Choosing the right light

March 21, 2012
Stan Goff
Issue 5

In the dental environment, lighting is an under utilized design tool in part because the lamping (bulbs) and fixture types have expanded so tremendously over the last five years, it is hard to know what options to consider.   Lighting can positively impact function (task lighting) or esthetics (ambient lighting). Understanding the options available is key in achieving the best affect from lighting and their improved energy benefits in the process.  

In the dental environment, lighting is an under utilized design tool in part because the lamping (bulbs) and fixture types have expanded so tremendously over the last five years, it is hard to know what options to consider.  

Lighting can positively impact function (task lighting) or esthetics (ambient lighting). Understanding the options available is key in achieving the best affect from lighting and their improved energy benefits in the process.  

Pat Carter, IIDA with the Practice Design Group offers advice to help you get the best light to work in and the most comfortable light for patients and staff. 

Q: What advice do you offer to practices looking to transition to LED lighting?

A: LED lighting has become a viable alternative to the fluorescent lamp (bulb) in the last year. Until now, the LED was costly, technically challenged by ineffective heat dissipation, and too blue/cool for most users expecting to replicate the warmth of incandescent. In the last year we have begun to specify LED “tape lighting strips” in uplighting coves, LED recessed cans in corridors and LED strip or stick lighting under upper cabinets. These lamps are low energy users, now more affordable and the advancements in LED technology have produced lamps that effectively dissipate heat and offer a range of cool to warm color. And for these reasons, we recommend them for the dental environment as noted. We have not eliminated our preference for fluorescent and decorative MR16 or incandescent fixtures in certain applications, but foresee more fixture types utilizing the LED lamp being developed in the future.

Q: How can dentists make educated decisions as to whether operatory lights or headlights are best for them? 

A: Headlights have definitely expanded in use and in preference by dentists. As with any technology, the complaints associated with headlights when first introduced -heavy, bulky and awkward in use-have subsided with again, advancing technology of the “fixture” type.  Even so, we have not eliminated the combination of room illumination lighting and dental patient light from the operatory. In fact, orthodontics and pediatric dentists that would forgo the dental light entirely are introducing them into their treatment areas with expanding procedures requiring good field of vision (or good light).

Q: Do you believe it’s a good idea to have windows/natural lighting in operatories?

A: Absolutely. Shade matching may still be a driver for windows in some practices.  We recommend windows to promote patient comfort and provider productivity. Working in a windowless environment all day has been shown to decrease productivity and increase stress in the dental environment. Optimum orientation of window light in a dental operatory however, is key to achieving the benefits of natural light. North exposure is best with the potential for no window treatments required. East is second best (morning sun can be too bright or uncomfortable to the ‘stationary’ patient), South is third best (the sun can reach far into a room especially during winter months) and West should be avoided.

Q: What are possible solutions when a north orientation is not possible or if the operatory can not have windows?

A: When north orientation is just not possible, then we recommend roller shades (Mecho or NYSAN) that allow visibility to the exterior but minimize glare and heat gain. If no windows are possible then we definitely recommend a mix of lighting, task and ambient, to create options of light during the course of the day to create change and add comfort.

Q: What else should clinicians consider in regards to lighting?

A: Most important: Don’t use the same light source throughout your office. Select lighting based on functional and esthetic criteria for each space. Too many dental offices have 2x4 fluorescent lighting in every space and lose any benefit that a mix of lighting can offer. Specifically, a recessed fluorescent light fixture is appropriate over a task area (operatory, lab, sterilization), but is a poor choice for non task areas in creating ambient appeal in a space. Your patients and your staff enjoy and benefit from changes in lighting throughout the dental environment.

Direct/indirect fluorescent lighting (where the patient can’t see the fluorescent lamp when they are reclined!) offers great task lighting for the providers and comfort for the patient in the operatory. Selecting fixtures/lamps (bulbs) based on functional (task or ambient lighting) requirements, will in the process achieve a favorable esthetic throughout the dental facility.