Friday 24 January 2020

Tune in, turn on - how tunable light can improve your mood

We've come a long way from dimmer switches, with tunable light now improving mood - and possibly health

Outdoor giant anglepoise from Lost Weekend
Outdoor giant anglepoise from Lost Weekend
Ikea TRÅDFRI dimming kit
Mini Anglepoise from Lost Weekend
Pendant lamp €412 from Babatude Boutique
Louis Poulsen light fitting from Lost Weekend
Decorative Czech Opal Pendant Light from Skinflint €347
Suspension Conia Mini light from Nedgis

Eleanor Flegg

I'm a recent convert to tunable light. By this I mean lighting that can be changed from bright clear white to warm mellow white. It's a massively effective way of adjusting the mood of a room. This isn't entirely a new idea - switching off the big light and lighting a few candles achieves a similar effect - but it's cool that you can do this electronically. This is a different process from an old fashioned dimmer switch which enables you to turn the lights down low, but doesn't at all affect the hue.

Changing the hue, or "colour temperature" of light can transform a cold but efficient working light to a cosy candle-like glow. Typically, tunable lighting is expensive. Systems from Dlight, a specialist lighting company based in Tramore, County Waterford, start at €180 per light fitting (with reductions if you're fitting out a whole house). The lights are operated from a dimmer switch on the wall and need to be installed by an electrician or other "competent person".

At the upper end of the spectrum, Dlight also sells tunable light systems that cost €800 per light fitting. For that, you'd get a synchronous system with controls that you can operate from your PC. You would also be able to log in remotely and adjust the lighting in any room from anywhere in the world (just in case you need to do that!). Such systems are hardwired and don't depend on an existing WiFi network.

Current research indicates that there may be health benefits to using tunable lighting in a way that mimics the natural cycle of light and dark in our lives, known as our circadian rhythm. If you work outdoors, there's no need to worry about this. You'll already be getting the best that Irish climate has to offer. But people working in offices can suffer from spending all day in a brightly lit environment. "If you're working late, with the light tuned to 4,000k, the light will stimulate your eyes and your brain," says Ciaran Crowley, engineer and lighting designer for Dlight. "That can make it difficult to sleep when you get home."

Ikea TRÅDFRI dimming kit
Ikea TRÅDFRI dimming kit

Some forward-thinking workplaces have installed a circadian daylight sensor that changes the colour temperature and light level automatically, mimicking the natural outdoor light. There's evidence that this benefits the people working in that environment. But tunable office lighting can also be manipulated by wily bosses who use colour temperature to control the mood of important meetings.

So how does this workplace technology translate into the home? "You can install a system that uses light to wake you in the morning," says Crowley. "You wake up feeling refreshed and energised. It's so much better than being woken up in a panic by an alarm clock in the dark!" In the evenings, adjusting the light to a warm yellow helps the body to slow down and prepare for sleep.

This April, Ikea launched a smart lighting range called Trådfri. The basic starter kit - one remote control and one E27 LED light bulb - costs €35. This doesn't, of course, have the range and subtlety of the light fittings from Dlight that cost €800 each. You wouldn't expect it to. But it's a great way of dipping a toe into the waters of tunable white light.

The Ikea lights have three colour temperature settings, operated by a remote control that also functions as a dimmer switch. I looked at one of these kits for review purposes and found that it was easy to set up an individual adjustable light. The Trådfri smart lighting system was a bit more challenging.

If you want to synchronise more than one light, the Trådfri smart kit (€79) contains two white spectrum E27 LED light bulbs, a gateway, and a remote control. To install it you need to download an app and plug the gateway into your router. Other people have commented that the installation was easy. To be honest, that wasn't my experience. I struggled, and had to bribe a technically proficient family member to help. Eventually we got the system working and found that the quality of the light was lovely, and that changing the colour temperature really did alter the mood of the room. I'm a convert to the aesthetics of tunable light - but I did find the installation challenging.

While specialist reviewers have declared that that are no security issues with the Trådfri system, some people are super-careful about what they plug in to their routers. If you're one of these, the dimmer switches can be used to adjust lights individually.

Louis Poulsen light fitting from Lost Weekend
Louis Poulsen light fitting from Lost Weekend

The Trådfri system does not yet allow you to log in to your gateway remotely, or to adjust it using voice control, but apparently that technology is on its way. An Ikea press release dated 23 May promises that "this summer and autumn, it will also be possible for people to interact with their smart lighting using Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant and to set up and adjust their lighting using Apple's Home app".

This is a typical Ikea move. Bringing good design to the masses is kind of their thing. So is releasing technology that's still evolving. Expect low prices, interesting innovation, and the occasional technological hiccup as the Swedish furniture giant strides forward into the Internet of Things.

Other similar products on the market include the Philips Hue E27 lighting starter kit (€80 from Maplin). This too operates through your existing WiFi network, via an app.

With or without tunable white light, there's a lot that you can do with light fittings to create an atmospheric living space. "I prefer light fittings where I can't see the bulb," says Emily Maher of Lost Weekend. "I'm kind of over the whole bare light bulb thing." For mood lighting, her current favourites come from the Danish lighting manufacturer Louis Poulsen and especially those from his mid-twentieth century collaboration with the designer Poul Henningsen (they're known by his initials as the PH lamps). "All the light is diffused and you can't see the bulb!"

For task lighting, Maher is a fan of Anglepoise's collaborations with fashion designers Margaret Howell and Paul Smith (from €180). These combine traditional form with intelligent colour schemes that reflect the designers' clothing ranges. "The colours are very good, very specific; it really adds something to the collection."

If you like the notion of coloured light, some upmarket systems allow the light to change through all the colours of the rainbow. These don't come cheap. Pragmatic alternatives might include Debenhams' Marquee wall lights (from €160) or a string of multi-coloured light bulbs (€37) from Lights 4 Fun. They may not re-tune your circadian rhythm, but they're great for a party all the same.

Decorative Czech Opal Pendant Light from Skinflint €347
Decorative Czech Opal Pendant Light from Skinflint €347,,,

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