How to Control Your Light Bulbs

Dimming and Automating Them for Convenience

Lighting is an important aspect of a media room, and being able to dim it, no matter what type of source used, can enhance the viewing environment. Electronics design and installation by Electronics Design Group, Piscataway, N.J. Photo by William Psolka.

LIGHTING CONTROL SYSTEMS, whether they’re automated whole-home systems or individual “wall box” dimmers, can take the energy efficiency, lamp life, and aesthetics of your home’s lighting to a whole new level. This is because dimming a light almost proportionally decreases its energy use while increasing its lamp life. And just about everybody and everything looks better in a low-lit room.

INCANDESCENT
Incandescent lighting remains the easiest to control and requires the least amount of planning. Just about any store-bought incandescent bulb can be controlled effectively with a standard dimmer.

The exception is low-voltage incandescents, which require a transformer to step down the voltage from 120 VAC (in the U.S.) to the 12 volts typically used to power these systems. Most professionally installed whole-home lighting systems can be specified to accommodate low-voltage lighting systems. Individual dimmers for magnetic low-voltage and electronic low-voltage lighting are available, and it’s important to check the package to ensure you’re purchasing the right dimmer for the technology you’re using.

FLUORESCENT
For linear fluorescent (tube) lighting, it’s not the light source that you need to worry about: It’s the ballast. Ballasts are responsible for delivering and carefully controlling the energy that flows throughout the fluorescent tube. Without one, the light would flash brightly and burn out almost immediately. Dimming a fluorescent tube requires an even greater degree of fine-tuned control. In order to provide dimming capability to the fluorescent pendant or ceiling tray, you’ll need to purchase and install both a dimming ballast and a dimmer designed to work with it (you might want to hire a professional to do this). Depending on your objectives and the type of ballast you choose, you can control the amount of light coming from your linear fluorescents in discrete steps, or with smooth dimming down to 20, 10, or even 1 percent.

Compact fluorescent lamps come in two forms. The less-common pin-based model will require an external dimming ballast, just like the linear tubes. Self-ballasted or “screw-in” CFLs are far more convenient–you just have to make sure the CFL you’re buying says “dimmable” on the package, and that the dimmer you’re using will work with it.

LED
Like fluorescents, most LED light sources require some forethought if you’re looking to add dimming to your lighting plans.
Tubular LEDs and larger arrays are powered by an external driver, which is analogous to the ballasts that power fluorescent lights, and many of the same considerations apply in order to dim them. In most cases, it’s a good idea to call in an electrician or professional home systems integrator to add or retrofit dimmable LED drivers in your home.

For screw-in dimmable LEDs, things get a lot simpler. There are now a wide variety of high-quality dimmable LED light sources available. Just make sure the bulb you buy is one of them–and that the dimmer you’re planning to use is rated for use with dimmable LEDs.

Mike Llewellyn is a freelance writer who covers design, technology, and media. He is also the founder of Sycamore Creative, a communications and design firm in Philadelphia (sycamorecreative.net). Mike’s work has appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, Architectural Record, The New York Times, and on TED.com.

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