Bright lights, big sukkah

Complete with track lighting and its very own home entertainment center, Rudi Halbright’s sukkah sounds like something you might see on MTV’s “Cribs: Jerusalem Edition.”

Yet while it sounds extravagant, the sukkah is supposed to represent something else: conservation.

The sukkah, which Halbright and his neighbor, David Spinrad, have been aching to build for three years, is a working demonstration of how to shave big money off your electric bill while being an ecological mensch in the process.

The “solar-powered sukkah” features two small panels, a powerful battery and a mess of small, high-tech lights that, in total, burn less energy than the conventional light bulb in your desk lamp.

“My personal interest has been using more solar technology and being able to consult others on how to use it,” said Halbright, a 39-year-old Oakland photographer and congregant at Chochmat HaLev.

“If people want to build this sukkah, it’s a great way to learn about how to use solar power on a small, manageable scale.”

Small and manageable are the operative words here. The two solar panels powering the sukkah are about 1 foot by 4 feet and can be rolled up into a tube like a poster.

They are wired to a 55-amp battery, which, with half a day’s sunlight, can power a 100-watt bulb for six-and-a-half hours. That may not sound like much juice — you may be reading this article beneath the light of a 120-watt bulb. But the lights Halbright employs sip their juice instead of gulping it.

The 8-by-16 sukkah has LED track lighting on its 7-1/2-foot-high roof. LEDs (light-emitting diodes) are nearly as bright as conventional lights yet drain only as much energy as a three-watt bulb. There is also a “light rope” — a transparent coil of LEDs wrapped around the sukkah resembling inverted Christmas lights.

LEDs are not cheap, Halbright admits, but you do get what you pay for. Around his flat he’s purchased a number of bulbs for $25 a pop, but each one is guaranteed to last for 50,000 to 100,000 hours. Assuming he keeps the lights burning for 12 hours a day, he’ll be due to change them in 2029 or so.

“And they’re much less breakable than regular bulbs,” he says. “A couple dropped during installation [in the sukkah] and they were fine. They just bounced off the floor.”

Not only do long-lasting bulbs help the environment by staying in light sockets and out of landfills, they also require less energy from power plants, which often burn coal or other fossil fuels.

“If you’re a homeowner with a long-term outlook, [solar power and efficient lighting] can save you lots of money. A lot of people think in terms of taking a straightforward home design and just adding solar panels to it, but what [the sukkah] is using are lighting and other appliances that use less power and are more efficient, which means fewer solar panels,” he said.

“You might spend an extra $800 on lighting and save $10,000 on solar panels.”

Halbright — who plugged a computer into the sukkah the other day and showed “Ushpizin,” an Israeli film revolving around Sukkot — has built himself an extremely sturdy sukkah.

It required a raised floor standing on joists because of his backyard’s tendency to flood. And should he and Spinrad not be neighbors forever, it is designed as two connected sukkahs, so each man has his own.

Halbright is seriously thinking of packing it to next year’s Burning Man festival, where green living is the yearly theme.

“I definitely want to reuse this and make sure the wood is used for something valuable. At the very minimum, it’ll be reused as a sukkah next year.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.