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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > The Light That Fails

The lighting fixtures and electric utility industries have made it. By pushing for and installing higher and higher illumination levels in buildings, they have sold more fixtures, more services and more electricity. This escalating practice of waste shows no signs of abating even in this period of public concern over inflation and the nation’s energy resources.

The lighting industry’s psychology is pithily captured in promotional literature for a recent speech of a former president of the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES), an industry dominated group. It trumpeted: How to sell the tremendously growing lighting market through higher IES lighting levels so that we — the engineer, manufacturer, distributer, electrical contractor, utility and the ultimate buyer will all benefit.

But the ultimate buyer or consumer does not benefit. Instead, the consumer is bilked going and coming by excessive illumination. Too much lights adds virtually nothing to visual performance, may actually impair visual health, increases lighting bills, leads to unnecessary investment in building fixtures and contributes substantially to burning of fuels and pollution from the generation of unnecessary electricity.

It all started about 40 years ago by the unenlightened self-interest of manufacturers, utilities and their allied architectural and engineering professions. The strategy of these groups was simple and systematic: tell the public that more light means better sight and that less light leads to harmful strain on the eyes, keep jacking up recommended illumination levels, make sure that these levels are given the facade of “authority” by the IES and then adopted into state or local law or merely accepted as accepted professional lighting standards.

This strategy has worked and is still working for the lighting lobby. The spiral gluttonous candle power levels (lighting intensities are measured in footcandles with one footcandle equal to the light of one candle at a distance of one foot) keep going up. For example, while ophthalmologists and other eye specialists believe that 25 footcandles are more than sufficient for normal reading light, the IES standard provides for a minimum of 70 footcandles for schools, an increase from the 30 footcandles standard in 1952. By contrast, in British schools, 10 footcandles are considered sufficient.

According to the IES, average lighting levels in commercial buildings are now 125 footcandles, up from 85 footcandles in 1958 and 35 footcandles in 1940. The IES predicts that levels will reach 250 footcandles by the year 2000!

An experienced library lighting consultant and former Harvard librarian, Keyes Metcalf, says that 25 footcandles for libraries should be the recommended upper limit. He added that increasing the illumination levels of a 90,000 square foot building from the 25 to 50 footcandle range to the IES recommended 90 to 105 footcandle level would more than double the lighting bill.

The heat emitted from this massive lighting in buildings has made it easier to sell or use more air conditioning. A Georgia Power Company officer, whose new office was a showcase of conspicuous lighting consumption, explained to listeners that an added benefit of so much lighting is that “air conditioning will operate all year around.” Thus, a vicious cycle of more electricity consumed, more environmental pollution, more wasted fuels and greater lighting bills is in continual operation.

Just how many billions of dollars are being wasted in this manner amd how much added pollution generated, the industry is not telling. One architect, Richard Stein of New York, wrote in 1972 that adequate lighting could be installed “in institutions, commercial buildings, schools and so forth with less than 50 percent of present light loads.” Numerous ophthalmologists have completed studies supporting such an assertion. Mr. Stein estimates an annual saving for consumers of $3.5 billion. Inasmuch as about 25 percent of all electric power goes into lighting, very sizable amounts of energy fuel consumption would be saved and the pressure to build more power plants, transmission lines and other adjuncts would be lessened.

One way out of this morass would be for the ophthalmologists, who are medical experts in visual health, to stand up and speak out. In a 1968 editorial in one of their medical journals, the writer urged his colleagues to expose publicly the myths of the illuminating industry about more and more light needed for visual health and to point out the health risk of excessive lighting. Consumers are still waiting for such professional citizenship.