Shedding Light on Your Remodel

Picture your clients in a home improvement store trying to buy light bulbs. Many people — remodelers and homeowners alike — feel guilty reaching for the incandescents — in different shapes, sizes, outputs and color — which sit next to shelves of CFLs. CFLs are more efficient, but which do people likely choose? The wide variety of bulbs now available can be overwhelming.

July 31, 2007
Nothing lasts forever: How to dispose CFLs

Photos courtesy of Energy Star

Picture your clients in a home improvement store trying to buy light bulbs. Many people — remodelers and homeowners alike — feel guilty reaching for the incandescents — in different shapes, sizes, outputs and color — which sit next to shelves of CFLs. CFLs are more efficient, but which do people likely choose?

The wide variety of bulbs now available can be overwhelming. It's awfully tempting to install incandescent bulbs everywhere. It's the easy choice — but it's rarely the best one.

When talking with your clients about lighting, we recommend encouraging them to give CFLs a second look. Many people think that fluorescent lighting is bad, but with new technologies — and an understanding of what works best where — it can work for you and your clients.

Your options abound. There's a place for motion sensors, dimmers and halogens, too.

Read on to discover how these bulbs and controls can deliver high quality light and energy savings for your clients to enjoy.

How to Pick a CFL: Base Camp

Fluorescents, which include tubular bulbs and compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), use 75 percent less energy than incandescents. CFLs also last about 10 times longer and have a much lower operating temperature, so they're cool to the touch.

So, let's start with the basics — or the bases. CFLs come with two types of bases: screw-in and pin-base.

Screw-in bases are easy to integrate into a lighting plan because they are physically compatible with existing fixtures. Installing them in fixtures with rapid on-off cycles (like the bathroom) results in quicker-than-advertised burnout rate. For fire safety reasons, only use CFLs with a dimmer if the packaging says you can.

Pin-base bulbs plug into specifically designed fixtures. Some of these fixtures isolate the ballast from the light source, making both ballast and bulb last longer. These bulbs can only be replaced with more CFLs, ensuring continued energy savings. Drawbacks of pin-base bulbs include the cost of new fixtures and the potential that a specific base type will be discontinued.

Example of a 3,500K qualified CFL Example of a 2,700K qualified CFL

Finishing School

A space's lighting affects its look and feel. A properly lit living room feels warm and inviting. Lighting architects earn top dollar to design lighting strategies for retail spaces. It's important to offer effective lighting in homes, too.

To achieve the right ambience, you must answer two questions: how much light does the client want, and what color should it be?

Because incandescent bulbs are labeled in watts but light output is actually measured in lumens, picking a CFL to recomment can be confusing. Start with an Energy Star-qualified CFL, and find one that produces an equivalent amount of lumens as the bulb you would normally install. Manufacturers include this information right on the product packaging.

The color of the light a bulb produces is identified by the correlated color temperature (CCT) measured in Kelvins (K). At first, the CCT appears to be counterintuitive, because what we term "cooler" falls on the higher (or hotter) end of this scale. A lower CCT indicates a warmer light. Thus, a CFL with a CCT around 2,700 Kelvins is similar to a "soft white" incandescent bulb and accentuates warm colors. In the kitchen, a 3,500 Kelvins bulb is closer to natural daylight and provides a fresh, clean look.

If you purchase a lot of bulbs at once and have a place to store them, you might consider purchasing them in bulk. Energy Star-qualified screw-in and pin-based bulbs and the associated fixtures (along with other energy-efficient products) are available for bulk purchase at

Know the Function

Lighting is usually described in terms of its function. The three main functions are:

  • General lighting: overhead fixtures that illuminate a large area, like the kitchen or hallway
  • Task lighting: fixtures placed to illuminate a specific area (like a reading lamp beside your living room chair or a recessed light over the kitchen sink)
  • Safety lighting: usually outside lights that illuminate steps, walkways or driveways.

Design projects with the function of the space in mind to achieve high-quality lighting and energy savings. For example, if you have a lighting fixture on either end of the kitchen ceiling, each equipped with two 75-watt bulbs (general lighting) both fixtures must be on to avoid casting a shadow over the sink when doing dishes. That's a total of 300 watts (75 watts x 4 bulbs) of energy use. One recessed 100-watt lamp installed above the sink (task lighting) would provide superior light for one-third the operating costs. Similar inefficiencies hold true if task lighting is used for general lighting.

General lighting: Long-term general lighting is overhead lighting that is left on for hours in a row almost every day — the kind you find in the family room or kitchen. CFLs are ideal for these applications because they perform best when they are left on for long periods of time.

Short-term general lighting is for short bursts of light in the bathroom, hallway or laundry room, for example. In these cases, motion sensors are convenient and great for energy savings. They also offer hands-free operation, which is nice for clients with limited mobility. And they'll never have to remember to turn out the lights either.

With a motion sensor, CFLs will consume less electricity than incandescents, but they may burn out after two years instead of the advertised seven years because of short on-off cycles. If you do choose a CFL, look for one with a CCT rating around 3,500 Kelvins ("bright white" and "natural light").

In some cases, the versatility of incandescent bulbs outweighs the energy savings of CFLs, and that's usually true for dimmers. Incandescents on dimmers can soften the lighting and save energy as well.

There are CFLs on the market that are dimmer-compatible, but they don't yet offer the same range of light quality we've come to expect. CFLs only dim to about 20 percent of the rated lumens, don't have the "softening" effect, and when turned down too far, they turn off completely. If you do install a CFL with a dimmer, be sure the package says the CFL is meant for this use.

Task lighting: Proper task lighting is specifically placed to illuminate a work area, such as the kitchen counter where food is prepared.

If the homeowner simply wants better light for washing dishes, install a screw-mounted fluorescent tube light (available at most hardware stores for $20) beneath the upper kitchen cabinets.

For more versatile lighting, install recessed cans under the cabinets above the counter space. Equip them with reflector, dimmable CFLs to function as task lighting when needed and as mood lighting or nightlights when desired. Like other kitchen lighting, kitchen task lighting looks nicer when bulbs have a relatively high CCT.

For reading, recommend they equip table or floor lamps with screw-base CFLs in the lower CCT range to achieve a cozy look.

Safety lighting: Safety lighting illuminates walkways or driveways and should connect to either a motion sensor or photocell so that even unannounced guests can find their way safely up the front steps. CFLs work fine in this situation if you bear two things in mind. First, people have reported difficulties combining CFLs and photocells. To avoid problems, install dimmable CFLs with photocells. Second, CFLs are limited by a minimum operating temperature. Below the minimum, they take longer to illuminate, so in the winter in cold climates you may be up the stairs by the time the lights are on if they're connected to a motion sensor. For year-round use in cold climates, halogens on sensors are the way to go. Halogen bulbs use more electricity than CFLs but still only one-third the electricity of incandescent bulbs. Because of their high operating temperature, halogens are not recommended for use in torchieres indoors.

Type of Lighting Use Pattern Example Bulb Suggestions CCT Recommendations
General Lighting Short-term Use Hallways, bathrooms, laundry rooms CFL or incandescent bulb with a motion sensor High CCT (3,500K) Natural, full-spectrum or "bright white"
Long-term Use Kitchen overhead CFL High CCT
Living area overhead CFL or incandescent on a dimmer Low CCT (2,700K)
Task Lighting Washing dishes, chopping veggies CFL High CCT
Reading, etc CFL Low CCT
Safety Lighting Inside CFL High CCT
Outside Halogen or CFL on motion sensor Doesn't matter
Source: Energy Star - Learn more at

Incandescent light bulbs Minimum light output Common Energy Star qualified light bulbs
Watts Lumens Watts
40 450 9–13
60 800 13–15
75 1,100 18–25
100 1,600 23–30
150 2,600 30–52
Source: Energy Star - Learn more at
Manufacturers make it easy to determine light output.

Author Information
Kelly Cutchin writes about better building practices on behalf of the Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH). PATH is administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Learn more at


Nothing lasts forever: How to dispose CFLs

Eventually, your CFLs will burn out and need to be replaced. CFLs are categorized as hazardous household waste (HHW) because they contain about 5 milliliters of mercury — enough to cover the tip of a ballpoint pen. Like batteries and oil-based paints, CFLs must be disposed of properly. Did you know:

  • Recycling bulbs can reclaim up to 95 percent of the mercury. To see if there is a recycling facility in your area, visit
  • Many municipalities have a HHW section or offer special pick-ups.
  • If the bulb has burned out within the warranty period, you can return it to the retailer and get a new one.
  • If a bulb breaks, do not vacuum the pieces, as this will spread mercury through the air. Instead, clean up fragments using disposable materials. Use tape to pick up the smallest pieces and place them in a sealed plastic bag to throw out.

For more detailed clean-up instructions, visit and click on lighting, then "How to Dispose of Compact Fluorescent Lamps: CFLs and Mercury."

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