When you ask owner of Chester, N.J.-based Asdal Builders and chair of the Industry Committee of the Partnership for Advanced Technology in Housing (PATH) Bill Asdal about whiz-bang whirligigs such as geothermal HVAC and solar power generation systems, he gets a tad indignant. Then he tells you that he won't discuss those concepts until you've already talked to him about simple things like insulation, windows, appliances, and lighting.
William Gloede Asdal believes that sweating the small stuff will result in more energy savings than the big-ticket technology. With all the fuss over green building, largely fueled by media outlets that are left-of-center on environmental issues, I figured it was a good time to look at the smallest of the small stuff: the light bulb.

For the record, I don't give a hoot about environmentalism and won't, so long as China and India continue fouling their nests along with everyone else's; one could argue that the U.S. did so, too, but that was at a time when no one knew about the fragility of the biosphere. I do, however, care about savings on energy costs. And on the day I moved into my house, when I saw my yard bathed in astoundingly white light, I did some math.

The electrician had finished wiring all the outdoor and basement fixtures, and in each he placed a 100-watt incandescent light bulb. There are 16 lights on the outside and 14 on the inside. Zounds, that's 3,000 watts. It costs an average, nationally, of $3.00 per hour to keep them on.

So I went out and bought 60-watt compact florescent light bulbs (CFLs), which use about 13 watts each. Voila, I had cut the wattage down to 390 watts at a cost of roughly 39 cents an hour. CFLs cost more up front but last much longer than conventional incandescent bulbs.

BRIGHT IDEAS: Lutron's Abella dimmer (left) has a 30-second delay-to-off. The Ceana's glowing button and slider track (right) allows light levels to be set in the dark. I also installed dimmers wherever I could. Not only do you save money with dimmers, you prolong the life of all types of bulbs as well. So I set out to find a retailer who sells dimmable CFL bulbs for the can lighting in my ceilings.

I spoke with Lutron's principal engineer, Dr. Ian Rowbottom, and received the sad news that Lutron, which invented dimmers, does not recommend their use with CFL bulbs. "Every florescent light needs a ballast to limit the current," he says. "It allows the lamp to turn on and continue running."

The problem is, different bulbs use different ballasts. A lamp from manufacturer A may begin to light at 50 volts on a 120-volt AC line while a lamp from manufacturer B may light at 60 volts or 70 volts (an incandescent bulb begins to glow at 15 volts, according to Rowbottom). You would wind up with lights of different intensities on a multi-bulb circuit or some lights on with other lights off, depending on where the dimmer was set.

Also, there's a fair amount of electronics to pack into the ballast, which is located at the bottom of an upright bulb. It is also sensitive to temperature; the hotter it gets, the dimmer the bulb.

Because the ballasts are designed to operate in an upright position, hanging them upside down from a can fixture, which also traps a significant amount of heat, can greatly affect lamp performance and service life. Rowbottom recommends halogen lights, specifically a new line from Philips called Halogena, which saves energy and lasts longer than incandescent bulbs (a typical rating is 3,000 hours). He also recommends LED lights for accent applications–at least for the time being. "It's going to be the wave of the future, but it's not there yet," Rowbottom explains.

It seems to me that builders should be using dimmers and energy efficient lighting in every home they build and selling the customer on the energy savings.

Or, perhaps, even selling them on the environmental benefits.