Different Spaces Deserve Different Lights
For many of us, our lighting strategy ends with changing the bulbs in an overhead light. But it can pay to get a little more creative. A single light source is often not the most efficient, or attractive, way to light a room, and different rooms need different kinds of lights. In the kitchen, try pairing overhead CFLs with undercabinet LEDs to shine a light right where you need it. In the living room, layers of light that include floor or table lamps for reading and accent lights in recessed, low-voltage fixtures can make the room more versatile and add depth. Bedrooms need soft lights, so try lamps, wall sconces and dimmer switches.
Want to Dim the Lights? Try a CFL... Someday
Standard CFLs are not dimmable, and putting them on a dimmer switch can shorten their lifespan, void warranties and even become a fire hazard. That's why it was surprising to learn that dimmable CFLs are not only available, the technology is improving quickly enough that they're almost pleasant to use. Almost, but not quite.
The problem isn't entirely with the bulb: The switches are made for incandescent lamps and they can't always dim a CFL through the entire lighting range, causing problems like blinking, or worse. Some brands have developed switches that dim any type of bulb.
In the near future there will likely be a dimmable CFL that doesn't disappoint, and until then mood-setters and romantics should try energy-saving halogens. And for a full lighting range and mostly problem-free dimming, try upgrading not just the bulb, but the switch, too.
Fluorescent Bulbs Actually Reduce the Amount of Mercury in the Air
Mercury is the bugbear of CFLs for safety-conscious consumers. CFLs contain a small amount of the toxic metal-usually about five milligrams. Under pressure from environmental groups, the industry is working to reduce that amount further. It's surprising, therefore, that the bulbs can actually reduce mercury in the environment.
To understand how, let's first put the mercury in context. Five milligrams is a tiny amount, about enough to cover the period at the end of this sentence. A watch battery has 25 milligrams and a manual home thermostat has 3000 milligrams. Even breaking a CFL bulb is not likely to expose people to enough mercury to hurt them. Now, consider that burning fossil fuels is the main source of mercury in the environment. A power plant will spew 10 milligrams of mercury to power an incandescent bulb, compared to only 2.4 milligrams to power a CFL for the same amount of time. That's how CFLs reduce mercury: fossil fuels are the real mercury emitters, not broken CFLs.
Energy Star Isn't Just About Energy
Energy Star certifies CFLs for power efficiency, and those bulbs can cost less to use than incandescents. That much is clear, but why buy a certified CFL when a non-certified CFL is cheaper? It's because the non-certified CFL probably isn't cheaper in the long run. Energy Star certification also guarantees a lifespan of at least 6000 hours, a two-year warranty and minimum requirements for light quality. Other CFLs could burn out more quickly, disappoint with poor coloring, respond slowly to the 'on' switch, and make noise while they operate.
Speaking of burning out, as CFL's approach the end of their lifespan, they dim over time and then they may pop, like an incandescent lamp, or even smoke. The safety certifier Underwriters Laboratories (UL) says and not a safety hazard. But, if it happens, it can be worrisome, to say the least. Some manufacturers are including mechanisms to make CFL's burn out more like incandescents. Look for the UL mark for a guarantee that the bulb meets certain safety standards.
The Future of Lighting
Next-gen lighting will probably include technologies that are already applied on a limited scale, or it may be different from what anyone can guess. These are some speculations. Organic LEDs may make luminous panels or wallpaper for measured lighting throughout a room. LEDs that look like incandescent bulbs could also hit shelves. They're coated with quantum dots, which are nano-sized crystals that soften the light's glow. Also, scientists are taking a new look at plasma lights, the lights without electrodes that Nikola Tesla invented at the turn of the last century.
For details on the information in this article and more about energy-efficient lighting, read , by Howard, Bill Brinsky and Seth Leitman.