WebMD Health - Home and Health

Sep 30, 2010 4:12 PM

Lighting Design Ideas for Your Home

Like most people, you probably don't give much thought to interior lighting. As long as the light comes on each time you flip the switch, you're satisfied. But why settle for satisfactory lighting when you can have home lighting that makes just about every household activity easier, more pleasant, and safer? It won't cost much -- and you may even save money in the long run.

Curious? Here are a few home lighting ideas that can help you optimize the lighting in your home.

Compact fluorescent bulbs are the way to go. If you want to optimize the lighting in your home, compact fluorescent bulbs are the way to go for most applications. Also called compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), these have several advantages over ordinary incandescent light bulbs. In addition to consuming less energy, they last up to 15 times longer; greater longevity means greater convenience and safety (think fewer trips up the ladder to change burned-out bulbs).

Fluorescent bulbs can be tailored to the need. Unlike incandescent bulbs, CFLs come in a range of "color temperatures," from warm (similar to incandescent) to cool (bright bluish-white). Because the light from a bulb with a cool color temperature can approximate daylight, daytime exposure to CFL or tube fluorescent bulbs seems to promote a normal circadian rhythm in older adults (meaning there may be a smaller chance of sleep problems), according to Patricia Rizzo, design program manager at the Lighting Research Center of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. On the flip side, says Rizzo, nighttime exposure to cool fluorescent light may interfere with sleep. She recommends sticking with an incandescent light or a warm CFL for reading in bed and other nighttime activities.

CFLs may also be better for applying makeup and shaving. "For women who work in an office environment and for light-skinned men, a bright-white CFL is best," says Jane Grosslight, the Tallahassee, Fla.--based author of several books on lighting design, including Energy-Efficient Daylighting and Electric Lighting Techniques. "Office environments are lighted with bright-white fluorescents, and men find that bright white increases the contrast between their skin and their whiskers." Grosslight says that, for people who are seen mostly in their home, soft-white CFLs work well for applying makeup and shaving.

More the one light source may be better. People often assume that a single overhead fixture can illuminate an entire room. It may, say lighting experts -- but not very well. "My cardinal rule is that more than one light source is needed for all but the smallest rooms," says Grosslight. Multiple light sources help balance the light in a room, minimizing glare and shadows. One good strategy is to pair a ceiling fixture with a lamp that shines light upward onto the ceiling; a CFL-equipped torchiere for a bedroom or living room, for example, and inexpensive linear fluorescents atop kitchen cabinets.

Multiple light sources are especially important in the bathroom. "Ideally, you want light from three sides -- from above and from either side of the mirror," says Doreen Le May Madden, owner of Lux Lighting Design in Belmont, Mass. "Make sure you have enough light to subtly fill in the shadows on your face. And you want to make sure the fixture is a type that shields the bulb from your sight, to reduce glare."

Task lighting is essential. In addition to overhead and "up" lights, it's generally a good idea to have task lights to direct light precisely where it's needed, for reading, cooking, and hobbies. To reduce glare, get a fixture with a shielded bulb -- or position the light so the bulb is out of your line of sight.

If you like to read in bed but worry about keeping your partner awake, consider a dual light fixture placed above the center of the headboard. By allowing light to be directed only toward your side of the bed, such a fixture often works better than having one lamp on either side of the bed. Make sure the shade is opaque, so that light does not illuminate other parts of the bedroom.

Backup lights can help keep you safe. To cope with power outages, one flashlight is good, but more is better. "Ideally, you want several LED flashlights," says Rizzo. "They're longer-lived than flashlights with incandescent bulbs." It's also a good idea to have battery-powered emergency lights.

Nightlights can help -- sometimes. It's best to sleep in total darkness, experts say, because light exposure can limit your body's synthesis of the sleep hormone melatonin. If you wake up at night and need to get out of bed, it helps to have some strategically placed warm-color nightlights -- but the light they give off should be dim. You might have one by your bedroom door, another by the toilet, one in the hallway, etc. Your goal should be to see well enough to avoid hazards, without having to turn on a bright light. Exposure to bright light at night can make it hard for you to fall back asleep.

For outdoor security lighting, less is often more. A very bright outdoor light may make you feel safe from assailants, but experts say that it can actually compromise your safety. How? By interfering with your night vision. Better to have a dim light -- say, a 25- to 40-watt incandescent bulb -- so your eyes are able to make things out in dark areas in your yard, where an assailant might be hiding. Make sure the bulb is shielded, so glare is not a problem.

Motion-activated lights can help prevent burglaries, but be aware that pets and other animals as well as burglars can set them off. Exterior stairs and other potential hazards should be illuminated at night.

In the not-too-distant future, light-emitting diode (LED) lights may supplant incandescents and CFLs. LED bulbs consume less energy even than fluorescent bulbs. But for now, LEDs are considered too costly for widespread residential use.

What if you've tried CFLs and found their light too dim? The Lighting Research Center recommends using the "Rule of Three" when buying CFLs: to get the same brightness as an incandescent, buy a CFL that's rated at one-third the wattage (not one-fourth, as some have suggested). To replace a 60-watt incandescent, for example, you would get a 20-watt compact fluorescent light bulb.

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