Return to No-Regrets Remodeling index
Lighting controls give you the flexibility to design a space for multiple use and easy access. They should be a part of the lighting plan for every room. Both manual and automatic controls can cut energy costs by making it easier to use lights only when and where they are needed. Controls used with high-wattage incandescents are especially effective for saving energy, but they should be considered for use with any lights that might be left on when no one is using them. Always choose controls that are compatible with the bulb and ballast. Try to obtain the best quality so the controls will perform well over time.
The simple on-off switch, whether mounted on a wall or on the light fixture, should always be obvious and convenient. On fixtures with pull-cord switches, attach an object at the end that is easy to see and grasp. It's always a good idea to install multiple wall switches in areas that have more than one entrance, such as hallways, staircases, and large rooms. These switches should be easy to find as well. It's a simple matter to add devices such as oversize toggles or switch plates that glow-in-the-dark. A small indicator light near a switch can signal when lights that are out of sight—in the basement or outdoors, for example—have been left on.
If a main switch in a room controls several lights, each fixture should have its own switch so individual lights can be turned off if they are not needed. In rooms such as kitchens, where lights are used for different purposes, overhead ambient lights, counter, or island lights should be on separate switches. A three-level switch in lamps is a simple way to use one fixture for several lighting needs. When the higher levels are not necessary, switch it to the lowest level to save energy.
Dimmers allow you to use one light for many purposes and to change the mood of a room instantly with a simple adjustment. They will also save energy when used at lower levels. Look for full-range dimmers so you can vary the light continuously from off to full brightness. Dimmers can be used with incandescent lights, including low-voltage systems, and with many fluorescents. Except for some new screw-base compact fluorescents, fluorescent lights must have their own dimming ballasts and should never be installed in sockets for dimmable incandescents. Dimming incandescent lamps should extend their life; however, if halogen lamps are dimmed frequently, manufacturers advise operating them occasionally at full light output.
There are several choices of wall-mounted dimmers: toggle, rotary, sliding, solid-state touch, and new integrated systems with remote controls that can recall previous lighting levels. If several high-wattage incandescent lamps are to be controlled at one point, add a hard-wired dimmer. For plug-in lamps that do not have a dimming switch, you can purchase an adapter for a socket or cord dimmer.
Timers are an inexpensive way to control the amount of time a light stays on inside the home or outdoors. They can be located at a light switch, at a plug, or in a socket. Some models are turned on manually and set to turn off after a designated number of minutes or hours. Others can be programmed to turn on and off at specified times. Both mechanical and solid-state timers are available, and some offer the option of a manual override. Some screw-base compact fluorescent bulbs cannot be used with timers, so check the manufacturer's recommendations.
Be careful not to set timers so a light might turn off in an area when someone could be left in the dark. Or, install a glow-in-the-dark switch plate or a very low-wattage night-light with a photosensor near the switch so it is easy to find.
Motion detectors, or occupancy sensors, have proven to be an excellent way to save energy, especially in bathrooms and bedrooms where lights are frequently left on. They are also popular outdoors for walkways, driveways, and as security lights.
Sensors can operate automatically to turn lights on when movement is detected, then off after a specified period of no motion, or they can have manual on or off switches. Some models feature dimmers that reduce light to a preset level rather than turn completely off when there is no movement; others come with photosensors that turn lights on only when the light level is below a preset point and motion is detected. Follow manufacturer's instructions for installing sensors to ensure the proper coverage area. Also be sure the lights are compatible with the sensors. Some compact fluorescents should not be used with motion detectors, nor should high intensity discharge lights because of their inability to relight quickly.
A photosensor measures the light level in an area and turns on an electric light when that level drops below a set minimum. They are most effective with lights that stay on all night long, such as some outdoor fixtures or night lights. If a light does not need to remain on throughout the night, use a timer or motion detector.
Central controls are used to monitor a home's lighting and to operate switches, sensors, and dimmers as desired throughout the house. Often they are integrated with security systems, telephones, and cable television. They can save energy, but depending on their complexity, may be quite expensive.
Excerpted with permission from No-Regrets Remodeling by Home Energy (1997)