The best lighting solution for a dark closet without lights is to mount a pair of fluorescent fixtures as low as possible on the wall over the door. This lights your clothes and shelving well and casts light into those shadowy areas along the floor.
Linear fluorescents have several advantages over conventional lightbulbs. The long tubes cast light more evenly over the length of the closet. The slim profile lets you position them more easily in tight places, like over the door. The plastic cover on the “under-cabinet” or “closet” style shown protects them from bumps. They don't require an electrical box, so installation is easier. And the National Electrical Code allows more flexibility for their placement. NEC rules prohibit any fluorescent fixture mounted within 6 in. of the front edge of a shelf (measure from an invisible vertical line extended directly above the shelf lip). Incandescent fixtures must be at least 12 in. away. That much clearance isn't possible in most closets.
We recommend an under-cabinet–type fixture that uses a T-8 (1-in.-diameter) bulb. Buy the longest fixture that meets the electrical code and fits over the door. You can usually find the fixtures in 18-, 24- and 36-in. lengths at home centers ($20 to $40). For maximum light, simply join two fixtures end to end (opening photo) or even stack them on top of each other if your space is especially narrow.
Closet Light Wiring and Parts
The key elements of this system are the “undercabinet” or “closet” fluorescent light fixtures and the motion detector switch. Tip: Look for a light fixture that has several “knockouts” (prepunched holes) to give you more options for connecting the new cable.
The best (and coolest!) way to control the light is with a motion detector mounted in the ceiling. The light will come on when you open the door or reach into the closet. And it will automatically switch off. Most under-cabinet fixtures have electronic ballasts, so buy a motion switch that works with electronic ballasts. They cost about $55 at electrical supply stores.
Otherwise, you can mount a standard switch in a box on the wall outside the closet, or easier yet, mount a pull chain switch (from hardware stores) on the fixture itself. To center a pull chain switch in the closet opening, join two fixtures with a short length of conduit when mounting them. You may have to drill a hole in the fixture to mount the switch. You can also order fixtures with pull chain switches online (try lightingdirect.com)
The biggest challenges are finding a power source and pulling a cable to the new fixture position. If you have an open area above the ceiling (attic shown here) or below the floor (basement, crawl space), you're in luck. You can generally find a nearby junction box with power and can run the new cable from there. Then either drill down through the top plates or up through the bottom plate and “fish” in the new cable. If you don't have open access from below or above, you'll probably have to cut open a wall to reach a junction box with power. If possible, make that cut inside the closet; say, opposite the junction box to an outlet in another room. Then run the cable, making as few wall cutouts as possible to get the cable to the switch and fixture. If you keep all cutouts inside the closet, you can more easily hide the wall repairs.
The rules for closet lights are stringent. Be sure to apply for an electrical permit so an inspector will check your plan and your work.