Enhancing Your Home’s Natural Light (Part 1)

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Reducing the use of electricity for lighting is a terrific goal: stop sending money to the power company and be greener. However, substituting candles, oil lamps, propane fixtures or active solar still requires plenty of fossil fuels and money to make and run them. That’s where enhancing your home natural light comes in.

home natural light

If you can draw dogs playing cards on your windows, they might need a cleaning. From Scott Wade.

Candles (other than true beeswax or solid bayberry) are made from petroleum derivatives and are expensive if you use a lot of them. Oil lamps and propane lanterns need continuous sources of fuel ($$$) and, like candles, produce soot and are a fire hazard. Do you want to be your own technical engineer? Active solar is costly, and when you need it the most — those dark days in January — you get the least sun.

Electricity is very, very nice. Very cheap, too, for the amount and quality of light you can get compared to the alternatives. The object then, is to get the largest possible return on your lighting dollars, however you generate light. There are a lot of things that you can do, ranging from quick and cheap to harder and more expensive. Best of all, these ideas, once implemented, tend to be permanent improvements requiring only routine maintenance.


Don’t laugh! Natural sunlight cannot penetrate dirt very well. Wash every window inside and out, and vacuum the screens. Do not attempt to wash windows, particularly ones that haven’t been cleaned in years, with Windex and newspapers. This method just doesn’t work that well.

This is what I do. You will need a vacuum cleaner, two buckets, lots of hot and cold water, a little dish detergent, a razor blade, stepstool, and a stack of terrycloth cleaning cloths. Many years ago, I bought several packages of bar mops. These are ribbed terrycloth towels, almost square, and a little smaller than a hand towel. I use them for everything cleaning-related and wash them with the regular laundry. Get some or make your own with cut up old bath towels.

The first bucket is for the cleaning water with a squirt of dishwashing liquid. Use the hottest water you can stand to put your hands in. The second bucket is for rinsing (cold water). Use the bar mops to scrub, rinse, and dry. The rinse bucket keeps your detergent bucket clean. When the rinse water gets dirty, dump it and refill with fresh water. You will do this a lot.

Now, let’s get cleaning. Do one window at a time and finish it before going onto the next. This way, any removable parts like storm windows and screens don’t get mixed up. Your window type determines just how easy cleaning will be. Old-fashioned double-hung windows with true divided lights, combined with storm windows on the second floor, are not going to be easy.

Begin by vacuuming the window, including the frame, to remove loose dirt, dust, cobwebs, cat hair, etc. On the outside of the house, use a broom to knock off the loose stuff. Get every surface and corner.

Remove the window screen (if you can) and vacuum both sides, top to bottom and side to side. The screen may actually change color.

Take down the storm windows and set them on a towel in the bathtub. Scrub both sides of the storm windows, rinse them, and dry.

While the storms are in the tub, vacuum the tracks. Wash, rinse and dry the window. Hopefully, you can get both sides from inside the house. If not, close the window, and go outside with stepstool and buckets.

While washing the window, get the frames and sills as well. If there are paint spatters, decals, or stickers on the glass, wet the razor blade and scrape them off. The first cleaning is the most involved as you will undoubtedly be removing years and years of grime. The second time around is much easier. If the window glass and screens are as dirty as mine were, you may discover that the light coming into the house has doubled.

Clean all the windows in your house including attics, basements, garages, and patio sliders. You may be able to clean only the removable parts and the insides of second-story windows. This will still greatly improve your light-gathering.

After this first, mammoth effort, wash the windows and vacuum the screens every year or two to maintain them. Cleaning the windows will allow you to inspect for any needed repairs such as broken glass or missing putty, caulk, or mullions. Do the repair work before winter comes to stop drafts and trap your heat.

If you discover painted over sidelights (those narrow windows that flank doors), painted over transoms (windows on top of doors), or painted over basement windows, you will have to make a decision. A previous owner probably painted over these windows for privacy. The original builder installed these windows because they did not have easy, cheap electricity. Scraping off the paint will let in free sunlight. People can then, maybe, peek inside.

If this really bothers you, there are ways around this. You can install very narrow curtain rods and sheers in sidelights. Transoms should be too high for anyone without a stepladder to look in so scrape away. Basement and bathroom windows can be covered with frosted Contac paper or etched in place. You can get frosted Contac paper at Walmart; Martha Stewart will tell you how to etch glass. Both techniques result in translucent panels that let light pass through while blocking prying eyes. If the glass panes are broken or missing, you can get fancy patterned glass replacements and give yourself privacy and light.


Windows let in the light and any views. The curtains and drapes you choose and how you hang them will enhance or minimize that light. Closed draperies occupy a huge amount of wall space so their color matters. Pastel fabric will reflect lamplight back into the room whereas a darker fabric will absorb the light and darken the room.

When you hang your drapes or curtains, you want to expose as much glass as possible without showing the wood trim. The space your curtains occupy when fully open is called the stackback. Mount your curtain rods so that the stackback barely covers the glass when the drapes are completely open. The valance of your drapes should cover the trim and an inch or less of glass. You will most likely have to put the hanging hardware on the walls instead of on the window trim to accomplish this. You may have to reinforce the wall to support the weight of the drapes and their hardware. If so, mount 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick squares of plywood with glue and screws on your wall where the drapery hardware will go. Make the squares three or four inches across to have plenty of room for the hardware. Paint them to match the walls and they will disappear when the rods and drapes are in place. Insulating drapes that are lined and interlined are so heavy that their weight will pull the mounting hardware right out of the wall. Mounting the hardware on the walls with the drapes covering the trim has the added advantage of making your windows look larger than they really are.

If you are going for added insulation as well as maximum light, extending the drapes over the walls and the windows will help cut down on drafts. A valance mounted to the ceiling will block more drafts and so will drapes that just brush the floor. Don’t puddle your drapes on the floor (like a magazine photo) if you have kids or animals unless you really, really like extra work. If privacy is a concern, add a layer of sheer curtains like lace or net closest to the glass. This will block some light but will obscure the view into your house from the street. Add properly fitted room darkening window shades to the sheers and lined drapes and your windows will be much more energy efficient both when opened (solar gain) and closed (insulation and draft control).

Next week: Using paint and flooring to enhance your home’s natural light.