Using Portable Luminaires
by Eric Strandberg LC, Lighting Design Lab
24-8416 Floor Lamp

Portable luminaires are one of the most common and versatile types of lighting we use today.

Table lamps, floor lamps, desk lamps and torchieres are used in many residential applications. In one fixture you can combine all three types of lighting; task, ambient and accent. And, you can unplug the luminaire, move it around the room, change shades, or change bulb types*.

Put light just where it is needed.

Portables have one main advantage over permanently installed fixtures - they are, portable. We can move them around and play with the design and mood of a space. Portables also allow us to move the light close to a task area. This can increase the light on the task and also save energy in the process.

The main disadvantage of portables stems from their main advantage. Because they aren't stuck to the ceiling or the wall they are often "in the way". We use our horizontal surfaces as task areas, traffic ways, and display surfaces. Table and floor lamps have to compete for space in these areas. Can you imagine lighting a kitchen counter with table lamps? Then there is the power cord to deal with, small rooms may have the power outlets close by the tasks, but in large rooms with furniture "floating" in the center you may need to put a receptacle in the floor in the middle of the room. This requires a well thought out furniture plan. Also, be aware of future "area rugs" that may cover the outlet. Resist running power cords under rugs as this can create a fire hazard.

Portables fall into two main categories: directional and omnidirectional.

Most table and floor lamps fall into the latter category, often having a translucent shade that covers the light source for glare control. The cover directs some of the light down, but most of the light is sent out into the room. This omnidirectional quality makes them good for general or ambient lighting.

Another popular portable is the torchiere also used for ambient lighting. This product is a tall, open floor lamp that directs almost all of its' light up to reflect off of the ceiling, filling the room with indirect light. The torchiere may seem to disappear and become a platform for an unseen light source. Most torchieres found in retail stores use halogen lightbulbs. These bulbs use 300 watts or more and are expensive to operate and can be unsafe due to the heat generated by the bulb. A number of manufacturers are now producing torchieres that use energy efficient Compact Fluorescent lamps. These CFL torchieres are a great way to efficiently produce ambient light for a room.

A good way to control portables is by plugging them into switched outlets.

This allows you to walk into a room, flip a switch on the wall and turn on a table lamp or floor lamp. Normally, this is best done on an ambient type portable to aid in moving about the room. Careful attention should be given to traffic patterns and furniture layout. Also, more than one outlet can be controlled at a switch.

Most portables use incandescent bulbs (halogen or standard).

This means that they use lots of power, burn out frequently and get hot. Desk lights, entry lights, and living space lamps are on for long periods of time. Here, a fluorescent light source can be a good option. Retrofitting your luminaire is a good strategy for floor and table lamps by using Compact Fluorescent (CFL) bulbs that screw directly into the existing socket.

Manufacturers and the federal government have joined up to create Energy Star standards for a new breed of efficient home luminaires. Today, more portables are being designed for fluorescent lamps, and even other light sources like Metal Halide.

*In the lighting industry, the correct term for a lightbulb is "lamp" or light source. To avoid confusion, for this article I will refer to light bulbs as lightbulbs or just, bulbs.

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Copyright 2004  Used with permission.  All rights reserved.