How those lightbulb moments can save energy

The cost effectiveness of when to turn off lights depends on the type of bulb and the cost of electricity.

The type of lightbulb you use is important for several reasons. All lightbulbs have a nominal or rated operating life which is affected by how many times they are turned on and off; the more often they are switched on and off, the lower their operating life.

Incandescent lighting

Incandescent lights should be turned off whenever they are not needed because they are the least efficient type of lighting. Around 90 per cent of the energy they use is given off as heat and only about 10 per cent results in light. Turning lights off will also keep a room cooler, an extra benefit in the summer.

Halogen lighting

While halogens are more efficient than traditional incandescent bulbs, they use the same technology and are far less efficient than CFLs and LEDs. Therefore, it is best to turn these lights off whenever they are not needed.

CFL lighting

Since they are already very efficient, the cost effectiveness of turning CFLs off to conserve energy is a bit more complicated. A general rule-of-thumb is this:

  • If you will be out of a room for 15 minutes or less, leave it on.
  • If you will be out of a room for more than 15 minutes, turn it off.

The operating life of CFLs is more affected by the number of times they are switched on and off. You can generally extend the life of a CFL bulb more by switching it on and off less frequently than if you simply use it less.

It is a popularly held belief that CFLs use a lot of energy to get started and it is better not to turn them off for short periods. The amount of energy varies between manufacturers and models—however, ENERGY STAR© rated bulbs are required to endure rapid cycling for five-minute intervals to ensure that they can hold up to frequent switching. In any case, the relatively higher “inrush” current required lasts for half a cycle, or 1/120th of a second.

The amount of electricity consumed to supply the inrush current is equal to a few seconds or less of normal light operation. Turning off fluorescent lights for more than five seconds will save more energy than will be consumed in turning them back on again. Therefore, the real issue is the value of the electricity saved by turning the light off relative to the cost of changing a lightbulb. This in turn determines the shortest cost-effective period for turning off a fluorescent light.

The value of the energy saved by turning a CFL off depends on several factors:

  • The price an electric utility charges its customers depends on the customer classes”, which are typically residential, commercial, and industrial. There can be different rate schedules within each class.
  • Some utilities may charge different rates for electricity consumption during different times of the day. It generally costs more for utilities to generate power during certain periods of high demand or consumption, called peaks.
  • Some utilities can charge commercial and industrial customers more per kilowatt-hour (kWh) during peak periods than for consumption off-peak.
  • Some utilities may also charge a base rate for a certain level of consumption and higher rates for increasing blocks of consumption.
  • Often a utility adds miscellaneous service charges, a base charge, and/or taxes per billing period that could be averaged per kWh consumed, if these are not already factored into the rate.

LED lighting

The operating life of a light emitting diode (LED) is unaffected by turning it on and off. While lifetime is reduced for fluorescent lamps the more often they are switched on and off, there is no negative effect on LED lifetime. This characteristic gives LEDs several distinct advantages when it comes to operations. For example, LEDs have an advantage when used in conjunction with occupancy sensors or daylight sensors that rely on on-off operation. Also, in contrast to traditional technologies, LEDs turn on at full brightness almost instantly, with no delay.

LEDs are also largely unaffected by vibration because they do not have filaments or glass enclosures.