Published on December 9th, 2016 | by Chris Dragon


Dragon’s Guide To A 100% Renewable Home — Part 1 (LEDs)

December 9th, 2016 by  

In Southern California, actor Ed Begley Jr. is famous for going 100% renewable back when it was prohibitively expensive to do so. In 1985, he bought a stake in a wind farm. In 1990, he installed solar panels on his roof. He prefers walking and biking, but when he drives, it’s in an EV (including the GM EV1, RAV4 EV, and various custom models). Everything in his home is renewable powered or person powered. He’s even got his own TV show about his way of living.

For many years, my own Secret Master Plan has been to be like Ed, but I didn’t have my own house or the finances to make the plan happen. Twenty-one years after Ed started his renewable journey, renewable technology is finally in the price range of most homeowners. In many cases, you’ll save more in reduced utility bills than you pay on loans for renewable home improvements. New Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) loans let you tie energy improvement projects to property-tax payments so if you sell the house you don’t keep paying for the energy improvement.

So, here are the steps in my Secret Master Plan:

  • Part 1: Cut overall electricity use more than 19% by replacing incandescent lights with LEDs.
  • Part 2: Replace natural-gas water heating with electric.
  • Part 3: Stop burning gasoline by buying an EV, avoiding unnecessary air travel, and offsetting the rest.
  • Part 4: Wipe out natural gas heating by switching to a ductless mini-split heat pump.
  • Part 5: Cover 100% of electricity used by everything on this list with solar panels on our roof.
  • Part 6: Cut indoor air pollution by switching to an electric cooktop.
  • Part 7: Eliminate natural gas completely by electrifying our clothes dryer.

All of these changes save money in the long term for most people or cost a little extra for other people. Saving money wasn’t my personal goal — I’m actually trying to avoid contributing to mass extinction and collapse of human civilization.

But, you know, saving money is nice too.

Part 1: LEDs

Non-dimmable LEDs


Nanoleaf black version

If you have non-dimmable light fixtures, Nanoleaf LEDs are amazing. Every other LED I’ve seen uses 16 to 19W for 1600 lumens of incandescent-colored light. Nanoleaf uses only 12W. That’s an 88% energy savings vs 100W incandescent and 48% savings vs 23W compact fluorescent. When I said above that we cut our total home electricity use by 19%, that was by switching to a mix of CFLs and lower-efficiency LEDs — it doesn’t include our later switch to Nanoleafs. Unfortunately, we bought an EV the same month we installed Nanoleafs, so I can’t distinguish how much power they saved vs what the EV added.

You would think the Nanoleaf’s individual LEDs would cast uneven circles of light, but even in open fixtures with white or dark brown interiors, the light cast on walls is even and incandescent-like.  The only exception is when I tried a fixture with a mirror finish — then I did notice obvious bright spots being cast on walls.

LEDs die early if they overheat, so most brands warn you not to use the bulb in a fully-enclosed light fixture. LEDs that work in fully-enclosed fixtures tend to cost around $40. Nanoleaf generates so little heat that it has no warning against enclosed fixtures and only costs $18. I installed 19 of them over a year ago, many in enclosed fixtures, and they’re all still doing great.  Nanoleaf has a diameter of 3.03” and a length of 4.33” which is a little bigger than the classic incandescent “A19” bulb shape, so it doesn’t fit in a couple of our fixtures. Other than that, I think they’re perfect.

Dimmable LEDs

Part of the reason Nanoleaf is so efficient is that it doesn’t dim. Dimming electronics, especially those that try to maintain compatibility with incandescent dimmers, simply can’t be made as efficient. Judging by the Nanoleaf vs its most efficient dimming rival, adding dimmer compatibility adds about 33% to the power use of a bulb. However, if you put a custom dimmer in the bulb itself, it maintains efficiency. Thus, the makers of Nanoleaf created the Nanoleaf Bloom.

Bloom has two drawbacks: It only goes up to 1200 lumens (but only uses 10W), and the brightness is controlled by flicking a non-dimming light switch quickly off–on to initiate dimming, then off–on again to hold current brightness. So, if you have a fixture with a dimmer, you need to get rid of the dimmer and use a less-convenient method of dimming the light. On the other hand, if you’ve always wanted dimming ability in a fixture that has no dimmer, Bloom may be a great choice.

GE 13909

GE 13909

GE 13909 is the most efficient dimmer-compatible bulb we’ve found at 16W for 1600 lumen. This is an ideal bulb when you need light cast in all directions.

If you have a uni-directional light fixture such as a “can” light, you may find a lot of its light is absorbed by the interior of the fixture. In that case a reflector-style light will likely use less power to provide the same amount of light in the direction you need.

Reflector bulbs

My parents use dimmable “can” fixtures for most of their house, so I initially bought them Hyperikon BR40 reflector bulbs at 1300 lumen for 15W.  They worked fine in some fixtures but had trouble with the X10 dimmers on other fixtures.

We found Philips 65W BR30 reflector bulbs work well with their dimmers, but at 730 lumen for 9W, they aren’t bright enough for all areas. Phillips has a newer 65W BR30 bulb that uses 0.5W less power but has issues with the dimmers.

If you need more brightness, Philips 75W BR40 seems fairly dimmer friendly, but I think they’re out of production and everyone seems to be out of stock except for eBay, where you can find them by searching for “Philips 431932.” I checked Philips’ web site and found the new version of 65W bulbs, but no mention of a new 75W — hopefully they’ll be released eventually. Note that all these bulbs are rated for damp locations but not for fully-enclosed fixtures.

LEDs on X10 and other old-school dimmers

Finding dimming bulbs compatible with the X10 dimmers my parents use seemed to be impossible with brighter bulbs.  The reason is that old dimmers are powered by just one wire, usually colored black and known as the “live” wire. Current comes from that wire, powers the electronics in the dimmer, then flows through the bulb, onto a white “neutral” wire attached to the other side of the bulb, then back to the home’s circuit breaker box.  This circular power flow is called a “circuit” and electronics and lights can’t run without a completed circuit.

Including the bulb in the power circuit of old-style dimmers means there is always a small amount of power flowing through the bulb even when the bulb is “off”.  This is fine with an incandescent bulb because the current is not enough to light the bulb at all.  With LEDs, the effects are highly variable.  Some LEDs won’t turn on at all, some will turn on dimly, some will flicker annoyingly, and some will flicker on briefly every once in awhile. If you have two or more LEDs connected to a dimmer switch, your odds of success increase somewhat because each light is exposed to a lower power level, but you also get even more possible behaviors, including just one of the two lights remaining dimly on.

Guaranteeing how a particular LED will behave with a particular dimmer is impossible. A particular LED may behave differently on two dimmers even when the dimmers have identical model and manufacture date.  A particular dimmer may behave differently with two LEDs of the same model as well. Even if you find that perfect LED for your dimmer, buying the same model a couple years later may suddenly create problems due to changes in internal components year to year.

The only real solution is to replace old dimmers or modify them to add a white neutral wire to the dimmer itself. I don’t recommend modification unless you feel comfortable working with electronics and understand how to mitigate fire risks by keeping modified switches sealed in proper junction boxes.

Here are some dimmers that should work with LEDs without modification:

  • X10 XPDI3 in decora switch style.
  • Insteon 2777D in decora style or 2777DW in classic light switch style.  They cost twice as much as X10 but support both Insteon and X10 protocols. Insteon is similar to X10 but is faster and has error correction and two-way communication that generally eliminates the possibility of a light failing to respond to a signal. Insteon also supports mixing wireless and powerline communications for greater reliability.  We use Insteon at our house.
  • If you really like the X10 pushbutton-style switch, unfortunately there is no LED-friendly replacement in that style.  Modification is your only option.

Outdoor LEDs

For outdoor lights, we use Insteon motion sensors, so the lights are rarely on. The motion sensors themselves run on 9V Tenergy 200 mAh capacity batteries that last 9–12 months before needing a quick charge on our Ansmann Energy 8 Charger. Cheaper motion sensors we tried only lasted 1–2 months per battery and had more false-positive motion detections. Speaking of batteries, for AA and AAA rechargeable batteries, I recommend Eneloop. If you’ve ever gotten frustrated with old-school rechargeables that lose most of their charge in a drawer or don’t last long in a device, you should be pleasantly surprised by Tenergy and Eneloop.


Thinklux BR40

I haven’t found any inexpensive, outdoor-rated LEDs for enclosed fixtures, so most of our rarely-used outdoor lights are still incandescent or fluorescent. However, I did install two Feit BR40 250W-equivalent LEDs in our outdoor light that’s used the most. Feit emits 2500 lumens for 36W, which is 2500/36=69.4 lumens per watt. Compare that to Nanoleaf at 1600/12=133 lumens per watt and you see that the Feit are pretty terrible on efficiency, but I wanted something as bright as possible for use as security lights. I recently discovered Thinklux BR40, which is $25 — about 45% cheaper than Feit. Rated at 2600 lumen for 30 watts, Thinklux is more efficient at 86.6 lumens per watt. Thinklux bulbs are much lighter weight, over an inch shorter, and I took a photo side by side to confirm that Thinklux are a few percent brighter. Thinklux get pretty good reviews on Amazon so I recommend them over Feit at this point.

Note that both lights are rated for damp locations but neither is rated for enclosed fixtures.

To be continued…

Once my guide got to be 74 pages long, my wife suggested I break it into one article for each step. Some steps are much longer than others, but I wanted to get this first part out as soon as possible because LEDs make great Christmas gifts.

In Part 2, we’ll talk about tankless electric water heaters. Stay tuned!

Check out our new 93-page EV report, based on over 2,000 surveys collected from EV drivers in 49 of 50 US states, 26 European countries, and 9 Canadian provinces.

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About the Author

I grew up programming on an Apple IIe and now run a software company. Despite a hatred of family camping trips, I've always had a deep concern for the creatures we share this planet with. In respect of those creatures, I spent a number of years working at an environmental non-profit, but these days I just try to live with sustainability and encourage others to do the same. I've even come to tolerate camping trips!

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