Electrical Tip: Automatic Switch Options

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May 17, 2012 | Carl Seville

This room has plenty of natural light. No need to turn the lights on in here. One of the biggest causes of excessive energy use in homes comes from the amount of electrical equipment, lighting, and electronics we have, and how often it is left on when not needed. 

Starting with lights, we often turn them on when we walk into rooms, even if there is enough light to see without them.  On top of that, they are too often left on when not needed.  If no one is in a room, then there isn’t much point in having a light on.  A little lighting here and there for security – to make intruders think you are at home and to have enough light so you don’t trip over something or fall down a flight of stairs is fine, but don’t leave on so many lights that someone walking down the street thinks that you’re filming a movie in your house. 

If you have the old, soon to be discontinued, incandescent light bulbs, they product a lot of heat (about 90% of their energy is heat and only 10% is light), so in the summer, lights left on heat up your house, requiring more air conditioning to keep it cool.  

If everyone was just responsible and turned things off, we wouldn’t need to worry much, but we are a lazy bunch and, apparently, we need help operating light switches.  That is where occupancy controls come in.  There are many devices available that will control lights, fans, and electronic equipment, turning it off automatically when it isn’t needed, saving energy in the process. 

The most basic occupancy sensors turn on lights when someone enters a room, turning them off automatically a pre-set amount of time after they exit.  These sensors use a combination of motion detection and heat sensing technology so the lights don’t go off if you are sitting and quietly reading.  The sensitivity is adjustable so things don’t turn on every time your kitty walks through the room. 

Although occupancy sensors do work well, a better solution is what is known as a manual on sensor.  This type of switch requires someone to manually turn on the light, then turns it off automatically after they leave.  The good thing about this type of switch is that it doesn’t turn lights on when you don’t need them.  During the day, many rooms have enough light for someone to walk through or get something they need without turning on a light, and manual on sensors save energy by not automatically turning lights on when not needed.  Occupancy sensors can also be used on ceiling fans which are often left on after people leave the room, wasting more energy.

Electronics are big energy hogs, and most of them are in the on position all the time, usually just so we can turn them on using the remote control.  TVs, DVD players and audio equipment use power in the standby mode, so disconnecting the power when you’re not using them is another good energy saving strategy.  You probably don’t want to turn off your DVR or cable box, because you won’t record that episode of "Mad Men" that you missed, but the other stuff is fine. 

If you’re building or renovating, you can put in what is known as a “kill switch,” a regular switch that controls a set of receptacles that you can plug in all the things that you can turn off.  When you’re not watching, just flip the switch and watch the energy savings on your fancy energy monitor (if you have one).  When you’re ready to watch TV, just turn the switch on, sit back, and flip through the channels with your remote. 

For simpler setups, you can have a regular old power strip, one with a remote control, or something known as a "smart strip".  Smart strips have a special receptacle that senses when the main piece of equipment (like a TV or computer) is turned off.  It then cuts the power to other receptacles in the power strip, saving energy by turning off your DVD player, printer, monitor, or other equipment that you don’t need to be on. 

If you’re looking for something simple, you could use timer switches, kind of like the ones they used to have in college libraries.  Turn them on for a set amount of time and they automatically turn off when done.  This many not be your preference, but they do work well on bath fans, keeping them on long enough to exhaust the moisture but keeping you from leaving them on all day.  You can get timers that run up to eight hours – these are great for ceiling fans you like to have on at night to keep you cool in bed. You don’t have to worry about turning them off in the morning so they don’t run all day.

Finally, if you’re willing to be a responsible adult, you can just use regular old switches and train yourself to only turn things on when you need them and turn them off when you’re done.  I know that’s kind of tough, but how much effort does it really take?

Green building consultant Carl Seville works with electricians in Atlanta to address issues like these. How do YOU save electricity at home? Tell us!

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