Special Care Instructions

Shedding some light on CFL bulbs

reprinted from the Globe & Mail
January 5, 2008

Energy-efficient light bulbs will negatively affect the colour of your walls, your art, your fabrics and your complexion. They will, however, save energy and money. What a dilemma!

Light is not just a question of volume - brightness and dimness. It has content - i.e. colour. Daylight has all the colours in the spectrum represented in equal amounts. It looks good and feels good because it is a balanced diet of perfect colour. Artificial light, on the other hand, is usually wonky - fluorescents have more green than daylight, while LEDs have more blue and incandescents more yellow. Full-spectrum lights, often used in spa settings, mimic the content of daylight but can seem a little unnatural in the evening when you want to relax and get cozy.

The problem is that the colour of the light affects the colour of an object. And we can see the resulting combination. This is why those trousers that looked black when you left home look navy when you get to the office. It is called metamorism.

Most of us have happily gone about building the colour palettes in our homes using natural light augmented by incandescent or halogen lighting. The bit of extra yellow is not really a problem. This light suits our decor but it also suits our psyche; we are biologically disposed to find the light cast by the glow of an incandescent light bulb's heated filament "right." It mimics sunlight and firelight, getting cooler as it gets brighter and warmer as it dims. And we have lived quite happily this way for 100 years, with no one even trying to improve on the reality that more than 90 per cent of the energy used by the bulbs becomes heat, not light.

Enter the CFL (compact fluorescent lamp).

Everyone fixates on the fact that it is almost 10 times as energy-efficient. Because of this, we are supposed to forget that many fluorescents have a flicker issue that negatively affects some people. They have a start-up time lag so they are not good to use over your stairs if you are always in a rush. Most can't be used outside when it is really cold. Unless you buy a special "three-way" CFL, they can't be dimmed. All contain small amounts of mercury (be very careful if you break one!) so they cannot be thrown out. And, except for Ikea, most stores are happy to sell them but will not take them back for recycling.

But worst of all is their light content. They give off a diffuse light, more like a cloudy day than a sunny one, which is depressing. (And if you have the misfortune to spend your days under large swaths of fluorescent lighting, be sure to get away from it on your lunch break. It makes us tired and depressed. To cope with fluorescent light, our endocrine glands pump out cortisol, a stress hormone. When it is exhausted, we are more susceptible to colds and illness.)

Even the "soft white" CFLs do not give off the same warm tones and crisp light we are used to. They make existing colours look wrong.

Fluorescent lighting is efficient but not sociable. In my experience, it is hard to choose colours that look equally good with fluorescent light and daylight. Incandescents present no such problem.

The solution is not skipping CFLs and heading out to get LEDs (light emitting diodes), which are 50 times more energy-efficient and last "forever." They, too, have their problems. The white light is bluish and the intense pinpoint beam is not diffuse enough for most residential situations. Even as Christmas tree lights, they don't sparkle but merely sit like sullen bullets of colour.

An LED pot light would be about as pleasant as the beam of a Mercedes-Benz headlight burrowing into your eye. Their long life and energy efficiency makes them wonderful for architectural lighting, light effects, dashboards, small appliances and under-cabinet lights. And some of the possibilities are exciting: as in organic LED lighting in flexible sheets that can be used as luminous wallpaper.

I know I am being irresponsible by sticking to my incandescents until someone solves the colour issues of energy-efficient bulbs, but I am willing to compromise.

I will use CFLs in utility areas. And my New Year's resolution is to dim or turn off my inefficient lights whenever possible. That will more than quadruple their efficiency.

Others may be more stoic and try to get used to the unnatural light of CFLs. But since it took two billion years for us to get used to a warmer and varied light, I'm not optimistic.

Janice Lindsay, interior colour and design consultant, is writing The Idea of Colour for McClelland & Stewart. 416-961-6281. http://www.pinkcolouranddesign.com