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How can I make a fluorescent light less bright and more like home?
December 10, 2005 10:42 PM   Subscribe

I live in an apartment overseas in China. If any of you have been over here you know how asthetically unpleasing apartments here are: no carpet, dirty white walls, wood furniture with no padding. I'm adjusting to most things fine, but the lighting in my rooms is driving my crazy. Each room is equipped with a long (a little over a meter) white fluorescent bulb. Obviously, I can just not use it at all and just use lamps and such, but I'd rather not buy a bunch of lamps since I'll live here for less than a year. What suggestions do ya'll have for making the lighting nicer on the eyes and more "homey" feeling?

I'm up for buying new light bulbs, but please keep recommendations for stuff to things I could find overseas - part of the reason I haven't been able to really decorate is that it's difficult to shop for and bring home decorating stuff to my apartment. Most things I buy need to be able to come home on a bus (another strike against buying a lot of tall lamps) or else I'll have to pay someone to deliver. What other suggestions do you have for sprucing up the place? I'm not allowed to paint or change the flooring. Ideally anything I do can easily be taken down and thrown away/given away when I leave. Also, my walls are concrete with a thin layer of plaster and white paint, so it's difficult to hang things. Getting a nail to go in straight without causing cracks in the wall and plaster chips is almost a miracle. Any websites dealing with these kinds of decorating issues would be great as well. Tall order, I know. Good luck.
posted by riverjack to Home & Garden (32 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
IKEA lights are generally flat-pack. and cheap. Shanghai, Guangzhou, Beijing.
posted by kcm at 10:47 PM on December 10, 2005


(好嗎?)
posted by kcm at 10:52 PM on December 10, 2005


A friend found the 3 simple rules for good home lighting. I've been living happily with them for years:

- Always light the corners of the room, not the center.
- Generally, you want recessed, reflected, or shaded lights, not bare bulbs. Recessed is best, but expensive. Most people should do reflected.
- In terms of light quality, halogen beats incandenscent beats flourescent. But halogen tends to run hot.
posted by maschnitz at 10:55 PM on December 10, 2005 [1 favorite]


I've seen people drape pink paper along each side of florescent lights, or even a wide pinkish cloth across the light--seems to help a bit. Don't let 'em touch the light, obviously, and YMMV.
posted by stray at 11:05 PM on December 10, 2005


They make covers for fluorescent bulbs; no idea how to look for those in China, though. In an old apartment, we had plain pink and blue ones instead of the fancy one linked. It gave everything a nice 3-D glasses quality, but maybe that's not quite what you're going for. Plain pink would be more flattering than the deathly greenish glow of the bare bulb.

If it were me, I'd be more than willing to expend the money and effort of getting lamps in there. I can't stand fluorescent lights. They're evil!
posted by hilatron at 11:08 PM on December 10, 2005


In college, some friends draped a light-colored cotton tapestry on the ceiling, over the light but not touching it. It was good at diffusing the flourescent grossness.
posted by kalimac at 11:12 PM on December 10, 2005


My dorm room had this, I just put a flag over it. It softened the light quite a bit.
posted by borkingchikapa at 11:30 PM on December 10, 2005


Thanks for all the feedback, ya'll! I forgot to mention that rather than the regular kind of fluorescent lights that are on the ceiling, the lights in my apartment are mounted high on the side of the wall, so the light is coming out sideways. Perhaps if I put something around the bottom and side to bounce the light off the ceiling this would help?

Also, covering with some kind of fabric (not touching the light, of course) sounds like a good option. What color should I choose? Why have several people mentioned pink?
posted by riverjack at 4:04 AM on December 11, 2005


I'm guessing that red or pink would cancel out the green of the fluorescent and make a more natural, white light. Or maybe it's just that red is cheery.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:38 AM on December 11, 2005


If you're in or near Shanghai, Guangzhou, or Beijing, I second kcm's Ikea suggestion. All their stuff is very portable from the store. A lot of it is very stylish.

My sympathies on the concrete box.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:46 AM on December 11, 2005


Hang rice paper in front of it, like the kind with leaves in it.

Also, there are many types of bulbs, such as "cool white" and "warm white." The comfort issue with florescent light is influenced by the ballast, or transformer, that powers the light. Newer electronic ballasts are at a high frequency like 4000 hz and give a smooth light. The older style can noticeably vibrate at a lower rate which is unpleasant and fatiguing.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:59 AM on December 11, 2005


Hideous prison-fluorescents are standard here in Korea, too. I hate them with a passion. I don't know about in China, but the 'warm' fluorescents are indeed much much nicer.

That said, I never use the overheads, except in the bathroom and kitchen, and those are the 'warm' type. In the livingroom, bedroom, and my office, we use lamps (a mix of incandescent, and warm fluorescent lamp-size bulbs). As you approach our apartment building at night, you can instantly recognize my house. All the others have this cold, blue, institutional light coming out the windows, while ours has warm, inviting orangey light streaming out. Big big difference.

A couple of people mentioned IKEA. We have a couple of lamps that we got there (in Australia) that were basically just a paper wrapper around a wire box with a socket built into the base. The paper has since long gone, but my wife bought some paper at one of the decorative paper stores in Seoul (I know they have them in China too) and made some lovely new wrappers for the lamps. Cheap, beautiful, and it makes the light lovely and ambient.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:41 AM on December 11, 2005


regarding the nail problem, perhaps you can have some 3M Command Hooks sent over by a friend or relative. (I have no idea if they're available in China)

3M website

You could use them to swag lights from the ceiling, or use the decorating clips for strings of Xmas type lights.

Best of all, they won't damage the walls, they're removable and they've got picture hanging hooks to expand your decorating options.
posted by jaimystery at 6:28 AM on December 11, 2005


I just read this tip on light bulbs: To match the warm qualities of incandescent bulbs, use fluorescents bulbs in the 2700K- 3000K range. For kitchens and bathrooms where cooler, ‘cleaner’ light is desired, bulbs in the 4000K-6500K range work well.

Not sure what you can find over there but maybe that will give you a better idea of what range to be looking in.
posted by undertone at 6:59 AM on December 11, 2005


Newer electronic ballasts are at a high frequency like 4000 hz and give a smooth light.

To elaborate on this: ballasts can either have electronic or magnetic control mechanisms. Electronic ballasts (actually electromagnetic) are designed to condition the 60 Hz input signal to match the lamps. (Traditional/old-fashioned) magnetic ballasts don't adjust the frequency, so every 60Hz x 2 (both sides of the waveform) the lamp voltage crosses 0 and flickers.

This has nothing to do with the quality of the light itself; you can have a beautiful color-balanced tube that still flickers. The "cool white" or "daylight" on the box is a reference to the color temperture of the tube. Cool whites are about 5000°C, warmer whites are shifted more towards the red end of the spectrum and are about 3500°C. Natural daylight is between 5500-6000°C--this is what most photographic flashes are balanced to, and explains why all your photos have an orangish hue when you take a picture indoors: the camera exposes for 5500°C (the flash) while the incandescent bulbs in the background are at 3500°C (much warmer).

There's another issue with fluorescent tubes that's not often talked about: the completeness (or lack thereof) of the color spectrum. The way fluorescent tubes work is that there are chemicals inside the tube that, when excited by high-frequency discharge, produce a strong color at a very specific temperture (kind of like how you measure the composition of stars from millions of light-years away). Manufacturers will mix a couple of these chemicals to try and give you a red-green-blue light balance of white light.

If you were to take a fluorescent tube and split the color using a prism, you'll see this more clearly: strong spikes of light in some of the bands, empty black areas in other parts. Natural daylight, on the other hand (and incandescent light) produces a complete spectrum (though it's shifted towards the red with incandescents). The measurement is called the CRI (Color Rendition Index). So the quality of the light is basically crap. Unfortunately, this is a problem with the nature of fluorescent tube design.

In recent years, manufacturers have developed (expensive) methods to create real full-spectrum tubes. These are used heavily in the graphics arts (and photography) fields where color reproduction accuracy is of highest importance (since color accuracy is a direct reflection of the light--this is an over-simplified explanation but you're probably getting pretty bored at this point so I'll just continue).

There is also another community that uses these "full-spectrum" tubes: the medical community. SAD patients (Seasonal Anxiety Disorder) use full-spectrum tubes to treat their sensitivity to the bluer light of the winter sun. You can get these tubes, but they'll cost you about 4-5 times the cost of a normal tube--about $20 each. Osram/Sylvania, for example, makes the StudioLine series of tubes that come in all sizes and a few color tempertures (I think 3500°C - 5000°C). Since just about everyone manufactures their tubes in China these days, you might have some luck getting your hands on these tubes.

This doesn't even begin to address the lighting design of your apartment. Most people don't like top-down lighting (unless you're in an office or something). In general, bottom-up light is far more pleasing. I think the easiest way to "cozy-up" a place is to put a bunch of regular lamps all over the place with some compact-fluorescent bulbs (self-ballasted) in the sockets. I'd get them on the redder-side to avoid the "doctor's office" look--maybe 3500°C color temp. ("warm white" or equivalent).

Also, put an area rug down for crissake. Put the lamps in places where they will shine on rug, not linoleum. Put up some really large pictures to cover the walls if they're concrete. Halogen lights are dangerous, but they do put out a shitload of light (and heat). I'd avoid them and go the compact-fluoro/lamp route instead.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:59 AM on December 11, 2005 [1 favorite]


Well this is not much of an answer after CD's fantasticness but: stick some masking tape on the wall before you try to hammer in a tack or nail and the plaster won't chip.
posted by nicwolff at 7:45 AM on December 11, 2005


Cool whites are about 5000°C, warmer whites are shifted more towards the red end of the spectrum and are about 3500°C. Natural daylight is between 5500-6000°C--this is what most photographic flashes are balanced to [...]

Great post, Civil_Disobedient!

A small nit: color temperatures are typically measured in degrees Kelvin (as opposed to Celsius). So, riverjack, just imagine his post with Ks instead if Cs in there ("5000°K", and so on).
posted by Handcoding at 8:57 AM on December 11, 2005


And there aren't "degrees Kelvin," there is only Kelvin. So, 5000K, etc. ;)
posted by kindall at 9:31 AM on December 11, 2005


To add to Civil_Disobedient's excellent explanation: You only need about 5% of your lumens to be coming from a broad spectrum source to make florescent light seem to be ~95% full spectrum to your brain. This isn't sufficient for graphic work but even a single halogen desk lamp bouncing light of the ceiling will make your room much nicer to live in.

If you want to see this effect for yourself pay attention when driving/parking at night (preferably in a red car). Park in assorted parking lots and note the colour your car appears to be. Your car will appear almost black under exclusively mercury vapour lamps (which are green). Move to the other end of lot next to the store front and the interior+signage lights will fill out the spectrum getting you closer to the daytime colour. Shine a cheap bulb type flashlight on the car and you get a decent red colour. Most places like gas stations now use a majority of florescent lighting with just enough halogen as accent to prevent wierd colours after dark.
posted by Mitheral at 9:41 AM on December 11, 2005


Alex Handcoding scribbled "color temperatures are typically measured in degrees Kelvin (as opposed to Celsius)"

Well, (0K = -273C) and (5000K = 5273C) so either is probably good enough for the task at hand :). There is more difference between a new halogen and one at the end of it's life.
posted by Mitheral at 9:45 AM on December 11, 2005


Well now that we are really getting in to it, let me say that I have over my desk a bank of 32 four foot florescent lights.

When I was building it some people thought I was going nuts, now they all like to come over and tweeze their eyebrows under it.

I have a few spectrum balanced bulbs in there. The rest are a mixture, not just of cool and warm, but also the finer color temperature variants. I forget what they call them, like extra cool and lukewarm something.

The ballast is key to a usable light.

Prior to this massive overcompensation, I used to tape strips of colored gel, pink, yellow, blue, green, at intervals on the light tube. It gave a more natural look especially at the edges of shadows.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:52 AM on December 11, 2005


I have a cheap 300W halogen torchiere that lights my room just fine with a warm glow. Cheap to buy - expensive and a tad environemntally irresponsible to run.

(I'm going to replace it now I've read about how energy hungry they are)

I realize that the light gets very hot, and emits UV, but if you shine the light directly upwards to reflect off a surface AND the bulb has a THICK glass cover above it (to reduce UV and contain the glass of the bulb if bulb explodes) I've found no problems.....

Civil_Disobedient: is there anything I'm missing wrt halogen safety? Perhaps this is why I'm blind-ish at 32?
posted by lalochezia at 9:52 AM on December 11, 2005


are typically measured in degrees Kelvin

(Smacks /self on the forehead). Yeah, that's what I meant. And yeah, not degrees. Even though it's nearly the same, the principle isn't at all and I should have caught that.

If you want to see this effect for yourself [...] Your car will appear almost black under exclusively mercury vapour lamps (which are green).

That's a very good real-world example. I didn't want to get into the whole "color" thing, because I didn't have a good enough explanation to give without rambling on even more than I had before. Basically, the way it works is like this: all color you see is merely reflected lightwaves, and those lightwaves only reflect when the color that's hit is contained in the spectrum of light hitting it.

So, for example, if you shine a really narrow spectrum of light on an object that doesn't contain that color--say, a red LED at a yellow car--you won't see it. Really! Excited gasses emit unique color spectrums (you may remember this experiment from class, or seen an episode of CSI Miami where they do gas-chromatigraph analysis). Mercury lamps have terrible spectrums, but the design is such that you can put out a shitload of lumens per watt. I believe they're the one of the most efficient forms of lighting available in high-lumen (overall light output). That's why you see them all the time in parking lots: they're cheap to power, they last a long time, and the light up the lot. But your car will look all funky under the limited spectrum.

is there anything I'm missing wrt halogen safety?

Well, I recall some famous musician's entire music collection burned down with his apartment when he left a halogen on too long (next to some curtains). Can't remember his name, though.

The problem with halogens is that they're extremely inefficient light sources. I mean, yeah, they look bright compared to a regular incandescent lightbulb, but they also use hundreds of watts of wasted heat energy. As a rule of thumb, incandescents put out 25% of light and 75% of heat. With a screw-in 100W lightbulb, that's not that bad. With a 1000W halogen, that can instantly ignite things. And be careful about handling the bulbs themselves--the oils on your hand can cause the tubes to burst once they get hot enough. Obviously, don't pour water on them when they're on. On the flip side, if you live in a cold apartment, they can warm your place up nicely.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:08 AM on December 11, 2005


Ah, it was Lionel Hampton.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:11 AM on December 11, 2005



Well now that we are really getting in to it, let me say that I have over my desk a bank of 32 four foot florescent lights.


Wow, that sounds amazing- do you, by any chance, have a picture to share?

And, not to derail, but now that you've got high-intensity full-spectrum light, what do you use it for?
posted by fake at 10:50 AM on December 11, 2005


say, a red LED at a yellow car

Well, depending on the yellow, it might show a reflection. If the car's paint reflects only pure-spectrum yellow light, it won't. If it reflects (say) red and green, which looks just as yellow to our eyes, it will reflect the red. It would depend on the characteristics of the pigments used in the car's paint.

Also, cars have a gloss finish that reflects all light, so you'll probably see some reflection from that even if the paint itself doesn't reflect anything.
posted by kindall at 11:06 AM on December 11, 2005


So, for example, if you shine a really narrow spectrum of light on an object that doesn't contain that color--say, a red LED at a yellow car--you won't see it.

Specular reflections on plasticized surfaces are the color of the lightsource, perhaps tinted by the pigments, but white reflects as white.

Off from metal the specular highlights are the color of the metal: copper, brass, silver, etc.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:46 PM on December 11, 2005


If it reflects (say) red and green, which looks just as yellow to our eyes, it will reflect the red. It would depend on the characteristics of the pigments used in the car's paint.

I wasn't thinking through my example, but yes, it would (should) reflect red.

Let me try again: if you illuminate a red apple against a black background with a blue light, the apple will not reflect any color, and will appear gray.

A yellow car under a blue light will also appear gray, yet under a red light it will appear red, and under a green light it will be green, since yellow light is a combination of both colors.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:08 PM on December 11, 2005


When you say the walls are dirty white, d'you mean the colour is a sort of off white? Or... are they dirty? If it's the latter, you could wash them. Just use a little bit of dishwashing liquid in a couple of litres of warm water and a soft-ish nylon dish scrubber. Squeegee off and wipe dry with a towel. I wouldn't go for anything harsher like sugar soap or a wiry type scrubber if the paint is thin.

I've lived in places with dirty walls (smokers before me) and I swear, washing the walls made a huge difference. Heaps brighter and nicer afterwards.

Also: rugs and fabric throws. I'm sure China is full of awesome cheap material - buy a couple of metres of something interesting to throw over furniture / use as a table cloth / curtains. And rugs make even the worstest floors more bearable.

Oh! Doors are great places for hanging stuff too. The nail goes in and holds. Nothing around it cracks, so you only have the nail hole to cover up when you leave.

For hanging things through your flat, you could put nails in other places that’re hard to see -- tops of windows, door frames – and hang wire across a room between the nails. Then hang decorations from that. Paper lanterns maybe? Postcards?


Go shopping! I hear China has some awesome markets.
posted by t0astie at 2:37 PM on December 11, 2005


stick some masking tape on the wall before you try to hammer in a tack or nail and the plaster won't chip.
I bet riverjack wishes he had plaster. If it's like the Beijing apartments I saw, it's solid concrete, and you'd need a masonry nail to penetrate it.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:12 PM on December 11, 2005


Metafilter: but you're probably getting pretty bored at this point so I'll just continue.

I know, I know, not in AskMe... Just read it again and you will understand
posted by Chuckles at 9:36 PM on December 11, 2005


Thanks for all the wonderful comments, ya'll. CD - that was awesome. I'll be playing around with some colors to cover the lights, although the rice paper suggestion helped a lot. I had some leftover rice paper from my calligraphy lessons and I just temporarily held it over the light. It helped. I'll be playing around with that and some colors soon.

I'll try and wash my wall again, perhaps. When I first moved in I tried to wash the many smudges, streaks, and god knows what else on the walls (seriously, it's like the person who lived here before liked to run on the walls or something). I tried cleaning them when I first arrived but the paint on the walls is a waterbased paint, not oil, and so it kept coming off when I would wash! Not wanting to take the paint off the walls, I just gave up. Maybe I'll try again sometime soon. I think you're right that it will look a lot better just by cleaning up the walls.

I'm near Guangzhou so I'll be checking the Ikea out. I love Ikea and I'm sure they've got some good stuff I can use that will be relatively easy to transport on the bus home. I won't be able to hang much on the walls (the doors are a good idea but they're metal and hollow, so nails aren't the greatest choice for them) since they're basically concrete with a thin thin layer of plaster that's cracked in a lot of places already. I'd rather not buy masonry nails and put those in, but maybe I could do that in the corners and hand some white christmas lights...hmmm...thanks for all the ideas!
posted by riverjack at 7:12 PM on December 12, 2005


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