Ever since coming to the “homestead,” we’ve dealt with the problems and opportunities of lighting our living spaces. We’ve mostly focused on oil lamp, headlamp, and candle use while largely taking our fixed lighting for granted.
The original owner wired the main cabin for DC lighting. Most of the lights had flourescent bulbs coupled with DC ballast. We found a small box full of spare bulbs in the shed, some burned out, some still usable. We even found a small collection of DC incandescent bulbs. Soon after moving in, we began planning for the future.
If you’ve ever looked into living off the grid, you understand the importance of auditing energy use. The audit accesses a family’s many ways of using electricity. The family then decides what they can live without, and what they can’t. They then analyse those uses they can’t live without to see if lower energy alternatives might be adopted. Once energy usage is pared down to a minimum, a generating system (wind or fuel generators, solar arrays, micro hydroelectric, etc.) must be designed to meet this usage and provide as much excess as may be practical.
First and foremost on the list of necessities must surely be lighting.
There’s so much written on this subject that I won’t detail it here. We as a nation have always accepted the incandescent bulb as a cheap source of light. Unfortunately, this bulb isn’t efficient. More of the energy used to power them goes into wasted heat than into light. This is why there’s been a push to switch to compact fluorescent bulbs, which provide much more energy efficient light.
(Please don’t warn me of the “danger” of fluorescent bulbs. Yes, they are filled with mercury vapor, which will release if the bulb breaks. One should not breathe that vapor. However, those who fear fluorescents for that reason should keep things in perspective. If you live in a region that has ever experienced acid rain, you inhale more mercury just walking out your door each day than you’d get from a broken fluorescent bulb. Question those who urge you to shun fluorescent bulbs, but never mention the amount of mercury we’re all exposed to each day through industrial pollution.)
Fluorescent bulbs, with DC ballast, have long been used off the grid for lighting. The DC ballast allows one to power them directly from battery without using an inverter. We have an inverter, but it’s used only for our occasional AC needs.
I found and purchased a case of bargain priced, self-ballasted fluorescent bulbs. These bulbs had a smaller profile than the cabin’s original bulbs, and I calculated the dimensions of a glass or plastic globe to cover them. We didn’t need globes, but we prefer them to a naked bulb, particularly for the two main fixtures in our living space. Nevertheless, the cost of the globes led us to put up with the bare bulb look for years.
Fluorescent bulbs last a long, long time, and use very little power if used properly. This means making sure that the usage, i.e. burn time, justifies the amount of power used to warm up the bulb initially. The extra power will supposedly be “earned back” after 20 minutes of burn time. We trained ourselves not to turn on a light unless we knew it would be useful for the next half hour or more. Like so many other aspects of our lives, it seems inconvenient, but to us, it’s an acceptable condition of living here.
I had calculated that the bargain bulbs would last us about 20 years. Instead, they burn out sooner. Some may have only lasted twice or three times as long as a normal incandescent bulb!
Recently, when yet another bulb failed, we found that we had only two replacement bulbs left. At the same time, the fluorescent lighting fixture over the sink failed. I decided the time had come to directly address the lighting issue. This led to some new discoveries, some as yet unproved suspicions, and an important reminder. It also led to better aesthetics in the cabin. I’ll cover these in future posts.