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Miscellaneous

1. What's the most common mistake people make in trying to save energy in the home?
2. We don't own a home; we rent an apartment. What can we do?
3. We have an older home. Which should we do first: add insulation or replace the old furnace?
4. My neighbor's bills are much lower than mine - they have children and are home most of the time. Why are my bills so high?
5. What's the single biggest user of electricity in my home?

Heating and Air Conditioning

1. How much energy can I save by using fans instead of my air conditioner?
2. Should I use portable room heaters to lower my energy bills?
3. What information can you give me on air-to-air heat pumps for the home?
4. We have been very unhappy with our current heat pump and are wondering whether to install a new one or convert to natural gas. What factors should we consider?
5. If I shut off my heater or air conditioner when I'm gone from the home, doesn't it cost more to heat or cool the home back to the right temperature once I return?

Improving Comfort

1. On windy days I can feel drafts coming from the baseboards in my home. How can I stop these drafts?
2. Some parts of my home are never comfortable, no matter what I do. The rest of the home is fine, but one room is always too hot or too cold. Why is that, and what can I do to fix it?
3. I've heard that if we make our home too tight, the air won't be healthy to breathe.
4. I am trying to find some information concerning attic fans (i.e. the pros and cons).

About Windows

1. I keep getting ads in the mail for companies offering to replace our windows with "energy-efficient" windows. How much can these save me?
2. Over the winter, fog appeared between the panes of my double pane windows, but during the summer it went away. Why did this occur?

Water Heating Info

1. Is there any rating for electric water heaters? I would be interested in knowing the ratings for brands.
2. What is the average setting on an electric hot water heater?
3. If you turn your hot water heater off during the day, won't it cost more because you then have to heat up the whole tank and wait minutes before taking a shower? Also, isn't it kind of an inconvenience?

Computers and Power

1. We're putting in a home office. Do computers and fax machines really use that much energy?
2. Should I leave my computer on all the time, or turn it off when not in use?

Lighting Tips

1. My utility company tried telling us to use more fluorescent lights to save energy, but I hate how fluorescent lights flicker when you turn them on and then make that annoying hum. And they make everything look sort of blue and cold. Isn't there anything better?
2. Is it better to turn lights off when you leave the room? I heard somewhere that it uses more energy to turn lights off and on than to leave them running.

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Miscellaneous

What's the most common mistake people make in trying to save energy around the home?

Common mistakes people make include:

* letting the furnace or air conditioner salesperson sell them a unit that's much bigger than they need,
* not getting the ducts checked for leakage when installing a new heating and cooling system,
* thinking that "since heat rises, we only need to insulate the attic." Floors over a basement or crawlspace, walls and windows also matter.
* not using ceiling and portable fans to improve comfort in the cooling season. They use very little electricity. Use them to circulate air in the home, tomake the home feel cooler by doing this, the thermostat setting for your air conditioner can be raised to 85°F, and still maintain the same comfort as the lower setting.

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We don't own a home; we rent an apartment. What can we do?

If your landlord pays the utility bills it should be easy to convince him or her to make efficiency improvements, since they will realize the economic benefits. If you pay the utility bills you are still not without hope, because there are inexpensive things that you can do to lower your bills and make your apartment more liveable.

Water heating costs can be reduced by putting a blanket on your heater. Blankets typically cost less than $10 and can save between 10 and 40% of your water heating costs. However, water heaters less than five years old already contain sufficient internal insulation, and should not be wrapped, otherwise they might overheat. You can also reduce water use and heating costs by installing low flow shower heads and faucet aerators.

Weatherstripping can reduce or eliminate drafts through windows and doors. It doesn't take long to install, increases comfort and reduces costs. Rope caulk provides a temporary seal during the winter months around windows that leak. You can remove this seal in the summer so that you can open and shut the windows. If your windows are very leaky, you can fit a piece of plastic over the window during the winter to form an inexpensive storm window.

Here are some other possibilities:

* Seal and caulk major air leaks around windows, door, electrical outlets, plumbing fixtures and outside architectural features like chimneys.
* Shade south and west glass with deciduous plants to keep the heat out during the summer.
* Use fans with your air conditioner. By circulating the air you can set the thermostat up to five degrees higher and maintain the same comfort level.
* Install the new compact fluorescent lights in frequently used light fixtures. While they are more expensive, you can take them with you when you move.
* If you own your refrigerator, you should consider replacing it if it is more than ten years old.
* If you have a long-term lease, or expect to be in a home for a while, it could be cost-effective for you to install improvements with short pay-back times, such as insulation.

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We have an older home. Which should we do first: add insulation or replace the furnace?

Whether you should insulate or replace your furnace first depends on the situation in your home. Factors that influence this decision are the age and efficiency of your furnace, and the amount of insulation currently present in the home.

In general it is more cost-effective to upgrade insulation than it is to upgrade your furnace. However, if your furnace is old, and you are planning on replacing it anyway, you might want to upgrade the furnace if you have to choose between the two options. The average lifetime for a furnace is between 15 and 20 years. The efficiency of furnaces has increased over the years, so the older a furnace is, the more likely that furnace is to be inefficient. Also, if you insulate your home at the time of furnace replacement, you might be able to buy a smaller capacity furnace and save money on the price. The same holds true for A/C and other heating and cooling equipment.

Typically older homes were built with poor levels of insulation. As insulation ages, it compresses, becoming less effective at preventing heat transfer. Dust and moisture also contribute to the aging process in insulation. In temperate areas, if the insulation level in your home is less than 6 inches, the most cost-effective action is to increase the insulation up to R-30. For areas with extreme hot or cold temperatures, it is cost-effective to increase the insulation up to R-42.

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My neighbor's bills are much lower than mine - even though they have children and are home most of the time. Why are my bills so high?

There are a number of factors that cause differences in energy bills, so comparing your bill to someone else's is like comparing apples to oranges. The ages of major appliances, especially refrigerators and air conditioners, can make a dramatic difference in your bill. In addition, if your home leaks air like a sieve while your neighbor's home was just weatherized and insulated, you will have much higher heating and cooling bills. Other factors that can result in significant differences in bills are the number and kinds of lighting fixtures, thermostat settings for heating and cooling, the number of loads of laundry, old refrigerators out in the garage, and hobbies which result in electricity use.

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What's the single biggest user of electricity in my home?

If your home has central air conditioning, the air conditioner will probably be the biggest user by far. Although used only a few months of the year, the annual cost can be much greater than the annual cost of your refrigerator, which is typically the next largest user. In hot climates, the annual air conditioner cost can exceed a thousand dollars. You can get a very rough idea of what your air conditioner is costing you by subtracting the electric portion of your bill in a spring month when you aren't using your air conditioner from the electric portion of the bill in the summer when you do use it. This gives you the monthly cost. Multiply this by the number of months you use your air conditioner to arrive at your approximate annual cost.

Refrigerators are typically the largest users in homes without air conditioning or in climates where the air conditioners are used only a few days of the month during the cooling season. If your refrigerator is more than ten years old should consider replacing it. New efficiency standards went into effect in 1992, and older refrigerators are typically two to three times more expensive to run than a new unit.

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Heating and Air Conditioning

How much energy can I save by using fans instead of my air conditioner?

The basic notion is that moving air (from ceiling, whole-home, or portable fans) makes you feel cooler, so you can turn up the air conditioner thermostat or turn it off altogether. Whole-home fans are a potential substitute for air conditioning, since they move large amounts of air through the home and require open windows. Savings from using a whole-home fan can be large (it uses 20% or less of the energy of a central air conditioner on a per-hour basis, although they usually need to be used for fewer hours). Also a whole-home fan provides good comfort levels when it's not too humid or too hot outside (night time).

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Should I use portable room heaters to lower my energy bills?

With rising energy prices and a cold winter underway, it's tempting to think about using portable room heaters.If your central heat is electric, you'll almost certainly save money by using portable electric heaters. In fact, part of the savings come because valuable heat isn't being lost in the ducts before it reaches your living area.

If your central heat is gas, you might be able to save money by using portable electric heaters, but it's not something to take for granted.

Your local energy prices and desired comfort level will determine the answer. Also, a typical central furnace will provide about 20-times as much heat as a portable, depending on its efficiency. Keep in mind that even if the hourly cost of using portable electric heaters is lower than for your furnace, you will be dramatically increasing your home's overall power demand, which contributes to regional power shortages that ultimately can trigger blackouts and price increases.

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What information can you give me on air-to-air heat pumps for the home?

Air-to-air heat pumps are basically air conditioners with the capability of reversing their cycle to provide heating in the wintertime. During the summer, air conditioners remove heat from your home, and shunt it outside. Air source heat pumps have a switching system that allows them to operate in reverse in the winter, removing heat from the outside air, bringing it into your home. Since air source heat pumps are not actually creating heat, but moving it from one place to another, they are less expensive to operate than electric resistance heaters, and depending on the costs of both natural gas and electricity, possibly gas furnaces as well. 

Gas is sufficiently cheaper than electricity that an air source heat pump is generally more expensive to operate than gas furnaces. For those who are unable to receive gas services, the air source heat pump is probably the best bet. 

One drawback to air source heat pumps is that they get less efficient when the outside air temperature gets colder. It is harder to extract the residual heat from colder air. Electric resistance furnaces become more cost effective when the average winter air temperature is below 30°F.

Another option is ground- or water-source heat pumps. These units extract heat from the ground by using an underground loop, or from water, through an open or closed loop. Since the average ground temperature hovers around 50°F year round for most of the United States, this is a very good source for heat in the winter, and cooling in the summer. Although putting in a ground loop is expensive and repairs can be costly, ground-source heat pumps are good options for some people.

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We have been very unhappy with our current heat pump and are wondering whether to install a new one or convert to natural gas. What factors should we consider?

Unfortunately, most of these problems cannot be easily diagnosed by the homeowner, so it is best to have a qualified heating and cooling contractor check out your system. At a minimum, your system should be serviced annually by a contractor. If this does not seem to solve the problem, the contractor should thoroughly seal and insulate the duct system. Finally, if the problem still persists, the contractor can calculate your home's heating load to determine if your current unit has adequate capacity.

If your heat pump runs constantly, and your home is still uncomfortably cold, you might want to consider converting to natural gas, provided your heat pump is fully charged, and operating properly. Have your heat pump serviced to confirm the unit is fully charged with refrigerant, and has no other mechanical problems. Since air-source heat pumps rely on the outdoor air for the warmth used to heat your home, they are not the optimal choice in really cold climates. In some areas, winter air temperatures are so cold that the heat pump is unable to extract sufficient heat to increase the temperature of your home up to the thermostat setpoint, even with continual operation. When the outside air is below 35°F, air-source heat pumps operate below their rated efficiencies, reducing your savings compared to a more efficient unit. You might want to consider switching to a ground-source heat pump in this situation. Ground-source heat pumps take heat from the ground, or from a water source such as a lake or well. These areas typically have very stable temperatures (approximately 50°F) year-round, enabling the heat pump to work at optimum efficiency.

Heat pumps produce lower temperature heat than a furnace, maintaining warmth in your home by operating longer. This lower temperature means it takes longer to heat up your home. Many people are accustomed to using furnaces in this manner. They are often disappointed with the performance of a heat pump. Heat pumps heat best when they are connected to a thermostat kept at a steady temperature, and allowed to cycle on and off to maintain a constant temperature.

If you've been accustomed to the flow of hot air from your furnace, you may be disappointed in the air temperature coming from the heat pump. Once again, this is because of the lower temperatures. It doesn't mean that your home is colder, overall. However, areas near registers may now seem drafty, because the exiting air is closer to your body temperature. Placing deflectors on registers to direct air away from places where you linger will help.

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If I shut off my heater or air conditioner when I'm gone from the home, doesn't it cost more to heat or cool the home back to the right temperature once I return?

The rate of heat transfer from your home to the outside, or vice versa, is dependent partly on the temperature difference between your home and outside. More heat is transferred when the difference is greater, so it takes more energy to keep your home at 72°F when it is 40°F outside than to heat your home back up to 72°F after you return.

With air conditioning systems, the equipment runs at peak efficiency when it operates for long periods. Cooling your home back to the comfortable temperature will use less electricity than the unit would use cycling on and off for short periods to maintain the set temperature. If your home takes too long to get back to a comfortable temperature, you might investigate getting a programmable thermostat, and set it to start heating or cooling your home an hour or so before you return. You could also set the thermostat back, to a lower temperature for heating, or a higher one for cooling, while you are gone, rather than turning it off completely.

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Improving Comfort

On windy days I can feel drafts coming from the baseboards in my home. How can I stop these drafts?

The best way to prevent drafts in your home is to stop the air from penetrating the outside shell. Typically, air comes in through cracks along the foundation, near the exterior of the chimney, water faucets and electrical outlets, and along doors and windows. A good quality outdoor caulk will prevent air flow through these areas. For cracks larger than 1/4 inch, fill the gap with insulation or some other filler material, then caulk over the area.

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Some parts of my home are never comfortable, no matter what I do. The rest of the home is fine, but one room is always too hot or too cold. Why is that, and what can I do to fix it?

Your problem is probably caused by bad air ducts and/or poor insulation and windows in that area. Air ducts can be functioning poorly due to bad design, inadequate insulation, or air leaks. These problems reduce the amount of conditioned air reaching a room. Leaking and disconnected ducts waste the energy intended for heating or cooling by losing energy to your attic, basement or crawlspace, and contribute to indoor air pollution by increasing dust in the home or by drawing exhaust fumes from gas appliances back into the home.

Ducts can become disconnected or develop leaks in many different ways. One is accidental bumping, which happens when someone moves around the ductwork. In addition, over time duct tape can degrade and ducts, especially those under the flooring of homes, can simply fall apart. Disconnected ducts are not only a problem in old housing-the ducts in new homes are often accidentally disconnected during construction. Have your ductwork inspected and make sure any connections are airtight, and held together with zip ties, or sheet metal screws and mastic to create a good seal.

Also, if the uncomfortable room is at the end of a long duct run with lots of turns and connections, it may not get adequate air flow. A qualified heating and cooling contractor should be able to check out your duct system and make sure it is functioning properly. If you've checked out the ducts and determined they are not the problem, then the problem can probably be solved by insulating the ceiling, walls, or floor, or by replacing the windows with energy-efficient models.

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I've heard that if we make our home too tight, the air won't be healthy to breathe.

If you're building a new home, this can be a real concern. Your architect should be able to design adequate ventilation as part of the plan. But if you have an older home, there are usually enough ways for air to get into your home that tightening up will save you energy but still leave an adequate supply of fresh air. 

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I am trying to find some information concerning whether to use attic fans (i.e. the pros and cons).

Mechanical ventilation is typically accomplished with a small fan located on a dormer vent. These fans are usually hardwired into a home's electrical system and are controlled by a thermostat. They usually draw electricity in the range of 2 to 70 kWh per year, depending on local weather conditions and your attic temperatures. The cost of this energy of course depends on the local price of electricity.

Approximately one square foot of ventilation is recommended for every 150 square feet of floor area. You would have to check the specifications of the particular fan you are considering to determine the equivalence to regular vents.

One alternative to mechanical venting is a combination of ridge vents and eave or soffit vents.  Ridge vents run along the ridge of your roof, and eave and soffit vents are located at the base of the roof. With this combination, the natural convection of the hot air in your attic powers the venting. In addition, because of the locations of the inlet and outlet vents, virtually the entire attic space is vented, reducing the likelihood of pockets of hot air.

Mechanical venting can provide adequate venting for your home, but is dependent on electricity. Other forms of venting, such as the ridge/soffit combination mentioned above, provide superior venting, but require modification of your roof to install. If you were already planning on installing a new roof, you should seriously think about a ridge/soffit combination.

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About Windows

I keep getting ads in the mail for companies offering to replace our windows with "energy-efficient" windows. How much can these save me?

For a typical home, windows can account for 10% to 30% of the heating and cooling bill. Upgrading from single-pane windows to energy-efficient windows can cut this in half or better, so savings of up to 15% of your current bill are reasonable. Depending on where you live, this can amount to $50 to $100 per year. Spread over 20 years, this means $1,000 to $2,000.

But the big thing to keep in mind is that many of these window replacement firms use simple double-pane windows; for just a little more money up front, you can save a lot of energy over the long haul by asking for windows with special low-e coatings and inert gases, such as argon or krypton, which fill the space between the panes of glass. Some manufacturers even offer 'superwindows' with one or two thin plastic films sandwiched between the panes of glass. These windows can reduce energy loss to one-half as much energy as standard double-pane glass, and one-fourth as much as single-pane glass. For the most appropriate window in your climate, purchase windows with the Energy Star label.

Ask the salesperson to tell you the "U-value" of the windows they offer. In this case, lower is better: the best you can buy today have U-values of around 0.2, while a typical double-pane window is around 0.5.

One thing to keep in mind is that replacing windows is often not justified solely on the basis of energy savings. The cost of replacing windows in existing housing is quite expensive the cost is typically not paid back for 20 to 30 years or more. However, replacing windows will make a substantial difference in the comfort of your home, which could well be worth the cost. Also, double-paned windows typically add to the value and sale-ability of your home if you put it on the market. In new construction, the labor costs are equivalent regardless of the quality of window installed, so buy the best you can afford.

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Over the winter, fog appeared between the panes of my double pane windows, but during the summer it went away. Why did this occur?

Fog, or condensate, on multiple pane windows is caused by moisture between the glass layers. When it is cold, the moisture condenses on the outer glass pane, very much like water beading up on the outside of a cold glass of water.

There are several reasons why the condensate might have disappeared. One is that your windows might be double-paned, but not sealed. These windows generally have a small air tube connecting the air space between the glazings to the outside. If this tube becomes completely or partially blocked, perhaps by snow or mud, condensation would build up during the colder months. In this case, the blockage could have cleared during the warmer weather. Check for the presence of an airtube in your windows and make sure it is unobstructed. If your double pane windows have been installed for a long time, it is very likely that this is the problem.

If you have sealed windows, like most modern double-pane windows, it is possible that the amount of moisture that leaked into the airspace is very small, small enough to remain in the air as water vapor when the air is warmer. If this is so, you can probably expect it to return next winter.

Another possibility is that the leakage is very large. Once the weather warmed up, the moisture equalized with the outside air, clearing up the fog. Generally, once the seal on a window has leaked, there isn't much you can do to repair it, and you will probably have to replace the window. In either case, check the warranty on your windows. Most sealed double-paned windows have some form of warranty against leakage. A lot of warranties have a limited life, but some are lifetime.

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Water Heater Info

Is there any rating for electric water heaters? I would be interested in knowing the ratings for brands.

Federal appliance standards require that all water heaters achieve a certain rating on a standardized scale. The rating for water heaters is called the Efficiency Factor (EF), based on the use of 64 gallons per day under standard test conditions. The most efficient electric water heaters have EFs around 0.94 to 0.96. This Energy Factor can be converted into an estimate of annual consumption, for standard operating conditions.

Here are some general tips for water heater efficiency:

1. Larger tanks tend to be less efficient than smaller tanks, because they have more surface area through which to lose heat.

2. Electric water heaters are more efficient than gas or propane heaters because the latter lose heat from the exhaust gases in the burner. As a result, some of the heat produced just goes up the chimney. However, because electricity tends to cost more than gas, water heating bills are usually higher with electric than gas.

3. Heat pump water heaters are more efficient than electric resistance water heaters because they don't generate the heat used to heat the water; they just move heat from one place to another. Heat pump water heaters cost more to purchase than other types of water heaters.

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What is the average setting on an electric hot water heater?

Typically, water heaters have three temperature settings: high, medium and low. These settings correspond roughly, depending on the age and condition of the water heater, to about 160°F for high, 140°F for medium, and 120°F for low. Most people have the temperature set to medium, or around 140°F. If it is not already there, you should consider lowering the thermostat to 120°F, which will save you about 3 to 5% in water heating costs for each 10°F reduction. You might want to consider a timer for your water heater that turns it off when not in use, say between 10 or 11 pm to 6 am. This would also lower your water heating costs by cutting down the amount of energy lost through the walls of the tank during the night.

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If you turn your hot water heater off during the day, won't it cost more because you then have to heat up the whole tank and wait minutes before taking a shower? Also, isn't it kind of an inconvenience?

No, water heater energy consumption increases with higher water temperatures, and water heaters use more energy to heat water up and keep it hot than they do to heat it up once, because heat is lost through the walls of the tank in proportion to the tank temperature. The same energy is required to heat up the water regardless of whether it is heating a little bit at a time, or all at once. Heat losses through the tank walls or pipes simply add to the cost. So, turning the water heater off for a few hours each day actually saves some energy. This strategy works best for electric water heaters, because they lose heat less rapidly than gas or oil water heaters.

If you turned your hot water heater off during the day, it would be an inconvenience if you use more hot water than is stored in the tank. Installing a timer that turns the water heater off or that lowers the temperature during the night generally poses no inconvenience at all. These timers can be set to turn the heater back on an hour or so before you get up in the morning, so your hot shower is ready to go when you are.

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Computers and Power

We're putting in a home office. Do computers and fax machines really use that much energy?

If you use a PC built before 1994, it can use around 200 W, and a laser printer can use around 100 W; if you leave this on 24 hours per day this can add up to over $200 a year. But many PCs, monitors and printers built since 1995 have "ENERGY STAR" capabilities, which save a lot of energy when you enable this feature.

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Should I leave my computer on all the time, or turn it off when not in use?

Only you can decide whether to leave your computer on, or turn it off. There are reasons for each strategy. The typical computer draws around 100 Watts, or 2.4 kWh/day. Multiply this by your electricity rate per kWh to come up with the cost per day. Leaving a typical computer on all the time would cost about 21¢/day (2.4 kWh * 8.6¢/kWh). This may not seem like much but it adds up to close to $75/year. If you don't have any particular reason to leave your computer on, that money would be needlessly spent.

There are reasons to leave your computer running 24 hours per day. One is if you use it as a web server, or if you use it to receive faxes 24 hrs/day, for your at-home business. If these do not apply to your computer, then it makes sense to turn off your computer when it is not in use.

Don't worry about wear on the computer from turning it on and off repeatedly. This was once a problem in the early days of personal computers, but now your computer undergoes more wear from running constantly than from being turned off when not in use. If you do leave it on, try to have an Energy Star unit. There are aftermarket devices to turn your computer after extended periods of inactivity.

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Lighting Tips

My utility company tried telling us to use more fluorescent lights to save energy, but I hate how fluorescent lights flicker when you turn them on and then make that annoying hum. And they make everything look sort of blue and cold. Isn't there anything better?

Yes, fluorescent lighting technology has significantly improved in recent years. One such technology is called "electronic ballasts." You have to ask for them. Unlike the older ballasts, electronic ballasts eliminate that annoying hum and flicker and allow the bulbs to emit light which is better quality. And instead of slowly getting brighter as they warm up, they turn on instantly.

Fluorescent bulbs are also available now that have better color. Often, the warm, white fluorescent lamps are sold as "kitchen and bath" lamps.

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Is it better to turn lights off when you leave the room? I heard somewhere that it uses more energy to turn lights off and on than to leave them running.

That used to be the case with fluorescent lights, but advances in technology, especially in ballasts, have resulted in lights that do not use appreciably more energy to start up. Turning fluorescent lights on and off does slightly shorten the lifetime, in hours, of the bulbs, but you will have to replace the bulbs less frequently if they are not running all day long. Incandescent lights do not require additional energy to start, in any event, so if you are leaving the room for more than a couple of seconds, you will save by turning the lights off, for both fluorescent and incandescent bulbs.

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