/ Home & Energy

The lights are on… but no one’s in

London offices at night with lights on

Offices, retailers, banks, there are many culprits leaving lights on unnecessarily. When did this become acceptable, and how does it sit with energy price rises, dwindling natural resources and the Green Deal?

After meeting up with a few friends, I wandered out of a slightly grotty central London pub into the light. Bathing in the incandescent glory that cascaded from the buildings around me, I felt like I was in a tanning booth or a summer Spanish beach front.

It was 11pm, mid-November.

Don’t worry; this isn’t a rant about Christmas lights (which are as tasteless and essential as bad panto) – but it is a rant – against office lights. From shops to banks, estate agents to law firms, leaving your lights on at night seems to be in vogue.

Let’s get statistical

In its 2011 report on Energy Consumption in the UK, the Department of Energy and Climate Change analyses energy use within the service sector.

In 2009, commercial offices used the equivalent of 2,848,000 kWh on lighting alone. Retail facilities made that look like peanuts, consuming the equivalent of 13,475,000 kWh to keep stores lit. To put that into perspective, it’s about the same electricity as around 20,400 homes would use every year on lighting alone.

More goes towards electricity than natural gas, oil and solid fuel combined. The total electricity consumption across the service sector (including schools, sports and leisure, government and warehouses) is 95,600,000 kWh. The vast majority of this goes towards normal day-to-day use – although even then there’s a lot of waste – but anything we can do to cut this figure would surely help.

Admittedly, lights from office blocks and the high street at night have other uses. Turn them all off for instance and your street gets a lot darker, and consequently the council’s street light bill could go up. Likewise, building sites often leave the lights on at night for safety and security reasons. I’m not blind to this; but companies shouldn’t use it as a cop-out.

Businesses aren’t blind either. Research from the Carbon Trust last year revealed that rising energy prices, along with taxes, are the biggest worries facing British businesses, although predictably it’s in sectors like manufacturing where that concern is greatest.

The flick of a switch

What really annoys me is the feeling that the lights are often left on for commercial reasons. There’s a Foxtons estate agents near me, which not only leaves the lights on in its giant glass box at night but also has rolling news on a huge flat screen TV blaring through the night. Does anyone really watch it?

Reassuringly, it sounds like the government not only recognises the problem, but is also aware of how easy it is to find a solution. Here’s a quote from the DECC report I referred to earlier:

‘The non-domestic lighting and appliances sector presents opportunities for relatively quick, significant reductions in demand.’

And that’s the point. We’re not talking about wind farms, solar panels, or nuclear power stations. We’re talking about flicking a switch.

John Symons says:
23 November 2011

Lights left on in offices may be a sign of corporate “presentism”, but I would not like to hit them with a beefed up Working Hours Directive. Security is a cop out. Is it too much to expect security guards to flick switches on and off as they go? A flashing torch in a dark room or an unexpected light turned on could positively alert them to an intruder. Personally I would ban lit shop window displays when shops are shut. While I hate TV and internet adverts I presume that they cannot consume much power. If we want to buy something, we go to shops in opening hours, or online, to research it. We should pay councils what we need to for street lighting, not rely on inefficient third party background light sources to achieve the same objective.

Do you have an adopted son called Michael Symons?
He would like to get in contact with you please.

Hi there NathanCasey, we’ll be in touch by email shortly.

John Symons, if you would like to get in touch then please do so via ‘Get in Touch’ here https://conversation.which.co.uk/contact-us/


Thanks Nick for highlighting this pointless waste of energy.

My local Lidl store has all the lights on long after the store closes at 8pm. The store looks deserted, so I don’t think the lights are on to allow staff to refill the shelves.

Where I used to work, many lights and computers were left on overnight. I would like the worst offenders named and shamed, and fined if they continue to waste energy.

I asked a checkout assistant about the lights in Lidl. She said they used to switch them off but confirmed they were left on after the store was closed. I will contact Head Office and ask why they are wasting energy.

I tried to email Lidl, but had to use one of these stupid Web-based forms that make it difficult to keep a copy of correspondence.

I have just had a call from their Head Office in Edinburgh, to say that Lidl takes energy saving very seriously and also that lights left on cost the company money. They are going to call my local store and speak to the manager.

All night lighting can be added to open doors on shops in winter as a major waste of power.
The potential savings probably make domestic savings look small.

We really need a major campaign to change businesses culture on this issue.

Having done a few calculations – I’m wrong ! Possible savings are small compared to possible domestic savings.

Even if the service sector saved 25% this would only be equivalent to a 1 kWh per house saving per year or 0.02% of average household energy usage per year.

While I am not condoning waste of energy in the home, at least someone might benefit from it. If lights are left on in offices and commercial premises it is of no benefit to anyone, and we all pay for this waste through taxes and increased prices for products and services.

Commend the organisations that do well and shame those that don’t, followed by a fine if they don’t take positive action.

Businesses could easily arrange for some* of their lights to switch on by motion detection. This would enable security guards to monitor and patrol, so there really is no need for 24-hour lighting.

*No need for every light to be on for the security guard: just sufficient to make their way around.

Health and safety is the usual reason cited for not having lighting controlled by occupancy sensors. I’m sure that it is possible to deal with these concerns and, as you say, they are relatively cheap to install.

I partially agree about the H&S reasons for lack of motion detector lights, but in buildings that I have worked where they implemented them, they stupidly put ALL the lights onto a motion Detector so if you wee working late after dark, your activity at the desk was insufficient to keep the lights active.

However, if only a FEW of the strategically placed lights were on motion detectors AND the main light switch overrides the motion detector then the problem is easily resolved.

I suppose there is a billion to one chance that you turn off the main switch just as you have a heart attack and lay undetected in the dark all night!

Yes, it’s not difficult to find a solution that will suit the location. The answer is for one person to take on the role of safety officer and energy manager, so that they have got to find ways of saving energy without compromising safety.

I should like to shine a little light on Marks & Spencer in Norwich. They have just extended and revamped their store and made great play of the fact that it is much more energy efficient with footfall-activated escalators, smarter refrigerators, and more targetted and economical lighting [not so comfortable perhaps but adequate]. At night, however, and well after the storekeeping has finished but possibly while certain maintenance tasks take place in specific areas, the whole shop is a blaze of light and nobody is visible inside. And yet, in fulfilment of their Plan A greener more envionmentally-conscious corporate pledge, the lights in the window displays [which are actually rather attractive] are turned off and the frontage appears dark; so why did they fit the windows out with high-energy spot-lighting?

Getting offices and stores to turn off or at least reduce lighting overnight might not solve all the nations Co2 reduction issues but every little helps and it does set a good example. It would suggest to everyone that these commercial operations do care about the waste their customers ultimately pay for, because it doesn’t right now.
I’d also like to see at least some of the outside commercial lighting switched off overnight, and also where reasonably safe to do so some street lighting, save us the public a bit on the council tax perhaps.

I agree about street lighting. What annoys me more is driving along a very brightly lit road and suddenly there is no light. Can anyone explain the logic of this?

PeteC says:
24 November 2011

On a related note. I wonder how much all the Christmas lights in towns and cities across the country cost. The lights in my home town are on all night, which seems like a lot of waste. Especially when council tax is so high and budgets so squeezed, councils might like to think a little smarter about when the lights are on. For example, do they need to be on when the shops are shut after 4/5pm on Sundays?

I agree with PeteC about the cost of public Christmas lights. The displays seem to be bigger every year. At least many use LEDs rather than incandescent bulbs these days, but the taxpayer has to pay for the lights, plus the cost of their installation and removal.

Why not a simple central display? The money saved could be used for something useful.

I believe that local traders/shops have to contribute or pay outright for the cost of the Christmas decorations. I would imagine that the cost of the lights and decorations pale into insignificance when compared to the cost of putting them up and running them.

In guess this may vary from Council to Council.

So though we don’t all pay for them directly through Council Tax, I expect we pay indirectly through what we purchase from the traders.

DerekP says:
25 November 2011

It’s not only lights in offices – what about the ridiculous level of road lighting? Roundabouts in my part of the country (North Yorkshire) make the whole area (not only the roads) look like a sunny day. The expense must be enormous. As a motorist, I surely don’t need that level of illumination in order to be a safe night driver. Also look at the images from space. Great areas of this country are visible from way out there due to excess lighting. It just isn’t necessary — and they tell me to buy low energy lights to save the environment! HAH!

Musse says:
25 November 2011

There are two points which do not seem to have been touched on by previous commentators;
How is one to know that one is the last person to leave the building?
and, energy costs for businesses are tax deductible, i.e the nett cost for a kWh of energy is a lot less for a business than for a private taxpayer, of which the latter seem to be the more righteously indignant.

Is it the case that these commercial premises are on a low-rate night tariff as well, leading them to be even less concerned about energy waste?

Nigel says:
25 November 2011

Government offices seemed to be the worst offenders. Hopefully as the number of agencies and civil servants fall so will the bills and wastage – not to mention the cost to the rest of us of their ludicrous pension schemes

PeterW says:
26 November 2011

This comment seems to be just a gratuitous attack on the public sector. What evidence is there for the statement that Government offices are the worst at leaving lights on?

On pensions – which of course is way off-topic – the Hutton review this year firmly rejected the idea that public sector pensions were gold-plated. It stated that the current average pension payment to local government workers was £4,052 a year; for civil servants the figure was £6,199. These are hardly generous amounts, let alone “ludicrous”.

Oldian says:
25 November 2011

Habitat store in Chester closed down but still has internal and external lights on through the night,sam as MFI which closed ages ago,

Kevin Campbell says:
25 November 2011

I’ve always thought that energy use should be as vigorously tackled on the demand side as well as on the supply side. And I’ve always been bemused by the lavish lighting of unused buildings at night, while appreciating the luminous environment thus created. Apart from the financial cost, there is the cost in extra power generation. Why, oh, why doesn’t the Government control it?

jastan says:
25 November 2011

All business expenses are paid for by the customer and costs of electricity for lighting/heating is an example of an expense that a smart organisation would cut to be more competitive for their customers. A simple solution is sensors that turn lights on and off when sensing movement. It is a mystery why these companies are so slow to identify efficiencies and make themselves more competitive. Perhaps life became too easy during the “boom” and they have not caught up with more testing times.

Gerard Phelan says:
26 November 2011

My office was refurbished a few years ago and the lights now have motion sensors. This is arranged to turn lights on/off in groups of a dozen or so desks, so that one work-group can carry on working in the light after an adjacent one has left leaving their desks in darkness. The lights turn off in the daytime too if no-one is in and the motion control means no-one needs a light switch. The system even helps with fitness, because typing at a computer does not register enough motion, so when the lights dim a minute before they switch off, you have to frantically wave your arms around to avoid being plunged into Stygian gloom.
I believe the electricity saving entirely paid for the small extra cost of the motion sensors.

Richard Greenberg says:
28 November 2011

This is a great point, it always annoys me when the people I live with leave the tv on when they aren’t watching it, but we should also put our money where our mouth is. Every time that I cycle back from central London to my home in North London and I pass the Which? offices, all the lights are on! We should really sort this out if we are to criticise others!

Nick – Is there any legislation or code of practice that we can quote if we contact organisations that seem to leaving lights on unnecessarily?

Where I used to work, each building had a notice stating the energy use and the typical energy use for that type of building. This does not seem to be very common but no doubt it would help highlight problems. Lights left on are fairly obvious, but open windows because of overheated offices, even in the depths of winter, probably wastes more energy.

Steve Hunt says:
2 January 2012

I have read all the above comments. With just one or two exceptions everyone has made a positive common sense observation.
Lighting burning for no apparent purpose is not the greatest; but is the most obvious waste of precious energy. Government legislation via the building regulations focuses on ‘watts loading’ etc (this removed the tungsten lamp from commercial use many years ago ) but does nothing to address lighting burning unnecessarily.
In another life I designed lighting and lighting control systems which addressed all of the concerns of your contributors. Especially interactive systems for low occupancy / random access situations. These systems saved our well informed clients millions of pounds and are still doing so to this day.However you would not believe how difficult it was to convince the management of some companies and utilities (or dare I say their accountants) to invest in energy efficient lighting and lighting controls for their premises.Lighting was very low on the agenda. There was never a budget for it. For example If a proposed scheme had a pay back of more than 24 months, it would be rejected out of hand. No matter how great the savings were. Therefore the waste would continue year after year after year. (I could name and shame but I won’t.)
There have been great advances in this field and there are now numerous and divers systems on the market. Ranging from simple movement detectors as mentioned to very sophisticated state of the art computer controlled lighting energy management systems (some even use artificial intelligence) which are integrated within overall building management.These systems maximize energy savings to the full.No need to dream up practical or technical solutions, they are already out there. There is therefore, no excuse for any company or utility to be operating lighting inefficiently whatever the circumstance especially in the present energy climate. I suspect however that the problem of management inertia and/or ignorance in all sectors is still the same and judging by some of the comments (with which I wholly sympathize) perhaps it’s got worse!.

Electrical Engineer (retired)

They have these PIR lights which depend on movement to stay on in a new wing of a hospital I visited recently. They switch off when you are sitting on the loo. I’ve met this kind of lighting before but elderly relatives have not and find it very unsettling if not frightening.

Steve Hunt says:
2 February 2012

Re comment from Lessismore.
You are right, they have created a health and safety hazard in a hospital of all places!
Yet another example of the inappropriate use of perfectly good equipment.
There are inexpensive alternatves which completly avoid plunging people into darkness.

Electrical Engineer (retired)

Hi Lessismore, these are really interesting links – but it would be good if you could provide a bit more context about them in your comment rather than just pasting the link in. Thanks!