Can Energy-Efficient Lighting Be Beautiful?

Can Energy-Efficient Lighting Be Beautiful?

Posted on 22. Jun, 2009 by in Energy-Efficient Lighting, Interviews

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Office workers and high school students from 30 years ago remember the terrible lighting from that era – the greenish, corpselike complexions, the blurred vision, the flicker-induced migraines, the depression, even the supposed vitamin deficiencies from the limited spectrum of those old fluorescent tubes. Nothing says “factory farming” quite like that old whitish glare. And the buzzing noise they made… the list of physiological, psychological, and aesthetic impacts goes on and on.

Now, there are all kinds of “full-spectrum” lights out there, low-voltage halogens, and newer generations of fluorescents like the compact bulbs, that look a lot better and definitely save over incandescents. But qualitatively, which ones are really competitive for high-end residential design when appearance and aesthetics are paramount? We asked Ed Cansino, a lighting designer with over 25 years of experience, and here is what he said.

For our readers that don’t know you, please describe your experience and typical lighting design project.

I’ve been doing lighting design for 25 years and had my own company for 20 years. My business is about half high-end residential, and half small to medium commercial projects: retail, restaurants, office spaces from boardrooms to circulation areas, parking garages adjunct to other structures, churches, and health care. A recent project was an Alzheimer’s center.

What does energy-efficient mean to you, in terms of lighting?

Energy-efficient lighting uses sources that deliver a high amount of light for a small amount of energy. It’s like gas mileage on a car.

What are the main types of lighting technologies available?

The tools we have are:

  1. Incandescents, including halogens, that use a glowing filament. They’re at the bottom of the efficiency range.
  2. Fluorescents, which use mercury vapor and a phosphor.
  3. High Intensity Discharge lights (HIDs), used in street lights, stadiums, and other such spaces. The standard orange-ish light used in most cities is a high-pressure sodium, and is at the top of the energy-efficiency scale. They’re three times as efficient as incandescents.
Incandescent, compact fluorescent, and high-intensity discharge lamps

Incandescent, compact fluorescent, and high-intensity discharge lamps

The one exception to the HIDs’ efficiency are the yellow low-pressure sodium lights used in some places like San Jose – they’re monochromatic, which makes it easier for the Mt. Hamilton observatory to filter them out, because it’s easier to filter out a single band than to filter multi-spectral light sources. The downside of single spectrum is that the color rendering is the worst it can be. Emergency personnel responding to a call literally can’t tell motor oil from blood on the ground. And there’s still plenty of light pollution in San Jose.

Super-bright whites are metal halide lamps. They’re a little less efficient, but the quality and color rendering is better, especially at lower wattages. They’re good enough now even for high-end retail, where color rendering is supremely important. You see a lot of 20w-50w halides in this type of application now.

I remember some of those HIDs made a horrible buzzing noise, enough to keep me up at night.

It depends how they’re specified. If you don’t have someone wearing the cap of a lighting designer – which could be an architect or more rarely an electrical engineer – someone who’s well-versed in lighting – then the lighting just becomes a line item subject to budget constraints. There’s no one to push for WHY you’d want to get a better quality product.

And, a lot of the noise issues for example are due to low-quality products, or incompatibilities. There’s a lot of low-quality stuff out there – poorly manufactured components, poor quality assurance – and there’s a big market for the cheapest possible solution.

What about LEDs?

LEDs are a new technology that hasn’t settled out yet. There are no industry standards for LED products. They do hold the most promise for efficiency and quality, but they’re very challenging for a number of reasons.

The Hypnocube is made from LEDs

The Hypnocube is made from LEDs

First, it’s still difficult to get LED chips to produce white light. The first way was to mix primary colors, red green and blue light in this case. However, this produces a spectrum that is discontinuous, similar to fluorescents and metal halide HIDs. By contrast, incandescents have a continuous light spectrum; halogens in particular are noted for their crisp white light.

Second, LEDs have to come assembled in an entire system. You can’t separately buy the LEDs, ballast, power supply, and fixture and then assemble it yourself into a custom design. Because it has to come already wrapped in a product, it has a high price point.

The current approach for the white-light problem is to start with a blue LED and coat it with phosphor. That’s similar to how fluorescents work. This is the technology in those cheap LED flashlights nowadays.

LEDs are actually superior at any color other than white. In fact, you can dial in precision colors, although overtones can be a problem. Although you could in theory make a very large array of LEDs, each dialed into a slightly color to achieve a continuous color spectrum, it becomes prohibitively expensive and complicated.

Third, there’s no way to dim them. You’d need expensive additional parts and interfaces. I can think of at least 6 different protocols for dimming LEDs. This is where the lack of industry standards comes in. Remember the VHS/Beta video divide?

That’s why I am very careful with my specs on LED products. On the consumer side, you have to be cautious about what you get and who you buy from. There are installations with products out there that can’t be supported because there are no replacement parts available. Specifying LEDs can be treacherous, in my opinion.

Aren’t there international organizations to create industry standards for LEDs?

They’re not addressing LEDs yet. But you’re right – standards need to be developed by independent organizations [rather than vendors]. But think how long that could take. It could take 2 years, 5 years, or even 7 years. Manufacturers can’t afford to wait that long.

What about mercury vapor lamps?

They’re dinosaur technology, and not much better than incandescents for efficiency. They made a purplish, poor quality light and were used in the 50s and 60s as the predecessor to the HID street lights we have now.

What about neon?

The voltages in this type of cold cathode lamp are high. They’re custom fabricated, and produce more light than most indoor fixtures.

What about toxicity?

Well, 95% of fluorescents contain mercury vapor. You can actually see the little ball of mercury rolling around in them when you tilt the tube. The amounts aren’t that great, so they’re a lower priority hazardous waste than many other things.

Now you can get “eco friendly” fluorescent lamps that contain less mercury. They perform and look pretty much the same as standard fluorescents. Most manufacturers catalogs nowadays have a section for these eco-friendly fluorescents.

How do good lighting controls help with energy-efficiency?

It’s good to hear energy efficiency & lighting controls in the same sentence. Especially in residential work, lighting control systems are more often than not, thought of and sold as a “convenience” or “cool” factor. No doubt that both of these are important and valuable. I do however, spend a lot of time discussing the energy side of everything from simple wallbox controls to whole house systems. The tone of the industry is now shifting on this point.

There are three areas where lighting controls can help with efficiency:

  1. Dimming rather than switching is the heart of it. Unlike fluorescents, which are harder to dim smoothly, you can use simple dimming controls with incandescent fixtures, and incandescents have no practical limits on their dimming range.. Anything that can dim proportionally saves in equal proportion. If you dim a light by 50%, you cut your energy use by 50%.
  2. Longer lamp life. For any incandescent, including halogens, dimming even 10% can double the lamp life. This helps the environment because it saves on manufacturing and landfill.
  3. One-button operation. It’s not practical to manage the lights in a large home using manual switching. It’s much simpler to hit a single “all off” button as you leave the house, and a “main on” when you come back that turns on just the light you need.

A good control system makes it easier to be energy-conscious. You can create a scene that delivers low light levels and then call it up with the push of a button. Other energy-saving features embedded in the software can include load shedding (auto shutoffs).

Most fluorescents’ can’t be dimmed at all, but there are a few products out there that can be dimmed to 10 or 15%. A premium dimmable fluorescent is available that dims to just 1%. But it’s expensive, so commercial projects don’t tend to use it. However, Lutron has been making high-quality fluorescent ballasts for 20 years.

Are these controls only for high-end residences?

No. If you look at Lutron, I specify them a lot. They’re on top of things… not bleeding edge, but definitely leading edge. Their website features many energy-saving products. Not all of them are big, fancy systems. Some of them can be small applications – a bathroom, or a family room, for example.

Watt Stopper is another company that makes energy-saving lighting controls.

How do older people, who may be used to simpler switching and may be gadget-phobic, respond to this new control technology?

Some may have had bad experiences with it. Lighting controls give flexibility where there was none before. Anything flexible is a double-edged sword. You can get the world’s best results, or the world’s worst results. The design, the setup, and the programming all has to be properly done.

If you have no options, you can’t be dissatisfied. But now that everything comes with embedded chips, new decisions need to be made. Everything needs to be thought out, and there are lots of opportunities to [mess it up].

To correctly specify any residential control system, you must have knowledgeable people on board who can also engage with the client.

What is the best type of lighting for high-end residential work?

I don’t believe there is one (or one category). I always think about the application first. Currently, I would say that 90% of my residential lighting is incandescent based (Halogen is incandescent), and 10% is fluorescent or LED. However, this is, and will continue to be a fast moving target due to improved technology (primarily in the LED field) and changing energy efficiency codes.

I prefer fluorescents for certain things like indirect lighting in a kitchen or lighting utility areas and garages. There are many fluorescent products with excellent color and performance. The potential rival (not replacement) to the incandescent lamp is the LED. Unlike a fluorescent lamp, it will be able to work well as a focal light source and a general light source. A lot of R&D dollars are now being spent on this technology. Unfortunately, the current lack of industry standards, misinformation, a lot of less-than-desirable performance and high cost, make it rough to specify correctly.

Like most things in design, a holistic approach is necessary to obtain favorable and predictable results. The root of lighting dissatisfaction usually involves more than one component in the lighting system (lamps, fixtures, controls, daylight, windows/skylights, reflective surfaces & occupants). All of the components are interdependent on each other.

It’s true that fluorescent lamps 30 years ago generally offered only poor color quality. However, the choice of fixture that the lamp(s) resided in was a major factor, as was the general application. Most manufactures of the products we specify then & now offer good, better & best options. Unfortunately, in reality we can end up with really bad, not so bad & just ok. The poor color quality lighting systems back then didn’t have to buzz, flicker or glare as much as some did. My lighting career is now at the 30 year mark, so I remember very well the state of commercial lighting systems back then. Choices were available even then that could have dramatically improved those dreadful spaces we remember.

But, having said all this, if I were forced to choose the best lighting for residential overall, it would have to be incandescent. I feel that we as humans have had a deep connection to flame for many thousands of years. It’s almost like it’s in our DNA. It’s interesting that as time moves on, people are still drawn to sitting around the camp fire, a fireplace, even a barbecue. Think of a Yule log. It’s just that this particular quality of light is ingrained in us. You can even get a screen saver of log flames.

Incandescents with their glowing filaments are a form of flame and are thus an extension of this inborn affinity that we have for fire. Plus, incandescents are inexpensive to implement regarding lamps and controls. If you compare simple incandescent to fluorescent circuits, they’re as efficient if not more so.

People are saying “Hey, let’s put CFLs everywhere” as if it’s a magic bullet. They’re misapplied routinely. There’s so much discussion about the benefits of CFLs, but there’s another discussion that never gets heard.

Fluorescents are better for larger areas, or for indirect lighting as in a kitchen, or a luminous ceiling with backlighting. For commercial applications, we would choose fluorescents even if we didn’t have to – we prefer them. But in residential, 90% of it is incandescent based on preference.

My impression of energy-efficient lighting is that it’s harder to see with – not as sharp.

It’s really a choice between direct and indirect lighting. Too much indirect lighting produces that “cloudy-day glare”.

So which is better… direct or indirect lighting?

Indirect lighting maximizes volumes in space. It makes a room big, bright, and cheery. If you light the ceiling, the ceiling surface is the brightest surface in the room, visually and perceptually. The next focus is on lighting the vertical surfaces on the perimeter, i.e. the walls. Indirect lighting is a great way to get soft, diffuse lighting into a space.

However, if you have nothing but indirect lighting, then you get that cloudy-day glare effect. With uniform lighting, there’s no visual hierarchy. Contrast is necessary, like salt and pepper on your food.

High-contrast lighting, with no ceiling light, creates a warm, cozy, dramatic, or romantic feeling. But, excessive contrast can also create glare.

Much of the time, it’s a matter of applying light in the right way. Too much light can be as bad as too little.  I get calls from commercial folks complaining that they “just can’t see”. And yet when I go there with a light meter, there’s a tremendous amount of light. But it’s coming from the wrong place. If there’s an imbalance between too much daylight and not enough task light, then every time people out the window, their eyes will adjust to the brightness, and then when they turn back to their desks, their eyes are clouded and they can’t see. In this case they don’t need more lighting – they need shades.

What about human factors in lighting design?

Vendors tend to emphasize technology, rather than human factors, because they want to sell product. For residential lighting, you need enough foot-candles by reading or task areas, and you need to deliver light without creating glare. You don’t want too much contrast in the room.

Lighting controls came out of the AV market. Audio/Visual  technology evolved into Home Automation, and from there into lighting controls. Because of this, the core competency of many home automation consultants is in A/V systems. They sometimes miss the opportunity to sell lighting.

Lighting design is both an art and a science. On the one hand, it’s about perception, comfort, and defining the center of a home. On the other hand, it’s about circuits and ballast. Most books on lighting design have a chapter on why human factors are important.

Also, the Bay Area has been a center for lighting research and education for many years. For example, the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES), PG&E and the Pacific Energy Center,, and Lawrence Berkeley Labs.

Are there considerations when creating energy-efficient lighting for people with disabilities?

Well, the Alzheimer’s center I just did recently is one example. Contrast was a big issue for the Alzheimer’s patients. In this case, what do the patients need in order to make it down the hall? They need to know exactly where the walls and the floors are. If they stub their toe on a carpet or wall edge, they can fall and fracture a hip.

One problem is that Title 24 only allow a certain amount of wattage per square foot. It’s pure efficiency from an idealized, young-and-healthy standpoint. Codes like Title 24 don’t always adequately allow for the needs of people whose abilities are not those of a 20-year-old.

When designing lighting for a private residence, you have to ask the clients what their needs are. Chances are, they’re calling because they already have lighting issues.

Have you ever tried any special effects, such as mixing pure colors as part of a lighting plan, or using reflected light off colored walls, instead of just going for white or yellow?

Oh, I’ve tried all kinds of things! Fiber optics, RBG/LED products for specialized coves or backlighting. I did a 40 foot long wine cellar with translucent, backlit walls behind the specially designed wine racks.

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

Just that the tools are already there to create efficient and well-lit environments. It’s on the people designing and installing these systems to seek out the information, and either hire a consultant or learn it yourselves.

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About the author
 Rebecca Firestone has been working in the Bay Area since 1998 as a technical writer, business content developer, architectural filing lady, marketing director, and sorcerer’s apprentice.

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6 Responses to “Can Energy-Efficient Lighting Be Beautiful?”

  1. Halogenica

    25. Jun, 2009

    Great interview! (I’ve linked to it.)

  2. JMOTA3 (Johnny Mota)

    16. Jul, 2009

    RT @MarkEnglishArch Energy-efficient lighting design | Green Compliance Plus – Mark English Architects

  3. […] evolved with since fire was first discovered. Lighting designer Ed Cansino in a highly informative interview: “…if I were forced to choose the best lighting for residential overall, it would have […]

  4. Thomas Sabo Uhr

    15. Mar, 2013

    Very interesting topic, regards for putting up.

  5. George

    11. Aug, 2014

    great information. thank you for this.


    07. Dec, 2015

    it helps me a lot thank u for giving me such valuable information once again thank you.

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