Home lighting emerges from the dark ages

Roger Diez | Improvement Center Columnist | February 12, 2013

We pretty much take our home's electrical system for granted -- until we lose power and the lights go out. The electrical system has evolved into the central nervous system of our homes, and you are pretty much paralyzed without it, much more than you would have been a century ago.

Home electrical systems first came into existence when electric lighting began to replace gas lights in the late 1800s. Although Thomas Edison was not the first to conceive of the incandescent light bulb, he was the first to make it practical for home lighting. What would old Tom think of today's many applications for electricity -- and the incipient demise of his incandescent lamp? Some of today's lighting technology would probably challenge even his imagination.

Efficient lighting

Edison's incandescent light bulb is being phased out for all practical purposes. It was a brilliant invention in its time, but very inefficient in terms of energy usage. The more efficient fluorescent tube is nearly as old as the incandescent light. but its drawback is mercury vapor, which creates hazardous waste.

As the incandescent is phased out, the compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL) is rapidly taking its place. While concerns have been raised over mercury use in CFLs, they actually contain relatively minute amounts -- the newer ones, even less -- according to EnergyStar.gov. Energy Star suggests that far more mercury is released into the environment by burning coal to produce electricity and that the value of reducing the need to produce more electricity to power inefficient bulbs makes adopting CFLs a safe choice. CFLs use about 75 percent less energy than an incandescent and generate 75 percent less heat. They last 10 to 15 times longer, and save around $6 per year in energy costs. Home improvement stores carry 15-watt CFLs starting at about $1.25 per bulb.

Although newer technology lighting is more costly to purchase than the old incandescent bulbs, lighting as a percentage of income is cheaper today than ever before. When you consider that the median income in 1940 was $956, and $33,276 in 2010, an incandescent bulb would have had to cost less than four cents in 1940 to match the cost of today's CFL bulb.

Mood lighting

While CFLs are efficient, one of their bigger drawbacks is that they don't work well if you want to change their intensity with dimmer switches. Fortunately, light-emitting diodes (LEDs) can be dimmed and can even change colors.

LED lighting is even more efficient and has a longer operating life, up to 25 years. They run around $10 and up per bulb, but pricing is falling rapidly, and LEDs may soon rival CFLs as a preferred light source.

And if you invested in new holiday lights in the last few years, you've probably noticed that the new mini-lights and LEDs look better than the old bulbs, use far less energy, and can be programmed for special effects.

Lighting by remote

While lighting is undergoing dramatic changes, so has the way we are starting to use technology to control our home systems. Smart phones and tablet computers can use smart apps to control many of your home's functions, including programming your lights. You no longer have to worry whether you forgot to set a timer before going out. You can make it look like someone is still home after you leave on vacation. If you are going to be out late, you don't need to leave the outside light on. You can turn it on with your phone any time before you arrive home.

While it requires some specialized hardware and software and a bit of technical expertise, you can operate your lighting and other home functions, including the thermostat, DVR, security system and garage door opener. Your home's electrical system has never been more responsive -- or valuable.

And if we have all this functionality now, who can even imagine what else the future will bring? Given the speed with which it's all evolving, we might feel like Thomas Edison would have if he had been around to see LED lamps, 3D movies, and satellite TV.