Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Dim Corners

It's the darkest time of the year and I crave light. Indoors, where I spend the short days now.

It used to be so easy (so much was, sigh). You bought 40, 60, 75 or 100 watt incandescent bulbs. 90% of what they produced was heat, and 10% gave off light. When they blew, and they blew often, you put another one in.

The wattage was printed right on the top of the bulb. Easy, although 3-ways only worked in certain lamps, and exceeding the wattage for the lamp you had was hard to determine. But still, who even thought about lightbulbs?

Now it's a science project.

Here's what I mean:

When we had solar panels installed the state required an energy audit before they would let us take the hefty state rebate for solar installation. The audit involved two men roaming our house for two hours, looking for insulation air leaks and power inefficiencies. The really cool thing was that these two guys replaced every single one of the light bulbs in 29 lamps and fixtures throughout the house.

They did the tiresome work of unscrewing and replacing every light bulb, put in CFL bulbs, and even left us about 20 extras. All for free -- and those bulbs are not cheap!

So we are upgraded and lit. But now, the desk lamp broke and I need a new one, and as I move furniture around and am trying to light spaces in my house that weren't well lit before, I am at a loss on lightbulbs.

It's not easy to figure out what wattage is currently in the lamps I have, or what wattage I need for the new lighting I want. Some of the new CFL bulbs have a watts number printed on the base in tiny print, but it's hard to find and many do not even have that.

New lightbulbs are not sold by watts. Watts measure power. New lightbulbs measure light output, or lumens, not power, since the whole idea is that they drastically reduce the power needed. You rarely have to worry about exceeding the wattage rating for the old lamp you've had since college -- it doesn't matter any more with CFLs or LEDs.

Some new bulbs do give an equivalent (such as: 13 watt CFL = 60 watt incandescent) but that's way off, I learned.  It's not really equivalent, it's more like a range, or maybe like a suggestion. CFL bulbs are variable in the power they use compared to the power (watts) the old bulbs used. The pertinent info is lumens.

Okay. Here's some homework. Study, discuss, and get back to me.


I had to learn these conversions, and I did. Even so, when you go to buy new lightbulbs, these equivalencies are all over the map between different manufacturers.

This chart doesn't even show all the 23 and 32 watt CFL bulbs I have and what they convert to. The 40 watt CFL I bought because it was supposedly equivalent to an old 150 watt incandescent is so glaringly bright I had to remove it before the airport started landing planes in my foyer.


I also had to learn that "soft white" means 2,700 kelvins which is a yellow glow, and the cool bright white of daytime and operating rooms means 5,000 kelvins and boy, does the color of the light make a difference with CFL or LED bulbs.

So, this is the basic stuff you need to know about lightbulbs now:
  1. lumens for brightness (800 for desk work, 1600 or more to light an area) 
  2. kelvins for color (2,700 = yellow and warmer, 5,000 = brighter and cooler)  
  3. and wattage doesn't matter since new bulbs use 1/4 the wattage my lamps are even rated for, and they only covert to the old wattage in a wide and confusing range of equivalency. 
Got it.

Now, the other problem.

The dining room chandelier is a builder grade light fixture that came with hard plastic sleeves to cover the wires in the "candle" stems. When I put black chandelier shades over the incandescent candle lights, the original white plastic sleeves charred and turned ugly brown after a few years. Replacement sleeves looked good in these photos, but literally melted into plastic puddles inside each brass cup after one use, leaving the wires exposed. Ack.


I can get LED candle lights that burn much cooler under the shades, but they are not dimmable with my current dimmer switch. And the cooling effect comes from a "heat sink" (the solid wrapping at the base of LED bulbs) that looks dumb and directs light upwards into the shade and not down to the table.

It took two days of intensive research and going down electrical chat room rabbit holes before I learned that dimming + LEDs + bulb temperatures + strobe effect problems + light direction all have to be coordinated in confusing combinations when buying LED bulbs.
LED bulbs have an alternating current / direct current conversion technology inside that solid base that would leave Edison and Tesla muttering. Me too.

So, cooler bulbs that won't melt the fixture under black shades are Not An Option. Bare bulbs might not melt the sleeves, but are also Not An Option -- without any shades the 5 bulb fixture is small and skimpy in our large open dining room. And without shades, you can see the replacement sleeves don't quite cover the black wire housings which show at the top. It looks cheap.


We need a new dining room chandelier and I am making a project out of finding the right one. With the right lightbulbs. And the right shades.

And we need a new desk lamp to replace the broken one. With adequate lumens. And kelvins! And efficient wattage.

All this attention to lighting has now made me realize how shabby my lamps are. With the exception of the new floor lamp I just bought with the butterfly shade next to the bookcase, many of my lamps are ancient -- either from college or from my first house in the 1970s.

They wobble, are the wrong size for what I'm trying to light, are missing hardware, and the old faded shades look cheap. Or they are builder fixtures that were also kind of cheap when they were installed 11 years ago. I never realized how dim corners of my open floorpan house are. It's dark in here at night.

But who knew upgrading and fixing the lighting in my house would require an electrical engineering degree?

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