Turn ‘em Off or Leave ‘em On?

Ever have this discussion with someone? Is it more energy efficient to leave lights on or turn them off?

Some speculate that the “start-up” energy it takes to turn on lights is more than it would take to just leave them on, others contend that of course you’d shut them off! Even if you’re just dodging out of your office to visit the WC?

The US Department of Energy weighs in:

Incandescent Lighting

Incandescent lights (or bulbs) should be turned off whenever they are not needed. Nearly all types of incandescent light bulbs are fairly inexpensive to produce and are relatively inefficient. Only about 10%–15% of the electricity that incandescent lights consume results in light—the rest is turned into heat. Turning the light(s) off will keep a room cooler, an extra benefit in the summer. Therefore, the value of the energy saved by not having the lights on will be far greater than the cost of having to replace the bulb.

Fluorescent Lighting

The cost effectiveness of turning fluorescent lights off to conserve energy is a bit more complicated. For most areas of the United States, a general rule-of-thumb for when to turn off a fluorescent light is if you leave a room for more than 15 minutes, it is probably more cost effective to turn the light off. Or in other words, if you leave the room for only up to 15 minutes, it will generally be more cost effective to leave the light(s) on. In areas where electric rates are high and/or during peak demand periods, this period may be as low as 5 minutes.

Fluorescent lights are more expensive to buy, and their operating life is more affected by the number of times they are switched on and off, relative to incandescent lights. Therefore, it is a cost trade-off between saving energy and money by turning a light off “frequently” and having to replace the bulbs “more” frequently. This is because the reduction in usable lamp life due to frequent on/off switching will probably be greater than the benefit of extending the useful life of the bulb from reduced use. By frequent we mean turning the light off and on many times during the day.

A 2008 article in Scientific American gives you license to turn off the lights:

A simple rule of thumb that balances both concerns is to shut off fluorescents if you’re planning to leave a room for more than five minutes, according to Francis Rubinstein, a staff scientist in the Building Technologies Department at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Environmental Energy Technologies Division. Mary Beth Gotti, manager of the GE Lighting & Electrical Institute in Cleveland, agrees. For all practical purposes, “it almost always makes sense to turn the lights off,” Gotti says. “From an environmental standpoint, the best way to save energy is to turn off the things that you’re not using.”

Rubinstein notes that, even for fluorescents, the cost of electricity over a bulb’s lifetime far outpaces the cost of the bulb itself. “Even if you switch on and off a fluorescent light frequently,” he says, “the slight reduction in lamp life is a small effect relative to the energy savings you accomplish by being a good citizen.” Gotti adds that the reduction in lamp life from frequent on-and-off switching can often be counterbalanced by the extension of “calendar life”—the actual passage of time between lightbulb replacements—that results from using the bulb for fewer hours.

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