Enough with the LEDs

I remember an old alarm clock I used to have that glowed and buzzed at all hours, and used to make a little "flip" sound as the number cards (yes, I'm that old) flipped up and down with the changing minutes and hours. I used to dread midnight the most because every number would flip at once, waking me up every time like a crack of a whip.

Needless to say I got rid of that alarm as soon as I could buy a digital one that didn't buzz (much) or make that flipping sound. The glow was even worse, however, even using the "low light" setting. It was not something I wanted on my nightstand while I was trying to sleep. I used to throw a shirt over it to block out the light, but little green glowing photons always snuck out.

I've looked everywhere for a clock radio with a 'lights out' button that turns the lights off until you either hit the button again or the alarm goes off but nobody makes one. If you're a product designer for an electronics company, take note.

In one way or another I've been fighting a losing battle for darkness for 20 years.

Now, lights are in absolutely everything. In my living room alone there are LED lights glowing at all hours on the smoke detector, cordless phone, cordless phone charger, surround sound system, two power bars, Xbox 360 power supply and the cable converter box, not to mention half a dozen blinking lights on our modem and wireless router. There are glowing digital clocks on the microwave and oven I can't turn off, and every recharging device for phones, cameras and batteries only adds to the light pollution. When we put our aging eMac to sleep a white light ironically pulses from the front that's bright enough to read by. I pity anyone who crashes on our couch for a night.

While those little twinkling lights probably don't add up to much on our bi-monthly power bill, I would imagine that every living room/family room in North America has a similar level of light pollution and that all of those kilowatts turn into gigawatts pretty quickly. It's bad enough that so many of the devices we use drain the grid while running on phantom power, but it's even worse that they feel the need to celebrate the fact with a light show.

There are always good reasons why those lights are there - LED lights let you know when something is on or something is working for example, while you might get a red light turning to green when your batteries are charged.

But a lot of lights are still unnecessary, and some are plainly there for style only - e.g. the standby lights on my surround sound system and cable box are ridiculous, and the pulsing sleep light on our eMac goes beyond the pale. There should be an option to turn some of these lights off, or they should go off themselves after a certain length of time. Otherwise lights should always be tiny, passive (lowest wattage) and recessed into the plastic so they can be easily covered with duct tape.

Other than tape the only solution I've found is to connect household devices to power bars, which I can then turn off at night (providing I use power bars that don't have any of their own lights), but it's not the best solution. If I turn off my cable converter, for example, it needs to completely reset when the power goes back on and the channel guide is useless for a long time. Modems take time to boot up, and lights on other items tend to flash when they've been reactivated - like the clock on the microwave.

There are a few systems out there where you can control lights and other fixtures in your home using your computer or a remote control, but the home automation idea hasn't really caught on in any mainstream, affordable way. The house of the future is still a long way away.

Check out to get an idea what's possible if you want to automate your home. Most of the solutions require more hardware, which sometimes means more lights and more phantom power circuits silently draining your wallet even when the power is off.

One day I predict that every fuse box will have a processor and antenna, and that every light socket will have a built-in controller that lets you easily automate your fixtures and appliances using remote controls and home PCs. Everything from your lights to your base heaters could be programmed or manually controlled. There will likely be some investment up front but it's a small price to pay for a good night's sleep.

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