Technical Lighting Help

Hey! My Light Bulb Doesn’t Fit!

Since the introduction of fluorescent and LED retrofit lamping designed to take the place of incandescent light bulbs, fit has occasionally been a problem for consumers. Sockets are designed for the shape and contour of incandescent glass envelopes. Because of ignorance or lack of detail, poorly realized retrofits lamps on occasion, do not “fit” or function.


Fit has especially been a concern with “globe” or sphere shaped lamps (“G” type, as ascribed by the industry.) To understand the problem, let’s first look at an incandescent G-16 ½ candelabra based lamp. Many people call these golf ball lamps because of their similar size. Similar issues may occur with larger, medium-based “G” lamps, as well.

A typical G-16 1/2 Incandescent lamp.

With a full glass envelope on the incandescent product, you can see how the blown glass envelope gently tappers into the screwshell (the threaded portion at the base of a lamp.) The screwshell makes contact with the electricity delivered inside the socket.

A typical incandescent G-16 1/2 lamp installed in a candelabra socket. Note the base touches the copper tab at bottom of the socket and the threaded side touches copper on the side.

When inserted into a socket, the “hot” side of the electric current touches the bottom of the light bulb via a small copper tab at the inside bottom of the socket. The negative, or neutral half of the electric supply is provided to the screwshell on the inside edge of the socket. The positive and negative contacts are represented in the image as gold rectangles.

Also, note how the rolled edge of the glass curves into the screwshell and curves around the tapered inside edge of the socket. This insures the bottom of the light bulb easily touches the contact at the bottom of the socket.

LED retrofit lamps create light with the use of a collection of electronics. Those electronics are located in the area between the glass envelop and the screwshell. In the photo below, the chrome sleeve under the glass houses the electronics.

A LED retrofit G-16 1/2 lamp. One of many styles available in the market.

When we insert the LED retrofit lamp, the chrome sleeve prevents the screwshell from fully turning into the socket. When that occurs, the bottom of the light bulb cannot touch the copper tab and the light bulb will not function.

A LED retrofit G-16 1/2 lamp installed in a candelabra socket. Note: the collar under the glass envelope prevents the base of the lamp from making contact with the copper tab at the bottom of the socket, thus preventing a complete electric connection.

Many people, when experiencing this failure believe it to be a LED lamp malfunction, but it is really a design failure. In instances where the socket is slightly wider, the copper tab is sitting higher or the edge of the socket is shorter, the lamp will work without an issue.

What to Do?

If this is an experience you have, the best thing to do is buy a different brand lamp, one with a better contour between envelope and screwshell. Some screwshells have also been elongated. If an alternative is not possible, there is one other thing you could do, but it must be done with care. Usually, the contact between copper and light bulb is millimeters away from making contact. A gentle lift of the copper tab could be all that is needed. It could also be unusually flattened over years of use. The reason for caution is electricity. We tell children not to shove things into electric outlets for a reason. An electric shock, a short, or worse can happen.

If you’d like to try a solution, shut off the switch on the wall and trip the circuit in the electric panel or unscrew the fuse in the fuse box. BOTH are a MUST!! Do not go any further without completing these steps!! (Seriously, unless you like the feeling of 120 volts of electric power coursing through your body, do not move forward without shutting off the power at the circuit!)

With a long, strong, wood or plastic stick (chopstick, knitting needle or crochets hook,) gently pry the copper tab up EVER SO SLIGHTLY!! As said, the gap is a fraction of an inch. There is no need to exert Hulk-like power! Reenergize the circuit and turn on the switch. If it does not work, it is time to try another brand of replacement lamp.

Expect Things to Get Better

Retrofit lamps are getting better. The electronics are getting smaller and even the least sophisticated manufacturers now understand what could be inhibiting a full electric connection.

I live in a historic home build with a two-car garage in the basement. This was quite an unusual feature for homes in the late 1920s. At the time, cars were substantially narrower and much longer than the average car of today. Consequently, I have no storage at the sides of my garage, but the front is packed solid with all the things we house in our garages. Moving the car in and out of the garage requires skill, with about 2” of room separating the rearview mirrors and the door frame, on each side.

Like newer cars and my garage’s elongated shape, the new light bulbs can and will work on sockets designed for a different era of technology. Just a little skill and patience is required.

Technical Lighting Help

Shooting Ourselves in the LED Foot

If you have read any number of my blogs posts, you know I am “bullish” on technological advances in the home. I was involved, early-on with adopting LED to residential products. I firmly believe smart home automation is inevitable and self-controlled residential environments are going to be more common than not. That said, the lighting industry has NEVER been a tech-industry and as such, they are wholly unprepared to deal with problems, such as quickly evolving and improving products. This inability has gotten them into trouble with consumers.

A friend called last week. He was trying to re-lamp his dining room and foyer chandeliers with LED retrofit candelabra lamps. In a previous conversation, I suggested he stick with a major brand, buy all the same product at one time and I also gave him color temperature (CCT) recommendations. (This is advice I also give to industry personnel and related design professionals.) He needed 23 lamps, so he “cleaned the shelves” at a local retailer. The ladder was out, the lamps were going in and once he had finished, he noticed a difference.

To create an LED version of a flame-shaped candelabra lamp, the engineers have strung LED into bands to visually replicate the appearance of a filament. Most of the lamps employed two bands of LED, but a handful use four. While the lumen output was equal, the appearance was different.

The packaging was the same. Lumen output was the same. The UPC number was the same, as were two additional sets of numbers. The rub arrived in the sixth number printed on the back of the carton. There lay the difference.

My friend did all of the right thing. He consulted with a lighting expert (me!), bought the same brand product with the same color characteristics, bought them from the same retailer, at the same time and still got burned. Honestly, I wonder if I would have noticed the variation and I have been helping people buy the correct lighting for almost a half-century.

The exact same lumen output, wattage consumption and carton appearance, but inside were decidedly different looking lamps.
The same PC number, the same description code, the same UPC number, but a different Res number, the only indicator that there is something amiss.

The incandescent light bulb you bought in 1985 is exactly the same as the ones on a shelf today. That is how consumers currently relate to light bulbs. It is also, apparently, how major manufacturers treat them. It is time for them to do better so the consumer can easily transition to the new world.

Visit your local Best Buy and ask them for a 2015 Samsung flat-screen and you will be laughed out of the store. There are a ton of iPhone 8 still in use, but you cannot buy a new one. Technology companies, with rapidly changing product know how to get the correct version to their customer. Lighting people do not.

I recently bought a sleeve for my iPad and could not complete the order without including the model and version. A small, one-person, technology support supplier making hand-stitched, felt covers for computers, iPads and phones has adapted her business to the multiple versions of tech products. It is time for the lighting industry to up their game. We are not living in Thomas Edison’s world any longer.

For a long time, I have indicated a preference for new integrated LED luminaires, as opposed to socketed luminaires using retrofit LED lamps. That works for most product, except where the lamp is a part of the aesthetics. Integrated luminaires will not have this problem.

We still live in an incandescent world, we are incandescent-inclined, we are born into a world where lighting fixture maintenance and repair is an innate skill. We feel compelled to change light bulbs. This will be hard habit to break. Dumb missteps by lamp suppliers will make the path harder, not easier.

Technical Lighting Help

Lighting Safety

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Perhaps one of the most highly regulated types of lighting is that which is placed in closets. Over a year ago, I wrote a whole blog post on deciphering the nuances of the National Electric Code requirements concerning this rather obscure light placement.

At the start of the late 1970s energy crisis, efficiency gurus urged homeowners to add more and more insulation in their attics. That, unfortunately trapped heat in ceiling mounted outlet boxes. The increased temperatures caused wire insulation to melt.

Fabric, stacked against poorly placed electric lighting in closets and disintegrating electrical wire insulation, both resulted in fires. The NEC added stricter requirements for closets and Underwriters Laboratories recognized the root cause of increases in fires and elevated the testing requirements, now performed in insulated ceilings. These are safety measures aided by outside oversight. Are there steps the average homeowner can take to insure safety? Here are a few thoughts.

Obey Wattage Labels

Since many of us are using LED replacement lamps, ignoring wattage labels is becoming more common. Try not to become complacent, especially if you are still using incandescent lamping. Wattage labels are a meaningful part of the safe operation of your light source.

Especially problematic are those applications where the lamp base (the threaded portion of the light bulb) is position in an “up” direction. (Remember your high school science, heat rises!) If a 60W maximum is specified and a 100W light bulb is used, the envelop size is the same, but the temperature created is substantially higher. That means the wire will be exposed to hotter temperature levels and deterioration can result.

My mother had a pole lamp that she could not live without. It was illuminated all evening, she read, did puzzles and knitted using it and when she couldn’t see well, as cataracts took more and more of her visual clarity, she simply increased the light bulb wattage. Of course, eventually it stopped working. I got a call to “fix her light.” My first reaction was replacement. “No! I like this one. You’re a lighting guy. Can’t you fix it?”

After I tore the pole lamp apart, I found barely functioning wire. It was all brown and brittle. The Bakelite sockets fell apart in my hand. Were she not a self-sufficient person, a fire could have easily destroyed her home. I rewired it with heavier wire and porcelain sockets. Go ahead mom, use whatever wattage you need. It is built for maximum wattage now.

Unfortunately, not everyone has a son, who is a lighting guy. Most people can’t teardown a fifty year-old pole lamp, rebuild it for higher temperatures and set it up for another 50 years of use. To avoid that, follow the wattage labeling instructions. (Please don’t call me! Rebuilding pole lamps are a pain in the keister!)

Obey Mounting Labels

Many luminaires are engineered to function in a specific direction. A “mounting direction” label indicates “This End Up” to insure proper operation. I’ve mentioned multiple time my neighbor, who has his porch light mounted upside-down. Were it not for the eave above, the unit would fill with rainwater and electrically-short, causing serious damage. He didn’t pay attention to the mounting instruction. Don’t make the same mistake as my neighbor.

Adequate Kitchen Lighting

How often would you walk through a dark room with a sharp object ¼” from your carotid artery? Unless you share some character traits with the Marquis de Sade, this adventure is unlikely. Why then would you cut carrots on a poorly lit countertop? When we bought our current home, there was a single light on a fan in the middle of the kitchen. When we cleaned the room prior to moving-in, I was surprised there were no finger segments that accidentally fell behind the refrigerator! To avoid parasuicide, install proper lighting. General kitchen lighting should be of a recommended level with supplemental under-cabinet lighting a must.

Nighttime Navigation

Attempting to walk from the bed to bathroom at night continues to cause numerous injuries that accelerate with age. Regardless of our familiarity with the surroundings, we still need the aid of light to traverse this short distance. Consider one of the following:

  • A motion activated light under the bed. Once your feet touch the floor, a sensor detects their presence and turns on a light.
  • Include a switch next to each side of the bed, connected to a light that travels the distance between bed and toilet. I recently recommended this idea to a client. The bed was centered in the bedroom with entrance to the bathroom from two directions, one on each side, for each of the sleeping partners. We connected the switch to a few junction box-mounted, aisle lights in the hall and a strip of LED Tape under the vanity counter. On the opposite side, the second switch illuminated different hall lights, but the same under-vanity light. The owners were extremely satisfied.
  • Remember that all nighttime lighting should be aimed downward and indirect. The reduction of glare will be easier to use with sensitive night vision in place.


If nighttime navigation is the number one fall risk in a home, stairs are second, again, especially egregious for seniors. Find those areas where steps and staircases reside in the dark and add some light. Look for landings and step treads that are the same color. Consider steps used regularly at night. Solve the problem with step and aisle lights on the adjacent wall, or use strips of LED Tape under each tread. Railing is also sold with an embed strip of LED Tape, or it can be easily added to an existing rail. Regardless of the method, light the stairs!


When we think of safety in a home, our mind snaps to bathtub falls, silent CO2 gases and errant fireplace cinders. We might not automatically think about eliminating some of the other, more popular incidents with correctly placed light. Light can help avoid incidents, but we should avoid lighting misuse incidents, as well. Paying attention to both will make the home a much safer place in which to live.

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DOE Solid State Workshop 2022

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Earlier this month, I spent a lot of hours in front of the computer listening to the virtual, U.S. Department of Energy, Solid State Workshop. This was four days of in-depth conversation covering the current-state and likely, future direction that solid state lighting technology will take. There was a ton of information shared and honestly, I felt somewhat like comedian George Gobel in the classic Tonight Show episode where he walked onto a dais with Bob Hope, Dean Martin and host, Johnny Carson. Clearly outclassed, Gobel quietly commented to Carson, “Did you even get the feeling that the world was a tuxedo and you were a pair of brown shoes?”

Like Gobel that night, a lot of the information was over my head. These highly educated individuals reached beyond common knowledge and current circumstances. The introduction of LED into the lighting world has elevated the conversations and concepts to heights heretofore unimaginable. Even for a lighting geek like me, it is hard to keep up!!

With that in mind, I’ve tried to boil down the information to that which concerns residential users, or might be of interest to “average” brown shoe-wearing folks.

  • No surprise, but LED efficiency continues to improve and gains in efficacy are likely well into the future. LED energy efficiency will however, be less important because of the tiny incremental growth the technology now experiences.
  • The use of smarter, better, more carefully programed controls will continue to earn larger and larger shares of the energy savings. The possibility of less expensive electricity (don’t add the money to your bank account, just yet) will change a lot in the way we consider operational value and energy investments.
  • In customer preference studies, 5000K lighting was considered the most favorable light in parking garages to find cars and find a parking space.
  • The same study showed that the old adage, “We cannot light our way to seeing better or feeling safer.” remains true. At a certain point, regardless of how much light is added, the perceptions of safety and our ability to see in the space do not improve.
  • The biggest barrier to altering state and local lighting ordinances for better efficiency, is public perception – people still believe MORE light is the best light.
  • As we learn more and more about the body’s need for light, some key metrics will be set on their ear. Initially, daylight harvesting was set in place to save electric lighting energy, but the byproduct may be a healthier environment. That healthier setting could result in higher rents garnered by the owner.
  • Additional study are showing that melatonin suppression has a more complex manor of functioning. The wavelength of melatonin sensitivity is different from the visual wavelength. That means, most, NOT ALL, of the impact comes from ipRGC (intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cell) with the cones primarily responsible for short, initial reaction. As science gets closer and closer to understanding this complex interplay, expect lighting to be adjusted with the idea that good lighting can mean good health. This will be a powerful step in the maturation of solid state lighting! (I wrote about this point in a previous post, if interested in more information:
  • Because of this newer understanding of melatonin wavelength peak, we now know that it overlaps with the blue LED that is the basis for most white light. There is now talk of changing blue to violet and then adjusting the phosphor blend resulting in the same visual appearance, but without the harmful byproduct. While not mentioned in this talk, there had been some concern that violet would reintroduce ultraviolet light, losing one of the key benefits of LED light. As with so much of these findings, more information is yet to come!
  • Remember the “L” prize light bulbs? The first 60-watt, incandescent LED retrofits announced in 2011? Those lamps are still energized and operating in the test lab! They are all operational, now at 90,000 hours with NO failures and virtually no reduction in light output and color shift! (Remember what I said in the previous post on “buying cheap? )
  • Many parts of a building are moving to a more sustainable version, but lighting is lagging behind. (Sound familiar? Remember the halcyon days of residential energy use improvements, pre-LED?) It is expected that lighting too, will be dragged into this desire for a more sustainable product. There are reasons why it is more difficult, but in the long run, change will be demanded.
  • Diffuser science is getting VERY interesting. Because of the adverse initial reaction to the intense LED “dots” of light, a substantially different diffuser is needed. Diffusers are not just pieces of plastic any longer! Waveguides push light in complex directions to eliminate the glare. Micro-printing adds microscopic dot of wave scattering ink onto the surface, without much light loss or color characteristics reductions.
  • Customers are now faced with a much more complex lighting systems. Because everyone want to “invent” the next, best, great luminaire, product has arrived in a silo and the backlash has started. There is growing demand for interchangeability. There is a need for a more common language. In the past, a 40W ballast on a luminaire could easily be swapped. That is not the case with LED. An industry agreement is needed to achieve cross-vendor flexibility. The customer is rumbling and this must be solved soon.
  • There is growing evidence that communication between the HVAC system and the lighting systems is needed. Both are needed when people are in a space and not needed when empty. Expect more conversations to come on this merger.
  • 28% of carbon emissions are from building operations. That includes lighting. If we are able to bring the cost of electricity down through the use of non-fossil fuel creation (still a while, in my estimation!) then the onus will be on carbon emission from buildings, not power plants! Improvements will be needed, fast.
  • The large-scale use of LiFi is as close as two to three years away. Because of our cluttered radio wave environment, this will be a welcome relief and a game-changer.

We need to design light for a space, rather than fitting light into a form that has previously existed. Remember, lighting started with a candle, replaced with gas, delivered in a pinpoint shape, like a wick, changed to a filament in a glass enclosure the shape of a flame and now we are stuffing LED componentry into the same flame shaped envelop! As the science matures, lighting used in the future will be very different. The arc of change is very long, but it does indeed bend. Get ready for it!

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Buying Cheap Will Cost You!

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A recent Wall Street Journal article (Why LED Bulbs Don’t Always Live Up to the Hype About Their Life Span – Jo Craven McGinty 10-1-2021) detailed some of the frailties surrounding expected lifespan of LED light bulbs. Unfortunately, they failed to discuss a crucial element that is now leading to shorter lived lamps…the desire for cheap.

The reporter talked to the Director of Research at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and he clearly defined the reasons for lower longevity. There is, however an underlying reason for his recommendation to use “LED System Life” rather than LED life as a better way to measure expected life. Multiple reports and investigations indicate failure is most likely to occur in the driver and electronics. The LED have proven to be very effective and hardy, failing at a very low rate. A quick overview by the DOE helps us to understand the conclusion delivered by Rensselaer.

Consumers were never able to justify a light bulb that cost tens times a conventional incandescent lamp. Initial sales were poor. At those prices, efficiency needs would not be met.

One of my favorite jokes tells the story. A kangaroo walks into a bar and orders a martini. The bartender prepares the drink and places it on the bar. “That will be $35.” The kangaroo pays the bartender and the bartenders comments, “You know, we don’t get many kangaroos in here.” The kangaroo responds, “At these prices, I’m not surprised!”

To make LED lighting more acceptable to the greater kangaroo population, they had to be cheaper. That means money needed to be extracted from the components and manufacturing process. Using high quality LED, electronic circuitry, drivers and a strong deference to thermal management, the original LED would last far longer than the advertised 50,000 hours. Cheaper electronics, disregarding heat or combining circuits on a common board all make the light bulb less expensive, but at a cost to longevity.

There is a wonderful analysis conducted by the website “Hackaday” that tells this tale. By analyzing the components and construction of three readily available LED lamps, understanding “you get what you pay for” is easy.

To paraphrase the research, a very inexpensive lamp combines the LED and driver on a single board. (There are other electronic and wiring variations I will not recount.) With inexpensive components, wiring and assembly, this lamp promises a life of 7500 hours. The second lamp is a bit more expensive and the life expectancy is doubled to 15,000 hours. This is accomplished by separating the driver, thereby protecting it from the heat and delivering an incrementally better product. The best of the three tested light bulbs separates the driver and LED and uses superior capacitors rated for higher temperatures. (There are other improvement as well.) The price is the highest of the three and it lasts the longest, at a promised 25,000 hours. If longer lasting light bulbs are desired, they can be had, but it will cost more.

(If desired, you may read the full report here:

LED System Life should be the barometer of the future. The reality of our desire for cheap, cheaper and cheapest has forced a realignment of expectations for LED. It is a shame that the LED is getting the bad name.

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Non-Visual Photoreceptors

What the heck are non-visual photoreceptors and why do I care about them? I’m not a research scientist, so let me explain this in the way I understand it. Please don’t use this simplified explanation in your application for a Nobel Prize!

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When I started to research the color of light and its impact on human health, perhaps ten years ago, I became aware of the circadian cycle built into the human body (and almost every animal.) Our understanding of the circadian rhythm is actually new science. It was first realized in 2000. At the time, we began to learn about non-visual receptors in our eyes (iPRGC) whose singular job is to detect levels of blue light, thereby turning on and off the body’s production of melatonin, which in turn drives our circadian. More recently, scientists have learned that there are other factors that control this important body-clock.

An educational session at LightFair 2021 talked about new research that has uncovered additional non-visual photoreceptors that help our body function, based on the color of light with which they interface.

In a previous post, (Baseball and Lighting) I reminded readers that our body was engineered with only natural light in mind. The body needs blue light during the day and darkness at night. Unfortunately, we have chosen, over the last 100 years or so to live in opposition to the natural environment, employing artificial light. That artificial light presents to our body wavelengths different than the sun’s and different than what we need, hence the health problems we are encountering.

Melanopsin regulates the circadian with input from the iPRGC in the eye. New research indicates we have other “light sensing proteins,” opsins that have their own specific demand for light and their own specific reason for needing it. Because artificial light does not now deliver that type of wavelength, adverse medical conditions are occurring. Opsin 5, Neuropsin is located in the brain, skin, retina and cornea. Opsin 4, Encephalopsin is found in the brain, skin, retina and fat cells. That means there are tissues in our body that are light sensitive.

It is believed that a reduction of the light anticipated by these opsins is responsible for elevated retinopathy in infants, increases in myopia and the regulation of metabolism. Most every lighting system used today is designed, understandably, for the body’s visual system. In the future, we will likely need to design and employ systems that address the needed wavelengths of light by these opsins.

How Will This Be Done?

Again, we should remember the sun. The sun delivers light at every wavelength, in varying values. By looking at the research and the levels of light required, engineers can create artificial light commensurate with the needs of our visual system AND our non-visual receptors.

The direction in which light reaches us is also important. As you know, most artificial light comes to us from overhead, but the sun travels through the sky in an ever-changing pattern starting very low in the morning, overhead at midday and again, near the opposite horizon in the evening. That means our bodies anticipate more vertical light than we currently receive. We should expect this solution to come in fewer ceiling flush lights, more task plane lighting and even illuminated walls and panels.

At this point, there are some products on the market that address this need. As the research continues and grows, expect to see and hear more. Just remember, like so much in lighting lately, change is afoot!

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Baseball and Lighting

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Summer has ended and that means we’re in the thick of baseball playoffs and well into football season, with most taking place under artificial light. The first Major League baseball game played at night, under a lighted stadium took place in Cincinnati, at Crosley Field on May 24, 1935. The Reds beat the visiting Philadelphia Phillies and a new era in sporting events was born. Along with baseball, high school football games are typically played on Friday nights under the lights. There was even a movie and popular television show that co-opted the term – Friday Night Lights. The NFL regularly schedules professional games on Monday, Thursday and Sunday nights and NCAA football features numerous games on Saturday night. (Should Tuesday and Wednesday feel slighted?) Lighted fields are de rigureur. We might wonder, without light, would these games be as popular? Without popular nighttime competition, would we have fewer self-centered, millionaire, adult-teenagers? One thing is certain, it would be as smaller business.

Before electric lighting, people awoke with the sun and went to sleep at sunset. Work in the fields was impossible in the dark. Candles and fire could provide only a few additional hours of light, before prudence forced their being extinguished. Light substitutes were expensive. Tallow candles in 1880 cost 40¢ per 1000 lumen hours. A fluorescent lamp cost about $0.001 per 1000 lumen hours for the same amount of light. The kerosene required for three hours of light cost about one hour of a workers wage at the time, while today, one hour’s pay buys about 300 days of light.* Sure, baseball would be different, but home life would be equally affected.

Would there be positives to an absence of nighttime illumination? An agrarian economy would likely still exist, forcing most of us to heed the dictates of the sun. Dark nights and blue-rich, sun-filled days are exactly what our body wants and needs. This circadian balance would, with a few exceptions, end sleepless nights and insomnia. There is mounting evidence that cancer rates would be lowered as melatonin levels are no longer suppressed. Of course we’d all need to balance that against the grueling hours of backbreaking physical labor.

We are living in a bit of a lighting renaissance today. The engineers have abandoned 130 year old incandescent technology and continue to escalate improvements in LED. That has allowed designers to reimagine what light could be. Doctors and scientist are developing a better grasp on how light impacts humans (and animals and plants and sea life and….) Both will allow us to enjoy the advantages of light and avoid all of the bad parts light used to deliver.

So is there a happy medium between Laura Ingalls and Aldous Huxley? We are still a few years away from definitive directives on light from the scientific community, but the direction is becoming VERY clear. If we think about a time when farm families arose early, spent most of day out of doors and prepared for sleep around the reddish-amber color of firelight, the closer we can replicate that, the better off we will be today. Our bodies have not changed, the surroundings in which we place them have. In short, we need to consider attending more day-games and fewer nighttime gridiron matches. Despite its impact on team owners’ player’s and groupie’s pocketbooks.

*Steven Johnson, How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World 2015.

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Too Much Light, or Not Enough?

A friend allowed me to borrow a book he thought would interest me. The 99% City (Mars & Kohlstedt) is described as “a field guide to the hidden world of everyday design” whereby it explores the important, but overlooked elements that make a city function. He knows my passion for better lighting and called my attention to sections on street lighting.

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Not Enough Light

“City of Light – Dissuasive Illumination,” explains that street light was an early way to make streets safer at night. They raised visibility and invited community. Street lights are certainly not new. Ancient Roman, Chinese and 15th century Europe all found value in better nighttime illumination and levels of use continued to increase, until, the book points out, there was pushback. Dark nights were good places for French Revolutionists. On the opposite side of the equation, people engaging in unseemly activities also preferred the dark.

Too Much Light

Another chapter, “Moonlight Towers” talks about the multi-story, arc-light towers that were constructed in Austin, Texas, among other US municipalities in the 1890s. Along with the required daily replacement of the electrodes, the noise, waste and intense glare caused push-back from residents. They were eventually removed in every city, except for the cash-strapped, Austin. The un-electrified towers remain as an indicator of the city’s historic past. Welder’s helmets, no longer required.

Like Austin, at that time, most of our cities are over-lit. Every alleyway has lighting, car lots are blasted with light all night and downtowns are bombarded with excess light that often does nothing but erase our ability to see the sky. Plants and animals are subsequently impact by excess nighttime lighting, effecting migratory patterns, nocturnal predators, adjoining aquatic life and a fairly large swath of conifer varietals, among other plants.

Just the Right Amount of Light

We are nearing a similar “good/bad, more/less light” position today. New research has been published recently that shows lower levels of light, but with better color properties is better for the user, pedestrian and worker in nighttime situations. Most of these measurements are substantially below government mandated levels. We all know that changing government regulations is akin to a “U” turn in an aircraft carrier, but the enticement of lower electric costs should make change inevitable.

Many people still believe more light is better and even higher levels of light are even better than that. Simply put, they are wrong. Our eyes function very well in extremely low levels of light and are slow to adjust to higher levels. Turn on the bedroom light in the middle of the night and you’ll know what I mean. This can be a difficult argument to win, however, especially when perceptions of safety are at stake.


Just as headway was being made in convincing people to reduce lumen amounts in outdoor residential applications, energy efficiency introduced better fluorescent, then new LED lamping. Light quantities popped back up. With integrated LED luminaires, the lumen output is staying high and a front porch light is often the last place you’ll find a dimmer. The use of color temperatures over 3000 doesn’t help either. In an effort to do the right thing, the unexpected consequence was the wrong thing. Sigh.

I have always recommended the lowest wattage possible for any surface mounted light on a home, especially if a professional landscape lighting solution has been installed. Anything higher will force visitors to squint as they approach the door. As we adjust to energy efficient product, find the LED lamp that delivers 200 to 400 lumens rather than the 800 lumens you got from a 60 watt incandescent lamp. If using an integrated luminaire, (bravo to you!) install a dimmer. Your guests, along with the birds and trees will thank you.

I do not expect lighting professionals to become Robespierre, shouting “À la lanterne!” if lower light levels are not heeded. (Lampposts served as impromptu gallows for hanging during la révolution française.) I hope some common sense is employed and a happy balance between no light and too much is found. Now, if we are going to argue over the effectiveness of the Jacobins or Cordelier factions as they relate to the French Revolution, a lamppost might be in order. On or off won’t make a difference.

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Assistance With Lighting

During a recent lecture with a large group of designers, “lighting brand recommendations” was the most popular request I received. Because there are so many brands, it is often difficult for designers, to say nothing of the typical consumer to wrap their arms around this broad category. Combine that with placement optimization and technology changes and the average consumer and professional designer is left with a challenge. So what do you do?

Lighting Designer

As lighting becomes more and more complicated, the need for a professional, well-versed in the practice is becoming more important. The percentage of projects that employ a designer to specifically address lighting is in the single digits. That must increase. LED has created “The Wild, Wild West” where new suppliers crop-up hourly, deliverables are knowingly, or unknowingly exaggerated and the foundation a conventional 60-watt light bulb provided has been shattered. People can’t intuitively relate to lumens. They don’t understand integrated installations and luminaire-control compatibility remains a mystery. We won’t even try to broch the subject of voice-controlled, smart systems.

While it could be a pipe dream, I have to think the employment of lighting designers will increase in the coming years. With Boomers and Gen X holding large percentages of wealth, residential projects should be increasing in value and a desire for a “better” lighting option should be inevitable. Insuring great lighting that saves money and performs more effectively will be worth the professional fees associated with the expertise delivered.

A Friend in the Biz

Weeding through the mass of decorative product is almost as daunting. One of the most popular requests I receive is for a curated list of lighting options. With selected furniture, floor-coverings, window dressings and wall-covering choices made, “What are the decorative lighting options?” if you talk to anyone who works in lighting, this is a common request. Showrooms display a thousand products. E-retailors fill websites with postage-stamp sized images of 36” diameter chandeliers. Both have pros and cons. An internet site allows you to shop in your PJs with no disturbance other than the incessant pop-ups. In the store size and scale is easier to imagine, if there weren’t so darned many other pieces encroaching on the vision. Mass retailers hang hundreds on wire racks, far overhead in a lovely warehouse setting. If that doesn’t get the creative juices flowing, I can’t imagine what will!

Having someone whittle the mass down to four or six options can be amazingly helpful for many people. Unfortunately, not everyone knows someone in lighting. That is why the next group is so valuable.

Lighting Sales People

You can’t buy a mattress without a salesperson. Try; it’s just too complicated. A salesman-free car buying experience could be a joy, unfortunately it is all but impossible, even via an online site. It is time to respect Lighting Salespeople more. Most are real pros. Most have multiple years of experience. A large quantity are ALA (American Lighting Association) Certified. While the average citizen buys a lighting product every seven years, these folks think about, discuss and learn about lighting daily. They are a great resource. What’s more, they are free! Talk to them online or in the retail establishment and they will provide a career of expertise.

Remember, many earn a commission. If you’ve received usable information, buy the luminaire from them! They worked. You learned. Respect that and allow them to earn money and help the next person. Didn’t get what you needed from the sales person? Ask for someone else or try another establishment. Perhaps the lighting store owner is trying to staff their place with minimum wage, junior-high school dropouts. They might be crappy employers and pros refuse to work for them. Taking your business elsewhere will help them understand their poor decisions. Just buy from a quality retailor with good salespeople.


When each room in a home featured one light bulb in the center of each room, it was simpler. When each city had one retailer handling lighting and the internet was not yet imagined, it was simpler. Before LED, Smart Homes, Energy Efficiency and sustainability, it was simpler. Now, we need help to insure we are specifying, buying and using the best lighting options possible. Whether it is a Lighting Designer, a professional lighting salesperson or (if you’re lucky) a friend in the business, call them. You’ll be amazed at the difference they make. You’ll be amazed at the difference it will make in your home or business.

Aesthetic Lighting Help Technical Lighting Help

Consider the Application

So often, aesthetics drive our lighting selection. We pick a luminaire with the idea that it blends well with the surroundings, is decoratively relevant and has spacial parameters that fit in the room. Often times, we overlook the use, or application. That can be a big mistake.

When I started to exercise at my current gym, three corners of the room were somewhat dimly lit. That was ok with me. One corner held bench press equipment and the other two are used for mat work (crunches, abs, etc.) A few years ago, someone must have walked through the place and noticed the inconsistency. The dark corners could easily be resolved with the addition of new lighting fixtures. In a day or two, three new, 2×24 fluorescent wrap-around fixtures were installed and the overall lumen intensity was much more balanced. Great, right? Not so much.

Whether on a mat or under a barbell, you are looking up at the ceiling. Now, instead of non-aggressive overflow lighting from the rest of the room, a glaring light pokes users in the eye as they attempt a crunch or a lift. I realized this a few months ago when the gym reopened after the COVID shutdown. The mats and benches were relocated to a space that features indirect light. Initially, I didn’t understand why I was enjoying my workout more (or, enjoying it as much as one can!) As I laid on the bench or the mat, glaring light was not aimed directly at my eyes. The soft, buffered light was doing its job, but not annoying me. The application of light was good for the user. What a wonderful idea!

Bathroom Lighting

Glistening clear glass has been a HOT lighting trend for almost ten years. While it is beginning to cool now, there are still hundreds of thousands of bathrooms illuminated with clear glass. They look great, but completely ignore the user. Undiffused light, aimed directly at your eyes while in the midst of personal grooming hinders more than helps. What’s more, most are located over the mirror, rather than along each side, making them even more difficult to process. Younger folks can get by with these excesses, but as we age, it becomes more and more of an annoyance. I have predicted for many years that thrift shops and Goodwill stores everywhere will be overwhelmed with these difficult units as soon as the trend is fully buried and gone. To be more helpful to the user, well diffused light will always be a better option, especially in this important area of the home.

Kitchen Island Lighting

The bottom of island pendants are best positioned 36” over the top of the countertop, which is 36” above the floor. That means the light source is typically 6’-0” to 7’-0” off the floor. This location is VERY similar to the over-mirror lights in the bathroom. This location works against the user in much the same way, when the pendants feature clear glass and exposed light bulbs. Rather than aiding in meal preparation, the light causes glare and distracts from the detailed work that occurs on the surface below.

Unshielded light aims directly at the user’s eyes, even when hung in the correct location, making food preparation more difficult that necessary.
Well shielded light does not interfere with function. Light application and the user interaction should be considered along with amount, placement, style and size.

Landscape Lighting

The backbone of good landscape lighting is the obfuscation of the light source in favor of the delivered light. I’m always amused when I see a landscape lighting accent light aimed at a beautiful front door. The house typically looks great. The door becomes a highpoint and visitors can easily find their way to the home’s threshold. Unfortunately, the problem comes when they leave. The light is now aimed directly at the departing guests who are temporarily blinded as they grope toward the unknown step edge. Bad lighting, not the nightcap is the more common cause of sprained ankles and family spats.

Think About the Application

In each instance, lighting was selected and positioned to complement the space, but little regard was given to the humans who will inhabit and use the end result. Sure, we want the place to look good. We need certain amounts of light to function once the sun sets. We also want lighting that physically fills the area. It is time to include one more parameter, the user. With all these points considered, proper lighting application can be achieved.