Lighting Your Kitchen

Choose the right light fixture for the task at hand

Kitchen lighting

In the modern kitchen, lighting is as much of an art form as it is a necessity. It used to be that you walked into a kitchen and there were one or two overhead lights set into the ceiling, most likely fluorescent or incandescent. Now, there are all sorts of functional, attractive ways to make sure your kitchen is a bright and friendly place to be. This is most important since the kitchen has become a place to work, entertain guests, and spend time with the family.

If your kitchen has only a central fixture, it might adequately light the kitchen, but it can produce a very shallow light that can have a dull feel to it. Whether you hire a lighting designer or take it on as a do-it-yourselfer, knowing as much as possible about lighting will come in handy when you’re planning the perfect kitchen workspace.

Getting started

The first thing to think about is whether this is a project you can take on yourself or whether you need to get an electrician and lighting designer to help you. If you’re not going for a full remodel—i.e., installing pendants, under-counter lighting, and replacing ancient canisters—you can probably install a few new fixtures yourself for very little to give your kitchen a subtle facelift. If you are doing a full lighting project, it’s probably best to hire an electrician to make sure it’s done properly. Either way, you should begin with thinking about task lighting. What surfaces need it the most? Which light source will be best where? Then, move on to ambient lighting. If you have a small kitchen, you really only might need one overhead light, and one or two task lights under kitchen cabinets. If your kitchen is a little more extensive, you can also add a layer of accent light. Keep in mind that the different layers of lights should be controlled by their own switches. You want to be able to add and remove lighting by layers, so whether it’s midnight and you just want a small task light on to make a sandwich, or you want to emphasize the clean counters to your guests and downplay the dirty dishes in the sink, you have the appropriate amount of lighting. Also keep in mind the general décor of your kitchen. Do you have light countertops or dark? What about the cabinets? If you have dark cabinets, installing task lights under them can increase the color contrast and make them seem even darker.

Before going to the lighting store, make a list of the kinds of lights you like and where you’d like to see them. Maybe you’d like to see a dimmer-controlled pendant over the kitchen table, a line of CFLs under the kitchen cabinets for your task lighting, a recessed downlight over the kitchen sink, and a general light composed of track lights installed above the counter cabinets to reflect off the ceiling and give an extra touch of warmth. Take your time to mix and match the different types and kinds of light to achieve the best lighting arrangement for your kitchen.

Lighting Terminology

Let’s start with some basic lighting terminology. If you’re not familiar with it, or if you’re interested in the science behind how lighting works, look over this brief description of some commonly used lighting terms.

Lamp Type Definition
CFL CFL stands for “compact fluorescent lamp.” These are devices with a small diameter fluorescent. Most are around 5/8” in diameter and can be U-shaped or circular. Installing a series of CFL or halogen lamps under kitchen countertops has become very trendy of late. CFLs are also very energy efficient.
Halogen High-pressure incandescent lamps contain halogen gases like bromine or iodine. They give good color rendition, and have the ability to dim. Don’t touch them because the oil on your hands will shorten their life.
Incandescent This type of lamp uses a filament, such as a coiled tungsten wire, that is heated by a flow of current to produce light. This has been the standby light bulb for years.
Fluorescent An electrical discharge ionizes the gas inside the lamp, which produces ultraviolet radiant energy. This energy excites the phosphor coating on the inside of the glass, which then produces visible light. These types of lamps are very energy efficient, but they do contain mercury, so dispose of them as hazardous waste.
HID HID stands for “high-density discharge.” These produce light when pressurized gas is ionized by current flowing between electrodes. They come in mercury vapor, metal halide, and high-pressure sodium forms. Metal halide and high-pressure sodium are the more environmentally friendly of the three. As with fluorescents, dispose of as hazardous waste.

Kinds of Lighting

Now that you have a sense of the basic terminology, let’s move on to the different kinds of lighting you can incorporate into your kitchen. There are four main types of lighting available: ambient, task, accent, and decorative lighting. Each one is used to create a different effect in the kitchen, and they can be layered on as you see fit.

Ambient Lighting

Ambient or general lighting serves to create the basic light scheme in a room. Many of today’s kitchens are equipped with so many other sources of light, such as task or accent lighting, there is arguably less need for all-purpose general lighting. Ambient lights can be direct or indirect, so there are a lot of options to choose from. For example, if there is space between your cabinets and the ceiling in your kitchen, track lighting can be installed on the tops of upper cabinets to create a warm, indirect light to reduce contrast and illuminate vertical surfaces to add a sense of height. It’s a clever, inexpensive way to brighten the room. Another choice is a fluorescent centerpiece, which is also budget-friendly and doesn’t use much energy. If you’re using incandescent lights, you can install two to four domed fixtures in the ceiling to distribute light evenly; this is a little trendier than the general tube fluorescents.

Task Lighting

When you stand over a counter, sink, or stove, if your shadow falls on that particular area it can be hard to see what you’re doing. Task lighting puts the light where you need it most. Installing fixtures above any kitchen work surface makes it easier to see what you’re doing, as well as adding depth to your general overall lighting scheme. There is a large selection of both incandescent and CFLs available now for task lighting. To brighten the counter area, put lights under the upper cabinets. Mount lights close to the front edges of the cabinets, making sure you have a minimum of 8 watts of fluorescent light per foot of counter, or 15-20 watts of incandescent light. Another option for illuminating the counter is installing small halogen spots for clean, bright light.

If you want task lighting over places that don’t have overhanging cabinets such as an island, you can go with a couple different choices. Very popular in today’s kitchens, recessed downlights (aka canister lights) are inset flush with the ceiling. They provide even illumination and can be installed over stoves and sink areas to assure good task lighting. (Because they might permit airflow to unheated attics, insulate the canister for extra energy efficiency.) Pendant-style lights have become increasingly popular for adding high-end style to the kitchen and can be installed to hang down directly over the task area. Alternatively, you may want to project light from the ceiling by using adjustable track lighting or recessed fixtures to shed light on the workspace. For the sink, put a light either on a fixture right above it, or mount it on the ceiling; 40-60 watts of fluorescent or 75 watts of incandescent light should do the trick. For lighting over stove, use the same amount of light; for an added bonus, consider installing an exhaust hood to vent cooking odors.

Accent lights

Accent lighting highlights elements in your kitchen. Whether you want to put a spotlight on the contents of your cabinets, or create a sense of height to your ceiling, or emphasize the spiffy tile backsplash behind the stove, an accent light allows you to create a unique tone in your kitchen that ambient lighting doesn’t match. Use these lights sparingly to on objects you’d like people to focus on or admire. Spotlights are the most popular kind of accent lights, and some especially nice ones to use are low voltage halogen lamps called MR16s. These lights are generally where you’ll spend the most money. Though you can buy rope lighting for $3 per foot and halogen lights for only $3 each, accent lights could run into the hundreds for a single lamp.

Mood/decorative lights

Some lighting is purely decorative ... sconces, chandeliers, Christmas lights, and light strips are all just for style and color. Candles even count as decorative lighting.

Lights, Camera, Action!

Now that you know the basic lighting terms and types, where you want them, and what kind of layers you want to establish, you’re ready to get started! A good idea if you’re doing the designing/installation yourself is to bring a picture of the different areas of your kitchen to the lighting store. There, you can compare fixtures to what you already have if you’re not doing a full remodel, and figure out the details like which decorative finish would look best. Don’t be afraid to spend hours in the lighting store or at home with magazine clippings of different lighting ideas.

If your home is older and a restoration is more your style, don't overlook the potential for light fixtures at antique and thrift stores as well as checking out garage sales. Just keep in mind that you will probably need to find a good lighting repair company to rewire the fixture so as not to burn the house down.

Armed with your knowledge of lighting and a few ideas about what you want, you’ll be able to turn your kitchen into beautifully lit masterpiece.

To help with your lighting project, a licensed electrician could be your ticket to a safe, sound installation. Find a qualified professional at UpdateRenovate .

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