When I was about 12 years old, I became quite a stickler about shutting off unnecessary lights. Suddenly all the adult nagging and public-service announcements I’d ever heard got through to me (I can’t recall why) and I began to see how amazingly wasteful it is to leave a bunch of extra lights on, just burning up energy for no reason, when it’s so easy to turn them off! After all, even if electricity is generated in a non-polluting way, it costs money!
For a while I was a bit too zealous. One day I ducked around a corner, flipped off a switch, and went swiftly on my way, drawing a yelp of annoyance from my mother, who was in that room (sitting very still) and using that light! I happened to be wearing a dark navy sweater and jeans that day, so my mom nicknamed me The Lightbulb Ninja for my swift and merciless killing of excess lights.
Since then, I’ve continued to strike lightswitches everywhere I go, and I’ve also come to embrace the darkness. Here are my strategies for minimizing lighting:
Of course, turn off lights when everyone is leaving a room and won’t return within 15 minutes.
Use sunlight whenever you can. If you’re reading during the day, choose a chair near a window instead of turning on a lamp wherever you happen to be sitting. Open curtains or blinds instead of turning on a light. If you have a window in your office, put your desk near it and don’t turn on the lights until the room becomes uncomfortably dim in the evening. If your home has one bathroom with a window and one without, use only the windowed one during the day. If you are renovating a windowless room on the top floor, consider adding a skylight.
Reduce the need to turn on lights by placing your lamps in places where they illuminate a wide area. When you’re walking around the house, you’ll be able to see where you’re going with fewer bulbs! For example, our stairs are open to the living room and upstairs hallway, so we put a table lamp (20W CFL bulb) in the living room at the side of the staircase; it provides enough light for reading at one end of the couch, and it lights the entire living room, stairs, most of the hallway, and enough of the dining room (open to living room with a wide arch) that when I’m taking laundry down to the basement, I can see my way around the corner to the top of the basement stairs and then turn on the basement lights.
When you have multiple lights on one circuit, use only the lights you need. Our basement has 4 light sockets all controlled by one switch, but each one also has a pull-chain. There’s one light by the stairs and one each in the workshop, storage, and laundry areas. Normally we leave the stairs and laundry lights on (that is, when you flip the switch, they come on) and the others off unless we’re going into those areas. If working in the workshop for a long time when nobody’s doing laundry, we turn off the laundry light.
The light of a small lamp goes farther if it’s bounced off a wall or ceiling. Gooseneck desk lamps are great for this because you can bend them to point at the wall when you want soft light for the whole room, or bend them to cast bright light onto the surface where you’re working.
If you have a light fixture that won’t take energy-saving bulbs, avoid using it and use a lamp instead. For example, our kitchen’s only built-in lighting is a chandelier that requires expensive flame-shaped incandescent bulbs. We put a gooseneck desk lamp with a CFL bulb on top of the refrigerator and bent it back to point at the ceiling, which also puts the switch (at the back of the bulb socket) within reach, and we plugged it into an extension cord connected to the other half of the refrigerator’s outlet. This provides enough light for most kitchen tasks. When we need to see really well, we turn on both lights. (We used to live in a house whose kitchen was lit by huge fluorescent tubes stretching the full length of the room. They didn’t use much power, but the kitchen was as bright as an operating room and just as homey! I found myself avoiding the kitchen at night or getting by with the light that spilled in from the dining room.)
Consider using fewer bulbs than a light fixture can hold. Many ceiling fixtures have 3 sockets, but 2 bulbs behind a frosted glass cover will give adequately even light. Our kitchen and dining room chandeliers have so many bulbs that we just ignore burned-out ones until the lighting becomes noticeably lopsided and shadowy, then replace them all at once–it’s easier! (I’ve even been known to move a still-working bulb from one socket to another to even out the light without adding bulbs.) I noticed that our neighborhood movie theater, which has “chaser” lights around its sign, uses the same strategy!
Choose the smallest light that will do the job. If you’re in a room simply to put something away, to change into pajamas, or to hang out and talk (you’re not reading or using a sharp knife or anything that requires good light), turn on an efficient lamp instead of the big ceiling fixture.
If a lightswitch is inconveniently located so that you find yourself leaving on the light rather than walk across the room to turn it off, get a lamp and put it in a place that’s more convenient to reach, and use that to light the room most of the time. Position lamps so that the switch is easy to reach from the side on which you’re most likely to approach the lamp in darkness.
Don’t leave on porch or yard lights unless you’re expecting company. Turn them off when you go to bed. If you absolutely must use outdoor lights routinely, get the kind that are solar-powered or on a timer. If you routinely come home after dark, instead of leaving the light on for yourself, consider carrying a flashlight–it might come in handy other places, too.
Avoid night-lights. They may not help with fear of the dark anyway, and those tiny bulbs are expensive! However, sometimes strategically-placed night-lights make it possible to walk through a room or hallway without turning on larger lights. In that case, get electroluminescent ones, which use very little power.
Don’t leave the bathroom light on for guests because its switch is hard to find. Not only does that waste power, but once a well-meaning guest turns off that light, nobody else can find the switch in the dark! Paint that switchplate with glow-in-the-dark paint, get an electroluminescent switchplate, or put up a sign that says, “Bathroom light is outside the door” (or whatever) in a place where it will be seen on the way to the bathroom.
Consider a motion-detector switch for a light you often pass on your way to other places. Years after I moved out of my parents’ home, they got one of these switches for the light in the hallway that connects all the bedrooms, main bathroom, and living room in their house. It switches on the light when you step out of the two nearest rooms or take a few steps out of the others–that is, when you are still several steps away from being able to reach the switch–and keeps it on for a couple of minutes after you move out of range. It does bother me if I’m going to the bathroom in the middle of the night, when my eyes are adjusted to the dark and being exposed to bright light may make it harder for me to get back to sleep–but in waking hours it’s very convenient to have the light come on just as you get out of range of light spilling out of other rooms, especially if you have your hands full. It’s also nice not to have to backtrack to turn off the light.
Finally, learn to walk around in the dark. When I began my Lightbulb Ninja training, I was very nervous about this: Aside from silly fears that Something would Get me, I had realistic concerns about bumping into things. I practiced by trailing my fingertips along the walls and furniture as I walked around the house with lights on. My body learned where things were, how many steps between here and there, so that I didn’t have to think about it consciously. The big surprise was how well my skill at walking around my parents’ house in the dark translated to places I visited and later lived. I knew I was really on to something when, on my first night in a new apartment with packing boxes everywhere, I walked through three rooms to the bathroom in the middle of the night without flinching or bumping into anything! One important thing to notice is that “the dark” in a typical modern home isn’t completely dark: Light comes through the windows from the moon and streetlights, light comes through the doorways from other rooms, and many clocks and appliances give off a little light (creating helpful points for navigation), so once you’ve been in “the dark” for a while you can see quite a bit. Still, you’ll rely mostly on your other senses, including Lightbulb Ninja senses you may not be quite able to explain.
I’ve been a Lightbulb Ninja for more than 20 years now, and I can’t think of even one big accident caused by my walking around in the dark. The worst falls in my life happened with adequate lighting. In fact, when I’ve just switched from my contact lenses to glasses in the evening (which changes my depth perception), I am more likely to bump into something if I think I can see where I’m going! I’m still a rather clumsy person, but I’ve learned a lot of mysterious physical skills from walking around in the dark, in socks, on wood floors.
UPDATE: I am linking this article to Your Green Resource, where at least 20 other writers have linked their articles about taking better care of our Earth.