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Kitchen Lighting Tips

Better kitchen lighting doesn't have to cost a fortune. These 5 upgrades—track lighting, undercabinet lighting, recessed lighting, dimmers and better bulbs can all do the job at moderate cost. And you don't have to tear up your kitchen to put them in.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

The need for better kitchen lighting

The kitchen in the house where I grew up was lit by a single fluorescent ring bulb smack dab in the middle of the ceiling. It was too bright when you clicked it on for a midnight snack and too dim when it came to reading the fine print on the Nestlè chocolate chip package. But like most kitchen lighting back then, it “worked. ”

These days, “workable” just doesn't cut it. Most kitchens now serve as dining room, office and family room. Lights are on in the kitchen more than in any other room in the home. And since we cook, work, play and pay bills there, we need a wide range of lighting to create a pleasant environment for all our activities and to prevent eyestrain and accidents.

In the course of totally remodeling a kitchen or building a new home, you might be able to afford the luxury of working with an architect or designer to get your lighting and wiring just right. But until then (which for some of us is never), there are simple ways to improve kitchen lighting without a lot of hassle, dust and expense. Here are a few of the easiest, least painful improvements.

Track lighting effects

Track lighting effects

Figure A: Track Lighting

Replacing an existing central light fixture with track lighting allows you to direct general, task and accent lighting where you need it.
Note: You can download Figure A and enlarge it in the Addendum below.

Technique 1: Install track lighting

A single overhead fixture provides good light for general cleaning and navigation but does a lousy job of casting light inside cabinets—especially in deep and corner units. One solution is to use the existing light fixture electrical box as a starting point for a new track lighting system (Fig. A below).

Track lighting—available in incandescent, fluorescent, and high- and low-voltage halogen versions—has multiple fixtures that allow you to direct and focus light where you need it. T-, L- and X-shaped connectors let you install tracks and lights in hundreds of configurations. A wide variety of specialized fixtures allow you to customize and rearrange your lighting as needed. There are highly focused units with reflector bulbs for task lighting and others for general or mood light. Many systems have adapters for pendant lighting too.

Once you've selected your fixtures, position them so they don't shine directly in your eyes. Don't install fixtures directly in line with sinks and other work areas; your head will block the light. Install them to the sides instead, then angle them toward the target spot. Install them where they won't interfere with the swing of upper cabinet doors. And since track lighting fixtures are so prominent, select a system that complements the look and feel of your kitchen.

Technique 2: Add undercabinet lighting

Undercabinet lighting puts light where you need it most. Your body and the upper cabinets often block the light from centrally located ceiling fixtures, keeping it from reaching the countertops where you need it most. To avoid working in dim shadows, install lights beneath the upper cabinets (Fig. B) to illuminate those cutting boards and cookbooks.

Undercabinet lighting is available in three varieties:
Fluorescent lights are reasonably priced and long-lived, and they cast an even, “cool” light. They're available in varying lengths to accommodate different cabinet widths (Fig. B1). Designers warn that fluorescent lights used in proximity to certain strong wall or countertop colors can create an “unappetizing” glow. T-5 fluorescent bulbs—about half the diameter of standard fluorescent bulbs—provide good illumination without being obtrusive.

Halogen lights, most commonly in the form of small discs or pucks, cast a white, highly focused light that's easy to work by (Fig. B2). Halogen light closely resembles sunlight. Surface-mount and recessed fixtures are available.

Incandescent lights come in a variety of wattages and configurations. Strips of incandescent minibulbs tend to be of lower wattage and work better for ambient light than for true “working” light.

Whichever type of lighting you select, install it toward the front edge of the cabinets so it illuminates the entire countertop rather than the wall. Install a 1- to 2-in. valance along the lower edge of the cabinet to keep light from shining directly in your eyes. Where possible, install continuous lighting so countertops are evenly lit. If you have shiny countertops, use frosted bulbs or frosted lenses over the bulbs to minimize harsh reflections.

According to electrical code, the cord of a plug-in-type fixture can't be permanently secured to the cabinet or wall with staples or other fasteners (although it can be draped over an open-ended hook, Fig. B1). A more permanent, but more involved, solution is to install lights that can be “hard wired” directly into the home's electrical system and controlled with a wall switch, like the fixture shown in Fig. B2.

B1 Plug-in fluorescent system

B1 Plug-in fluorescent system

B2 Hard-wired halogen system

B2 Hard-wired halogen system

Figure B: Undercabinet lighting

Fixtures installed beneath cabinets cast bright, unobstructed light directly onto the work surface. Install them toward the front of the cabinets with a small valance, if necessary, so lights don't shine in your eyes. Halogen lights (B2) burn hot to create a pure, bright light. Fluorescents (B1) are long-lived, inexpensive to operate and easy to install.

Technique 3: Add or upgrade recessed lighting

Special recessed light trims focus light where you need it most.

Standard recessed lights, especially those installed in soffits or around the perimeter of a room, tend to light up walls, floors, cabinet fronts and the top of your head—places where light isn't really needed. Most recessed light manufacturers produce a basic “can” fixture (Fig. C) that can be fitted with a variety of trims ranging from the basic baffled cylinder to adjustable eyeballs and wall washers. These last two versions in particular allow you to direct light where it's needed—to the inside of cabinets or specific areas of the countertop. The cost to swap out a trim is usually low and the job takes only a few minutes.

Make sure your new trims are produced by the same company that manufactured the recessed can housing and that the trim is compatible with that specific “can.” Look inside the can for the manufacturer's name and the model number.

The effect of different trims on recessed lights

The effect of different trims on recessed lights

Figure C: Recessed Lights

Most recessed light “cans” can accommodate a wide array of trims. Eyeball trims can be adjusted up to 30 degrees to cast light into deep cabinets. Light from wall washer trims can illuminate cabinets, highlight artwork and reflect to provide general lighting.

Technique 4: Add a dimmer switch

Improving kitchen lighting doesn't simply mean adding more lighting; it also means adding flexible lighting. Many designers divide kitchen lighting into three categories: general lighting (for overall illumination), task lighting (for detailed tasks) and accent lighting (for setting a mood or illuminating glass-front cabinets). A dimmer switch allows an existing light to serve all three functions. Install the highest wattage bulbs your fixtures are rated for, then use them full blast for chopping carrots, slightly dimmed for putting away groceries, and greatly dimmed for enjoying romantic dinners.

Replacing a standard switch with a dimmer takes less than an hour and costs little. Fluorescent and low-voltage lights need special, more expensive dimmer switches.

Technique 5: Change to better bulbs

Improving your kitchen lighting can be as simple as switching to different light bulbs (Fig. D), and there is a wide range to choose from. A standard reflector-type floodlight casts a beam of light (beam spread) of about 70 degrees, which is good for general lighting. A spotlight confines the beam spread to about 20 degrees—much better for task lighting. A narrow spotlight bulb (NSP) can narrow the beam spread to 12 degrees for bright, highly focused light. A standard A-type light bulb casts its light very broadly. So check your bulbs. A standard light bulb mistakenly placed in a recessed or track light fixture will provide only a fraction of the light that the recommended spot or reflector bulb would provide.

A bulb's capacity to light a particular surface is dramatically affected by distance. If 100 percent of the light from a bulb reaches a surface 1 ft. below it, only one-fourth of that light hits the surface if the bulb is raised to 2 ft. above the surface, one-ninth at 3 ft. and a mere one sixteenth at 4 ft. You math whizzes get the equation, right? So when you need bright task lighting, keep the light as close to the work surface as you can, use a bulb that focuses more light and/or use a higher wattage bulb if the fixture is rated for it.

Wide beam flood light

Wide beam flood light

Narrow beam spotlight

Narrow beam spotlight

Standard incandescent bulb (A-bulb)

Standard incandescent bulb (A-bulb)

Intensity varies with height

Intensity varies with height

Figure D Bulb Type and Height Greatly Affect Brightness

Bulbs focus light in several ways. Pick the best focus and wattage for each situation. And keep in mind that as distance increases between bulb and surface, light levels fall off dramatically. For optimum lighting, keep fixtures close to the surface you're illuminating—and use the correct bulb.

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