Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Lighting Alternatives

Incandescent lighting is in general a very energy-inefficient form of lighting. Relatively cheap to manufacture, the cost is passed instead to the energy used to power it, as quite a lot of that energy is wasted as heat and parts of the light spectrum we can't even see well with. Not only is that directly wasteful, but that extra heat radiated into our homes means extra energy spent *cooling* the home as well, at least in places like Phoenix, AZ, where I live.

I'm already using standard fluorescent and CFL lighting for my home, so it saves quite a bit of power already. The CFL lamps I have gotten whenever I have found them on power-company sponsored sales, usually for less than $1 each. The fluorescent fixtures have been mostly free, pulled from scrap, picked up from Freecycle postings, or garnered from closing businesses that were getting rid of various lighted display fixtures.

Fluorescent lighting has environmental disadvantages, unfortunately, both in the mercury used in the bulbs themselves, and the extra energy and materials used to create the lighting and ballast/controller components and fixtures, compared to incandescent bulbs. Long-term, however, I think that fluorescent is a better alternative than incandescent, simply because of the incredible amount of power we generally waste on lighting with incandescents, and the things that power wastage (and it's original generation) are doing to the environment itself, whether you believe in "global warming" or not.

LED lighting should have less environmental impact, and be even more energy-efficient, but is yet more complex to manufacture, and as of yet is not cost-effective enough to be used as a common home lighting solution. It will probably be years before bright enough LEDs are cheap enough to be used this way, as a single LED can't be directly used to light an area--a single LED bright enough to light a room effectively could also be bright enough to permanently damage your retina, should you be too close to it, given the very tiny area of it's emissive surface. With diffusers this is less of a problem, but still creates a potential hazard that can be avoided or minimized by using a number of lower-power LEDs in clusters, which will probably also make for much more even illumination.

That has it's own drawbacks, as the lighting module now becomes more complicated to make and thus more expensive, and will contain more materials that are then harder to separate for recycling, just as with CFLs today. LED modules can already be complicated enough with one LED, if they are intended for AC power, because they will need (like CFLs) a power converter that steps down the AC power and provides a steady low-voltage DC power source for the LED, limiting it's maximum current draw to prevent damage to the LED and to maximize it's usable life. More LEDs will mean a larger circuit board (PCB) for them to be mounted on, rather than what might be a single tiny PCB consisting of entirely surface-mount components, possibly smaller than a USA dime. Potentially even more than one board, so strips might be mounted facing different directions, to spread light more evenly.

Since I'm working with recycled components to make what I'm going to use, all that doesn't have any real impact on me yet, because what little LED lighting is out there isn't really at a stage where people are just throwing it away or recycling it yet, so I'm unlikely to run across enough of it to make anything from it.

I do have some small-area LED lighting in the works, but not yet workable at providing enough light to be serviceable in most places I need it. Since I have been using mostly LEDs recycled from others' discarded items, such as flashlights and the like, that's not that surprising, as their type and power output is not usually what is needed for this purpose. It is, however, at no cost to me besides time, whenever I have a moment to work on something.

Another fairly workable small-area light source is old computer scanners. Many have CCFL lighting that remains on the entire time the scanner is powered up. While as a scanner this is very wasteful, it is ideal for lighting an area. The simplest way I have used these is to open the scanner to disconnect the motor wires and manually move the scanning bar (including the light) to the front end of the scanning field, then reassemble the scanner minus the lid. After that I simply place the scanner on a shelf above the area to be lit, with the front edge of it hanging over just enough to let the light completely shine thru the gap, and plug the scanner's power adapter (usually 12VDC 1A, but usually the draw without the motor able to run is only 500mA at most, or roughly 6 watts) into a switchable power strip or outlet.

Then I will only be using power when the light is actually in use, instead of using the switch on the scanner which only turns the scanner draw off, not the small draw from the ac adapter's switching power supply. Most of the time, one scanner makes a decent small workbench, reading, or kitchen workspace light. The scanners typically come from people throwing them away or from Freecycle, though a few have come from thrift stores for $1 or less. Most tend to be missing power cords, but this does not matter as I have many saved from over two decades of scavenging, and usually one can be made to work.

One nice option about these and any LED lighting I can come up with is that they can be powered directly from the wind-generator's batteries' DC output, rather than from any AC conversion, making them much more efficient to use than the standard AC-powered house lighting, even with CFLs and standard fluorescents. That is slightly disadvantageous, in that it would require a separate set of low-voltage wiring to all areas of the house that use that kind of lighting, but it is not enough to discourage me.