Somewhere, Thomas Alva Edison is laughing out loud. Even an act of Congress couldn’t break America of its fondness for the incandescent bulb—or at least its gently rounded profile. After decades of attempts to build a better light bulb with technology ranging from tubular fluorescents to hot-to-the-touch halogens, the biggest news in lighting is. . .the Edison look-alike filament LED. Your eyes aren’t deceiving you: these energy-sipping bulbs come in a slew of early 20th-century incandescent profiles, from the classic inverted-pear shape to globe, tube, candelabra, and more. That’s not the only blast from the past, either: gaslight is making a comeback, too.
Lighting has always been driven by technology and available sources of energy. In the 18th century, that meant candlepower; in the 19th, whale oil, kerosene, and gas; in the 20th, electricity. Fixtures were defined in large part by how the fuel source burned: Candelabra and chandeliers were equipped with many upright arms to hold burning wax candles. Jetted gasoliers were wedded to fixed positions to tap into dedicated gas lines.
The electric light bulb turned all that on its head. Edison’s carbon-filament bulb could operate in any position: up, down, sideways, or tilted at an angle. Not only that, Edison made sure his bright idea would catch on by developing a whole suite of inventions that made using light bulbs practical, ultimately leading to an entire energy grid based on electricity.
The result was an explosion of innovation in the shapes, styles, and placement of light fixtures and lamps. The only limitation was proximity to an electrical outlet, or to electrical wiring concealed in walls or ceilings.
Over the years, the incandescent bulb was improved on and diversified. The first frosted bulbs appeared in the 1920s, along with neon, according to “The History of the Light Bulb” (energy.gov). The “soft” light incandescent debuted in the 1940s. Bulbs of different wattages were released to give consumers options for different uses, such as reading or cooking. Soon it was common knowledge that “low” lighting was produced by a 25-watt bulb. A 60-watt bulb was considered “standard.” The 100-watt bulb was (initially) the brightest bulb in the pack.
In actuality, wattage is a measure of how much energy a bulb uses per hour, and a 60-watt bulb consumes a lot of energy. As electricity costs climbed in the late 20th century, alternatives to the energy-hogging incandescent emerged, notably the compact fluorescent (CFL). Intended as a replacement source for standard light bulbs in the 1980s and ’90s, CFLs were expensive, bulky, and funny-looking. While they used far less energy than incandescent bulbs, consumer acceptance was slow, partly because they were expensive and didn’t fit well into existing fixtures.
More recent improvements in CFL performance, price, and longevity brought greater acceptance. CFLs were challenged, if not superseded, by the emergence of halogen lights in the late 1990s as an energy-efficient source of spot lighting.
The knock on halogens, of course, is that they are very hot, making them problematic for under-cabinet or tabletop lighting. Light bulbs composed of light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, began showing up in the U.S. market in 2009. LEDs are far and away the most efficient source of commercial or residential lighting, using 80 percent less power than halogens and 50 percent less than CFLs.
Initially expensive and available only in awkward, post space-age designs, they’ve lately yielded to more pleasing profiles that include bulbs on the visually warm part of the spectrum. You can easily find LED and halogen bulbs in standard profiles like the A19 (the most common incandescent shape) in opalescent, clear, and tinted glass. Prices are trending lower, too. For example, a 10-pack of A19 8.5-watt LEDs was recently on sale at Sam’s Club for $24.98, or about $2.50 a bulb.
Provided they’re not mishandled, LEDs can last for years, meaning we are now facing a future where light bulbs have longer lives than some light fixtures. Of course, if you’ve inherited or invested in fixtures with timeless character, you should be set for a long time to come.
Count Lumens, Not Watts
Having trouble choosing the right bulb in the hardware store? Read the packaging. For more than a century we’ve identified bulbs by wattage—40 watts, 75 watts, etc.—a measure of power consumption. While LEDs are identified by the watts they consume (usually a tiny percentage of the comparable incandescent), the big number is the amount of lumens they generate. Like apples and oranges, the two measures aren’t easily comparable.
The watt is a measure of power consumption, while lumens are a measure of a light bulb’s efficiency: the amount of light it produces divided by the power it draws in watts. Lumens are usually listed on light-bulb packaging, so use this quick conversion chart from New York State Energy Research & Development Authority as a guide.
Down Lighting? Maybe.
It’s become standard to install spot ceiling lights—or luminaires—in home remodels, regardless of the age of the house. But do you really need to? That depends. If the room being remodeled is a formal living room or parlor, period-friendly lighting in the form of chandeliers, pendants, and wall sconces—not to mention task, reading, or decorative lighting—can light the room for a variety of uses and moods, especially when at least a few of the fixtures are equipped with dimmers.
That said, the ingenious, adjustable and subtle ceiling lights known as wall washers that can pivot to highlight prized artwork can be a bonus. Those who prefer increasing a number of lumens at the touch of a finger can conceal LED strip lighting behind high picture rails or tall shelves with mouldings.
If it’s a kitchen remodel—or anywhere hands-on work is done—consider concealed strip or tape lighting. As our eyes age, we need more light to safely accomplish tasks like chopping vegetables or wrestling with the Thanksgiving turkey. Under-cabinet lighting is a must if the counters beneath are the main work space. It’s easily installed, too, considering that there are low-voltage LED tapes as little as 1⁄10″ thick on the market.
For the ceiling, judicious use of small, unobtrusive luminaires will boost task lighting and even overall ambiance. Just remember that less may be more when it comes to lighting in older houses, and install only as many lights as you truly need.
The Quality of Light
As lighting grows ever more sophisticated, the possibilities have moved beyond mere brightness to the quality of the light produced in terms of color temperature.
LED bulbs are specified at temperatures between 2,700 and 6,500 Kelvin. LEDs at the lower end of the scale cast light that’s yellowish and warmer in appearance, similar to that produced by an incandescent. “Cool white” bulbs trend toward the bluish end of the spectrum, and higher numbers. They more resemble outdoor light on a sunny day.
Theoretically, a LED at the warmer end of the spectrum (2,700 to 3,000) is better for ambiance, and one on the higher side (over 5,000) is better for task lighting or reading. Those more familiar with incandescent light, however, might prefer to lamp an entire house with bulbs on the low end.
The best way to choose new lighting is to try bulbs of different color temperatures. As part of the exercise, you may notice that some bulbs appear to show colors more vibrantly than others. That’s because some bulbs reproduce colors more accurately than others given the same amount of light.
There’s a measure for that, too: the Color Rendering Index. One of the reasons people prefer incandescent light over CFLs or LEDs is that the old bulbs usually score 100 out of 100 on this index. LEDs are catching up, though. There are now LEDs that score in the 90s; look for the CRI rating when you research bulbs online or at the hardware store.
Dimming With LEDs
LEDs are growing more user-friendly all the time, but at least one hurdle still remains: using them with dimmers. In some cases, you can screw an LED bulb into a dimmable fixture and it will work perfectly. In others, you may find yourself in a netherworld of flickering or flashing light, weird oscillations, or stutter dimming.
That’s because LEDs draw a fraction of the electricity of old-style incandescent bulbs. Further, most existing dimmer switches were rated for loads as high as 400 watts, which can be 10 or 15 times greater than the load of the replacement LEDs. Sometimes the dimmer simply can’t “read” the load of the LED bulb. That’s when the weirdness ensues.
Start by testing different LED bulbs with an existing dimmer. Sometimes the new light will work fine, sometimes it won’t. If none of the obvious choices works properly, the solution is to replace the dimmer switch with one designed to work with your chosen bulbs.
If there is more than one bulb or luminaire on the same dimming circuit, use bulbs from the same manufacturer. That should ensure that the dimmer can send a common signal to each light source. Mixing bulbs may result in flickering or humming as the dimmer tries different methods of communication.
Gaslight Makes a Comeback
Gaslight is a given for street lights in cities from Charleston to Cincinnati. It’s also a rapidly growing niche in new outdoor residential lighting. But can it make a comeback indoors?
On a recent episode of HGTV’s “House Hunters,” the buyers of a historic San Francisco townhouse discover a working, open-shade gaslight fixture in the kitchen. They nonchalantly use it while having breakfast with their small children.
Was that safe?
It depends. There are no national standards for gaslight use indoors, whether historic or reproduction, and installing new gaslight can be problematic. “To my knowledge, you cannot get anybody to tell you [whether] their gas fixtures are certified for indoor use,” says Ginger Rushing, president of Gas Copper Lanterns and coppergaslanternsplus.com.
Outdoor gaslight has no such grey area. Driven by architects, contractors, and homeowners charmed by the mellow glow of real flame, the market for outdoor gaslight use is booming. A dozen or more companies offer certified or UL-listed gaslight bracket lanterns, post and column mounts, pendants, and over-the-door “moustache” lamps for use on open-air porches, entries, decks, lawns, and driveways.
“What has really become a design feature is the open flame fixture,” says David Jardini, owner of American Gas Lamp Works, whose period-style cast aluminum or copper lanterns produce a beautiful, flickering flame two inches high. “They are exclusively for ambiance.”
Drew Bevolo, owner of the namesake company, agrees, saying that a gas-fired open flame inside one of Bevolo’s hand-riveted copper lanterns produces about as much light as a bright full moon. “It’s a pilot light with a fancy cover.”
Bevolo has made authentic gas lighting for indoor use for a number of historic museums, and Drew Bevolo is convinced the lights can be safe, provided the fixture is certified for indoor use and the gas line is pressure-tested.
Getting such certification is complicated, however. Assuming you can find a plumber willing to test the line, there’s the matter of local approval. In some cases it’s impossible to know whether the light will be permitted until after it has been installed, says Rushing. For example, the state of Massachusetts requires that gaslight fixtures be certified specifically by the state plumbing board: “That’s how tricky it can be.”
Gaslight’s perceived dangers date from the mid-19th century, when bracket lamps and chandeliers were fueled by “coke” or “town” gas. Made from coal, this type of gas contained carbon monoxide and other flammable gases, and was dirtier than the natural and LP gas available today. Early fixtures also lacked safety features to prevent the flow of gas without ignition. Both conditions can—and did—lead to explosions.
Gaslight grew safer with the introduction of the Welsbach mantle in the 1880s. A mantle is essentially a tiny sock impregnated with minerals that fits over the gas jet, making it safer to light. While lacking the allure of the open flame, mantle gas lamps also produced brighter light, leading to widespread gas use on streets and homes throughout America.
Today, an open-flame natural or LP gaslight still produces methane, which can collect in an enclosed room, Rushing says. That’s one reason she routinely turns away business for lanterns for indoor use. “Anytime anybody brings up the subject of a thermocouple, that’s a big red flag.”
All open-flame gaslight fixtures made today are vented at the top with chimneys with perforated holes. The bottom plates are also perforated. “That is what creates the chimney effect, where the air is drawn up by the heat in the lantern,” says Rushing. Hot air and gases escape through the top.
The open flame produces a surprising amount of heat, up to 450 to 500 degrees Fahrenheit above the top of the fixture. “We always caution people about using them on deck posts, where children or animals could come in contact with them.”
Most manufacturers recommend leaving outdoor gaslight running continuously, because the igniters used to fire the lights have notoriously short lifespans. If you’ll be away for an extended time or a windstorm is coming, turn the light off as a commonsense safety precaution.
How to Light a Gas Lamp
Modern gaslights are equipped with safety features that make them far safer than lights of a century ago, but they must be mounted with several inches of clearance from walls and other surfaces because they produce a lot of heat. To light a bracket lamp, for example, open the glass door and turn the lever or key valve into the correct position to allow the gas to flow. Light the tip with a match, not an igniter. Then adjust the height of the flame using the key valve or lever. Most dealers recommend adjusting the flame to about 2″, depending on the scale of the fixture. Once lit, close and latch the door. The lantern will burn continuously with little additional cost or maintenance.