded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority in an effort to reduce the amount of energy that New Yorkers use and help meet Gov. Cuomo’s energy goals for the state.

The site, Lighting Patterns for Homes (found at, is an updated version of “The Lighting Pattern Book for Homes,” (1993) written in large part by Russ Leslie, associate director of the LRC. The Web-based version allows users to customize spaces and fixtures and see what effects different fixtures and bulbs would have on the lighting of rooms and their utility bills.

“Selecting lighting can be a daunting experience for many people who aren’t tuned into it,” Leslie said. The website lets users be as simple or as sophisticated about the information they want to learn, and it introduces consumers to lighting terminology and options. When a person brings up the home page, he can select from three options to start — rooms, equipment and techniques.

From general to specific

“What we’re aiming for on the pages is to go from the most general information at the top to the most specific at the bottom,” said Jeremy Snyder, the LRC’s director of energy programs. Users can get a rough idea about lighting a space or delve into the details of comparing energy costs.

Getting the best lighting for a space is about more than walking through the lighting aisle at the home-improvement store. The type of lighting used depends on its purpose. “Typically in lighting, we talk about three different types of lighting — ambient, task and accent,” said Karl Pedersen, director of the Energy Services Group at Wolberg Electrical Supply in Albany who served on the focus group for the creation of the website.

Once a person selects the type of light, he can look at what options fulfill that. “As a lighting designer, what this tool brings to us and brings to the general public is an awareness that there are three different types of lighting and it talks about how to use these to create a 3-D space so that you’re not just sticking a light fixture into the middle of the room and shooting light all over the place,” Pedersen said.

Options for 36 situations

The LRC designed the website to give homeowners templates for 36 of the most common residential rooms and spaces, including living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms, garages, home offices, basements, bathrooms, hallways and exteriors. Within each type of room, homeowners can choose the spaces — small, medium or large — that most closely resemble their own homes. The website will show a view with traditional lighting and also with improved lighting design. For example, a person could see the effects of using a compact fluorescent light (CFL) versus a light emitting diode (LED) light, the two primary choices for upgrading lighting to make it more energy-efficient. It will show different options — such as installing different fixtures, rewiring or remodeling — that all could be done on an existing home.

In addition to addressing what a space will look like with various lighting options, the website also examines how much energy will be used with different options. This is important information considering that 13 percent of electricity consumption in a home comes from lighting, according to the United States Energy Information Administration.

“This was funded by NYSERDA, and one of their primary goals is to see energy savings,” Snyder said. “We’re hoping that this guidance is going to lead people to more efficient lighting in their homes and at the same time provide high-quality lighting that meets their needs.”

With the new federal lighting standards that went into place with the Energy Independence and Energy Security Act of 2007, homeowners will have many more lighting options available to them as old bulbs are phased out. “You’re going to be overwhelmed with the different choices,” Moore said.

The LRC’s website helps to educate consumers on these choices and explains the differences between them. For example, a CFL bulb uses 75 percent less energy than an incandescent light bulb and lasts from 5 to 7 years. Moore points out that the CFL bulbs have improved since they first came on the market two decades ago. They used to take a long time to turn on, and they would flicker. That’s not the case with the new versions. They also use less mercury than they used to, Moore said. Replacing five lights with CFLs provides an energy savings of $60 per year, he said.

The LEDs, comparable in energy use to CFLs, are the most expensive option up front (but prices are dropping, according to Moore), but they are mercury-free and last up to 20 years.

Moore also points out that Energy Star bulbs come with a warranty, a minimum of two years for CFLs and three years for LEDs.

Payback calculator

To help consumers see energy savings, the website has a calculator that shows detailed results on the payback period, pollution reduction and energy savings for a particular option. The results are customizable, too.

Complicating the adoption of newer lighting technology is the difference in the labeling of light bulbs. Traditional incandescent light bulbs are measured in watts, which represents the electricity used. LEDs and CFLs are labeled according to their lumens, or units of luminous flux, which refers to the brightness of the light.

Watts and lumens are not equal. For example, 60 watts is equal to approximately 800 lumens, and a 75-watt bulb approximately 1,100 lumens. The more lumens, the brighter the light. Moore said that some manufacturers are putting these equivalencies on their packages to help consumers, but not all do. The LRC’s website explains those differences and equivalencies.

The website is loaded with all kinds of other educational information to benefit consumers, including how to select a dimmer, how to choose which bulbs to replace first, how to read the packaging information on a light bulb and a video on how to install an LED retrofit kit.

NYSERDA’s funding includes two annual updates for the website, which is important considering how quickly LEDs are changing, Leslie said.

Although the LRC cannot answer consumers’ specific lighting questions, staff would like to hear from people who use the website to upgrade the lighting in their homes. “We hope they take before-and-after pictures and send them along to us with a description of the project,” Snyder said.

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