How to Go Green: Lighting

Light coming in from a skylight onto a plant

Layton Diament / Unsplash 

With reporting by Manon Verchot

How we light up the places we live and work makes a big impact on how we feel. It also makes a big impact on the environment. The kind of bulbs, the kind of fixtures, the kind of power, and the habits we keep can all add up to a very significant greening. Start with the fact that a conventional incandescent bulb turns only around five to ten percent of its consumed energy into light, the rest goes out as heat. From there, there's no limit to how green your lighting can be.

Choose the Right Bulbs

CFL Bulbs

Compact florescent bulbs (CFLs) are those swirley little guys that look like soft-serve ice cream cones. Actually, they come in a myriad of different shapes, sizes, and colors of light. Economically speaking, they're a great deal, too. CFLs cost a bit more than an incandescent, but use about a quarter as much energy and last many times longer (usually around 10,000 hours). It is estimated that a CFL pays for its higher price after about 500 hours of use. After that, it's money in your pocket. Also, because CFLs release less heat, not only are they safer, but your cooling load is less in the summer. CFLs aren't hard to find anymore, and many cities will give them away for free. Wal-Mart has plans to sell 100 million of them.

LED Bulbs

LEDs are a definite TreeHugger favorite. LEDs, or light emitting diodes, are a technology that allows for extremely energy efficient and extremely long-lasting light bulbs. LEDs are just starting to hit the consumer market in a big (read affordable) way and still cost quite a bit more than even CFLs, but use even less energy and last even longer. An LED light bulb can reduce energy consumption by 80-90% and last around 100,000 hours. They even light up faster than regular bulbs (which could save your life it there are LEDs in the brake lights of your car). They are almost always more expensive presently, but we have seen the cost go down steadily. It's no coincidence that the Millennium Technology Prize went to the inventor of the LED.

Most LED lamps on the market have the bulbs built into them, so you buy the whole unit. For screw-in bulbs, check out Ledtronics, Mule, and Enlux. For desk lamps, check out a few affordable ones from Sylvania and Koncept. For more designer models, look at LEDs from Herman Miller and Knoll. Vessel rechargeable accent lamps represent some of the interesting new things LEDs can do as well.

Use Recycled Materials

Light isn't all about the bulbs, though. Having eco-friendly lamps and light fixtures is key to greening your lighting. When scouting for new gear, keep your eyes out for lamps made with natural, recycled, or reused materials. Lights made from recycled materials include metal, glass, or plastic, and natural materials can include felt, cloth or wood. Interesting lamps that use reclaimed materials include these made from traffic signal lenses, and these made from wine bottles. Also, don't be shy about borrowing ideas for reuse in your own projects (see DIY).

Dispose of Bulbs Properly

Fluorescents last a long time, but when they're dead, they have to be properly disposed of. CFLs, like all florescent bulbs, do contain a small amount of mercury, which means they definitely can't be thrown in the trash. Every city has different services for recycling, so you'll need to see what's offered in your area. LEDs, to our knowledge, do not contain mercury, but the jury may still be out on how to best recycle them.

Unplug Power Strips

Power adaptors, or "wall warts" as they're affectionately called, are those clunky things you find on many electrical cords, including those attached to lamps and some light fixtures. You'll notice that they stay warm even when their device is turned off. This is because they in fact draw energy from the wall all the time. One way to green your lighting is to unplug their wall warts when not in use, attached lights to a power strip and turn off the whole switch when not in use, or get your hands on a "smart" power strip that knows when the devise is off.

Make Use of Sunlight

By far, the best source of light we know is (yes, you guessed it) the sun, which gives off free, full-spectrum light all day. Make the most of daylight by keeping your blinds open (sounds obvious but you might be surprised). If you want to go a little farther, put in some skylights, or, of you are designing a home or doing a renovation, put as many windows on the south-facing side of the house as possible (or north-facing if you live in the southern hemisphere). To take it even further, sunlight can be "piped" inside via fiber optics and other light channeling technologies. [for more on light piping, check out: 1, 2, 3, 4]

Be Diligent About Turning Lights Off

As efficient as your lighting equipment might be, it doesn't make sense to have lights on when no one's around. Turn out lights in rooms or parts of the house where no one is. Teach your family and friends about it too and it will become second nature. If you want to get a little more exact, follow these rules:
Standard incandescent: turn off even if you leave the room for just seconds. Compact fluorescent: turn off if you leave the room for 3 minutes. Standard fluorescent: turn off if you leave the room for 15 minutes.

Make Your Own Green Light Fixture

We're always encouraging people to take matters into their own hands. So much great eco-innovation comes when people create the things they can't find elsewhere. Lighting is an especially accessible and rewarding thing to tackle. For some inspiration, check out the Cholesterol lamp made from cast-off plastic egg cartons, and the recycled Tube Light. Strawbale building pioneer Glen Hunter made some LED fixtures when he couldn't find any he liked on the market. Eurolite, the company from which he bought the lighting components, liked his designs so much they decided to sell them.

Use Dimmers and Motion Sensors

Motion sensors can be a good way to keep lights turned off when they're not needed, and dimmers can give you just the right amount of life, and timers can be set to turn things on and off when needed.

Buy Green Power

A great way to green your lighting is to buy green power. More and more electric utilities are offering customers a green power option on their bill. Signing up for green power usually means paying a few more dollars a month to support energy in the grid that comes from renewable sources like wind, solar, or biogas. For some more info on how to get green juice, look here, and for the greenest grids in the States, look here.

Green Lighting Statistics

  • 10 percent: The percentage of global electricity saved by switching to entirely efficient lighting systems, according to a report published by the International Energy Agency (IEA). The carbon dioxide emissions saved by such a switch would dwarf cuts so far achieved by adopting wind and solar power.
  • 19 percent: The percentage of global electricity generation taken for lighting-- that's more than is produced by hydro or nuclear stations, and about the same that's produced from natural gas."
  • 40 percent: the increase in sales in stores with good natural light. (the Heschong Mahone Group)
  • 25-33 percent: The percentage of total requirements to receive a LEED Silver rating, that builders can achieve through the use of daylighting in their design.
  • 2.5 million: The number of homes that could be lit from the energy saved if every American replacing one light bulb with an Energy Star rated one; this action would also prevent emissions of greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of nearly 800,000 cars."

Green Lighting Terms to Know

  • Light emitting diodes (LEDs) are a big deal and we're seeing them pop up in more and more places.
  • A heliodon heliodon is a device that allows architects, builders, and engineers to simulate the effects of sunlight on the lighting needs of building designs.
  • Color temperature is measured in kelvins, and brightness is measured in lumens and footcandles, and the effect of light on colored surfaces in measured in the Color Rendering Index.
  • Daylighting is the practice of designing for maximum use of daytime sunlight, is being used to do better business, make people happier, and save energy and dollars everywhere from hockey rinks, to Wal-Mart, to office buildings. The presence of daylighting often shows increased worker satisfaction and productivity in offices, better test scores in schools, increased sales in retail settings, and, of course, lower energy bills.
  • Optimization theory is the idea that taking advantage of the daylight cycle to plan your day around the planet's great source of free, full-spectrum light is good for the brain and body, and will mean less burning of the midnight oil. It's not just for energy savings and bringing more natural light in your life, but that's definitely part of it.