Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Curious NY Times article on Fluorescent Lights

A NY Times article entitled "Any Other Bright Ideas?", on the pros and cons of compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), appeared in their House&Home section on 1/10. It had a lot of useful information, and provided interesting perspectives by various families that have tried the bulbs. Unfortunately, the article gave greatest prominence to the negative aspects of some bulbs, and at one point was completely contradictory. What the consumer needs is information on which bulbs produce pleasing light, yet this information was buried deep in the article, likely to be missed by all but the most thorough readers.

The kind of bulb that lights my workspace, a n:vision TCP, is described as harsh and hospital-like in one spot in the article, then as warm and pleasant in another. CFLs I've purchased in recent years don't buzz, flicker, or delay in turning on, so it was surprising to see these qualities given a high profile in the article. The stated price of the bulbs, too, was much higher than what they are being sold for locally. (see post on 1/2/08)

The n:vision bulbs are available at Home Depot, and perhaps other locations. They come in different warmths of light, so look for the color-coding on the package to find a bulb with more yellow and less of that "daylight" blue. Those with the green-colored packaging are the most pleasant indoors.

As I found out while helping a friend convert her office to fluorescents, the compact variety still take a minute or so to reach full brightness. When first turning on a 100 watt equivalent CFL, you're likely to think you got a raw deal, since it appears considerably dimmer than the 100 watt incandescent bulb it's supposed to replace. Give it a minute, though, and it will glow as brightly as the incandescent did, and use only a quarter of the energy. The 60 watt n:vision, however, instantly generates a bright light, so essentially imitates an incandescent bulb.

Some people are hesitant to use fluorescents, citing the dangers of the mercury they contain. There are various arguments against letting such a concern rule your decision: The amount of mercury they contain is minute and is sequestered in the bulb. Trace amounts of mercury are already present in our environment. Using fluorescents reduces the amount of mercury released from power plants. Anyone who has a manual thermostat or a non-digital thermometer in the house is already sequestering far more mercury than a household's worth of CFLs.
For more detail on mercury in CFLs, try and

Compost Bucket Recommendation

When I was looking for a compost bucket to buy, I was glad for a friend's recommendation of a comparatively inexpensive, stainless steel model available from They still have it, in two sizes, for around $17. (,33140)

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Can-Do Water Heater Adjustment

Of all the houses I've lived in, this is the first in which it occurred to me to change the temperature control on the hot water heater. They're so quiet and unassuming, tucked away somewhere in a closet or the basement. If by rare chance you encounter it during daily domestic ramblings, it's not likely to give off that "Come and adjust me" kind of vibe.

Turning the water heater back on after a long vacation, I happened to adjust the temperature control so that the hot water for the shower was consistently just right. No cold water needed. Just turn on the hot.

Through this chance discovery, the hot water heater now burns less gas, and there's no longer a need to fiddle with the cold and hot water knobs before and during the shower.

Not to say this will work in all homes. Serendipity may be playing a role here, involving the rhythm of hot water use in the house, but for the sake of some simplicity and economy, it's worth a try.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Princeton Environmental Film Festival

Below is the link to info about the great film festival at the Princeton Public Library, in its second year, happening now through January 12. I'll be making a slide presentation entitled "Restoring Native Habitats In Princeton Preserves and Backyards" on Saturday, Jan. 12 at 1:30.

The 2008 Princeton Environmental Film Festival

Wednesday January 2 – Sunday January 6, and Saturday January 12

All screenings and talks are free and open to the public and are in the Community Room at the Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, Princeton, NJ.

COMPLETE SCHEDULE and more information:

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Partial Retrofits with Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs

Compact fluorescents have come a long way, but they work better in some spots than others.

Start with outdoor lighting that is on for long periods, and utility areas. I've been impressed with the fluorescent spotlights (though less advantageous for motion sensor lights, since the light is only on for brief periods), and have put the regular CFLs (Compact fluorescent lights) in enclosed outdoor fixtures without problems.

For indoors, the light they give off is much improved, and can be softened further by using them in lamps, where the glass or lampshade will add yellow to their glow.

For rooms with recessed or track lighting, or where dimmer switches make fluorescents problematic, it may work better to simply create a fluorescent alternative in those rooms rather than replacing the more wasteful bulbs. That way, when the room isn't being used but one wants some sort of light on, a lamp or overhead with a florescent can be turned on, with the other lighting reserved for times when you want additional or more ornate light.

Some people wait until an incandescent bulb burns out before replacing it with a compact florescent. My thinking is: Don't wait. Start reducing energy consumption now, and if you don't want to throw out a still-functional incandescent, then store it away, as a backup for those few spots where incandescents are more appropriate, for instance where a light is only used for a few minutes at a time.

Compact fluorescents are cheaper than most articles say. Recently, I found both 60 and 75 watt equivalents selling individually for 75 cents each at Walmart (strangely, packages of multiple bulbs in another display in the same store were more expensive per bulb) (One a subsequent visit, the bargain display had disappeared--a "one time deal" according to one of the employees). The big box hardware stores usually have 60 watt equivalents for $1 each these days (As of 1/16, they are more like 3 for $5).

An Energy Meter in Action

In Princeton, the town's effort to reduce energy consumption began with an assessment of the municipal buildings' energy use. If this makes sense for a town, then maybe it makes sense for a home.

The Kill-a-Watt is a useful tool for getting a handle on some of your energy use. (They are available over the internet, but not locally.) It can test anything that plugs into a regular wall socket, up to 1850 watts.

Here it is in action, measuring how much electricity a toaster oven uses. 1400 watts is 100 times as much as a florescent bulb uses, and about half as much as a small electric dryer.

A toaster uses lots of energy but for a very short time. Press the red button on the right side of the Kill-a-Watt meter and it tells you how much energy the toasting of toast took--a grand 0.05 kilowatt hours. That's about one penny's worth of energy--about the same as having a 50 watt light bulb on for an hour.

Obviously, toasters are not toasting the planet, but check other appliances and you're sure to find some unnecessary drains on energy. The device is particularly good for finding and measuring the energy used by electronics even when they are off. An October 21, 2007 post gives more info on what various appliances use.