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Home Energy Savings | November 17, 2017

Home Energy Savings: Dimmers, Switches, Motion Sensors & Timers

Dimmers, switches, timers and motion sensors are all designed to make it easier for you to manage the amount of energy your lights use. Whether you’re looking to do your part to save the planet or you’re more interested in saving on your bottom line, Constellation is here to help you find the best light switches for your home.


Do Dimming Lights Save Energy?

The short answer is yes, dimming lights does save energy — although it ultimately depends on the dimmer, the light bulb and the combination of those used. For example, an LED is the perfect bulb for dimming but only when paired with a LED-compatible dimmer switch. Alternatively, incandescent bulbs should never be dimmed because doing so uses more energy than the bulb uses at full wattage.

This idea will be discussed more throughout the post, but first, let’s talk about how dimmer switches work and why they might be the best light switches out there for your home.
Dimmer switches use a special type of switch circuitry called TRIAC. Basically, TRIAC switches turn the lights they’re connected to on and off up to 120 times per second, which dims the lights by decreasing overall wattage and output. The energy savings come from the total time the light is off over an extended period.

How to Choose a Dimmer

There are several factors to consider when thinking about how to choose a dimmer: the number of switches that control the light, the type of light bulb used, the amount of wattage you’ll need and the control style you prefer.

How Many Dimmer Switches Do You Need?

How many dimmer switches you’ll need will depend on how many total switches control the light and what type of light you want to dim.

  • Single-Pole Dimmer: If there is only one switch that will control the light and you choose to change that to a dimmer switch, use a single-pole dimmer. The dimmer will replace the light switch and will serve as the only way to turn the light on or off. This can be used for locations such as room entrances.
  • Three-Way or Four-Way Dimmer: If there are two or more switches that will control the light, and only one of them will be a dimmer switch, use a three- or four-way dimmer. While all the switches can turn the lights on or off, only one dimmer switch will be used to control the brightness. These can be useful for locations such as the top or bottom of stairwells, or at the end of a hallway.
  • Multi-location Dimmer: If there are two or more switches that will control the light and two or more of them will be dimmer switches, use a multi-location dimmer. This will allow you to dim the light from multiple locations, and not just one.
  • Plug-in Dimmer: If you are looking to dim a free-standing floor or table lamp, or any light fixture that’s not attached to the wall or ceiling, use a plug-in dimmer. These easily plug into any outlet and let you control light brightness at the source.


Can All Light Bulbs be Dimmed?

Technically, all light bulbs can be dimmed, but there are several types that aren’t recommended for that purpose. Let’s look at the four most common categories of light bulbs and whether they are good candidates for dimming.

  • CFLs: Compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) are good energy-efficient dimmer light bulbs, but watch out: You will need to buy dimmer-compatible CFLs, or using them with a dimmer switch will shorten their lifespan significantly. In addition, some CFLs require special dimmer switches, so check the CFL’s packaging to make sure you buy one that works with your dimmer switch.
  • LEDs: Light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs are also good energy-efficient dimmer light bulbs, especially if your main goal for dimming is to save energy. They use less energy than any other light bulb and have a long lifespan, but you will need to purchase dimmers specifically designed for LEDs and LEDs specifically designed for dimmers.
  • Halogen Bulbs: Halogen bulbs use traditional dimmer switches and can consume up to 20 percent less energy when dimmed. However, the bulb itself is less efficient when dimmed, which does not make them particularly energy-efficient dimmer light bulbs. You’re better off just buying a lower-wattage bulb if you find yourself always dimming a halogen light.
  • Incandescent Bulbs: Similarly, incandescent bulbs can be dimmed, but they are also not particularly energy-efficient dimmer light bulbs; dimming a 60-watt (60W) bulb to 40W actually consumes more energy than just using a 40W bulb to begin with!


Why Does Wattage Load Matter for Energy-Saving Light Switches?

Dimmer switches are designed to handle a specific energy load, and their maximum load will be specified on the dimmer switch’s packaging. When learning how to choose a dimmer, it’s important to confirm that your dimmer switch is compatible with the light bulb you use. For example, energy loads for an incandescent dimmer switch are not compatible with the energy requirements for an LED light bulb. Using the wrong combination can quickly turn energy-saving light switches into energy-hogging light switches.

Which Energy-Saving Light Switch Style Is Right for Me?

Dimmer switches come in a variety of styles, but they all do basically the same thing. Therefore, style choice can focus on aesthetics, budget, and personal preferences. As this industry grows, so do the options available, but see below for a list of common types of dimmer switches.

touch-sensitive-dimmer-switch Touch-Sensitive Dimmer Switch: The touch-sensitive dimmer switch uses a touchpad to turn the light on and to adjust the level of the light.


Toggle Dimmer Switch: The toggle dimmer switch looks exactly like an ordinary lever lightswitch except for a small sliding bar to the side of the switch. Use the sliding bar to set the dimming level; when you toggle the light on, it will come on at the previously selected dimmed level.


Rocker Dimmer Switch: Following the same idea, the rockerdimmer switchlooks exactly like a rocker light switch (alightswitch that uses a spring-loadedrocker) except for a smallsliding bar to the side of the switch. Use the sliding bar to set the dimming level, and when you rock the light on, it will come on at the previously selected dimmed level.


Slide Dimmer Switch: The slide dimmer switch comes in two types — with and without an on/off button. The sliding bar can be moved up and down to adjust the light’s level.

rotary-dimmer-switchRotary Dimmer Switch: The rotary dimmer switch uses a round knob to control the level of the light.

Pro Tip: If you’re really ambitious, you can also hook your lights up to a home automation hub, like Constellation Connect, or a voice assistant like Amazon Echo (Alexa) or Google Home, which can automate energy-saving light switches for you. Check out “Amazon Echo vs. Google Home” for more information on these smart home technologies.


Do Motion-Sensor Lights Save Energy?

Motion-sensor lights save energy by automatically turning off lights in rooms and areas of your house that have recently been vacated and where no motion has been recorded. These can be very effective when used in the right areas, but it’s worth mentioning that oftentimes simply switching to CFL or LED light bulbs that are left on all the time can save even more energy than using motion-sensor lights appropriately.

Pro Tip: Because the U.S. Department of Energy recommends turning off CFLs only if you plan to be out of the room for more than 15 minutes, if you do opt to use motion-sensor light switches with CFLs, set the time limit to no less than 15 minutes.


Where to Place Energy-Saving Motion Sensors

Motion sensors are primarily useful where lights are frequently left on by accident, such as in the following areas:

  • Hallways
  • Garages
  • Entryways
  • Bathrooms
  • Children’s rooms
  • Guest rooms
  • Closets

Because high-traffic areas tend to require lights being on more often and for longer, motion sensors are less likely to save energy or money when used in them.


What Is a Time Switch?

A time switch is a device that is placed between an outlet and a plug that will turn off the plugged-in item at a specified time. Also known as a timer switch or simply a timer, a time switch can be used to replace a wall switch. These energy-efficient timers have multiple uses, but they are mainly used to ensure devices aren’t left on by accident or to make things easier on homeowners by taking care of turning things on and off at predetermined times.

Really popular around the holidays, energy-efficient timers can actually help you save all year round. Examples of items to use with time switches include:

  • indoor and outdoor lights;
  • hot tubs or pools;
  • heating lamps;
  • appliances such as a water heater, heater or cable box; and
  • small appliances such as computers, hair straighteners or radios.

How Do You Save with Energy-Efficient Timers for Lights?

Energy-efficient timers help you save by turning lights on and off for you. They are effective with lights that are used at specific times of the day and that are often left on accidentally. There are some indoor uses — for example, for recessed lighting in the kitchen and as a theft deterrent while away — but outdoor lighting is where they really shine. Use them to turn off your outdoor lights after you’ve gone to bed, and save the energy that would have been spent on keeping those lights on until you get up in the morning.

How to Use Time Switches

Time switches come in two categories: manual and programmable.

  • Manual Switches: Manual switches are devices that can be plugged into a wall outlet. These are used with lights that have a plug, such as a lamp or a string of lights. You decide on when lights are turned on and off based on the day of the week and the time — or you can choose to have the lights turned off after a set number of minutes.
  • Programmable Switches: Programmable switches are mounted on your wall and resemble digital thermostats and can be programmed in a similar fashion.

Pro Tip: Combine a programmable switch with a programmable thermostat for extra savings; check “Programmable Thermostat Savings” and “Smart Thermostat vs. Wifi-Enabled Thermostat” for more information.

Best Light Switches for Your Home

Before deciding what the best light switches are for your home, answer the question, “Do you turn the lights off when you leave the room?” If your response is “not usually,” take some time to consider which lights get left on the most, where they are, and whether using dimmers, switches, energy-efficient timers or motion sensors would help solve this problem for you without adding extra work during your day-to-day life. In the end, the best energy-saving light switches may be regular light switches paired with energy-efficient light bulbs — or it may be that the best light switches for your home take full advantage of taking the work out of turning lights on, off and down.

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