When it comes to illuminating your kitchen, think “lightscape.” Just as landscaping can beautify your exterior space and highlight activity zones, kitchen lighting can beautify your kitchen’s interior while defining and improving the functionality of work areas.
Kitchens require three types of lighting: ambient, task, and accent. Ambient lighting is the overall light in the room, generally provided by larger fixtures and natural light from windows.
Tips for Kitchen Task Lighting
LESLIE: Well, if you find that your cakes are tasting salty and your meatloaf is sweet, what you might be lacking is not actually some good cooking skills but the right lighting in your kitchen.
TOM: That’s right. And the kitchen is one of the best places in your home for task lighting. And one place that’s usually lacking that is under kitchen cabinets. Here to talk about that is This Old House host, Kevin O’Connor.
Kevin, welcome to the program.
KEVIN: Thank you for having me.
TOM: And it’s always amazing how much we do with so little light in the kitchen.
KEVIN: Isn’t it? Have you chopped off any fingers lately?
TOM: Thankfully not. But I’ve got to tell you, it’s – a missing element is that task lighting. And I think a lot of folks don’t realize that. You really need several types of light in a kitchen for it to be truly efficient.
KEVIN: Yeah. And one great place to add this task lighting is underneath the upper cabinets, under mounted lights, we call them. And think about it: these cabinets go over most of your counter space, which is where you’re doing most of your work. You might be working on an island some of the time but you’re also going to be working on those counters that wrap your kitchen. So this is a great place to add lighting.
LESLIE: Mm-hmm. And I think a great place to add dimmer switches, as well, in the kitchen.
KEVIN: Well, the dimmer switches really get you two lights in one, right? So when you’re doing all of the prep and you’re working in the kitchen, it’s nice and bright, you can see what you’re doing, you save a couple fingers. But then when you’re serving dinner and you’re having a cocktail afterwards, you can turn them down to dim and it just is a good mood lighting throughout the kitchen.
LESLIE: Or sneaking in for that late-night snack.
KEVIN: Or sneaking in for the ice cream.
TOM: Now, what kinds of fixtures do we have to choose from here? Are they all pretty much the same or are there a lot of options, as always?
KEVIN: Well, no, there’s a lot of options that are out there. And for me, there’s three different kinds: you’ve got the fluorescents, you’ve got the halogen/xenon bulbs or you’ve got LEDs. And they all have different qualities.
Now, the fluorescents, they burn a little cooler and they use less electricity. And one nice thing about them is that there’s not a lot of heat thrown off of them. So if you put them underneath the cabinet and the peanut butter is up above, the peanut butter is not all soupy when you open up in the morning. But they do produce a particular color light that some people don’t like.
And I think that’s why some folks go for either the halogen or the xenon bulbs, which is the second option. And they emit a very bright, white light. Halogen is the brightest; xenon burns a little cooler but lasts a little longer. And when you put those in, you just have to know that you need a transformer, generally, to step down the voltage.
TOM: Now, of all the types of lighting that’s out there, the newest – and what I think is probably my favorite – is LED.
KEVIN: Yeah, LED is out there and we know these are super-efficient. They’re also cool to the touch so your peanut butter doesn’t become soupy. And while they were new just a few years ago, these days there are a lot of different options out there. Whether it’s a continuous ribbon that you stick to the bottom, whether it’s a traditional fixture that you mount to the bottom of these cabinets, the choices for LED lights are growing with every passing year and they’re a great option.
TOM: And you know, there are a lot of kits that are out there today with kitchen-cabinet lighting. So, you don’t necessarily need an electrician for this project.
KEVIN: You don’t. I mean believe it or not, you can actually just plug some of these things right into an existing outlet. But if you don’t want to do that, if you want sort of a cleaner look, you can actually wire them yourselves. They’re pretty easy to do. They often come in these small, little strips that you mount and wire and you’re good to go.
TOM: Good advice. Kevin O’Connor, the host of TV’s This Old House, this is a great project and one that you’re really going to enjoy for many years to come. Thanks for stopping by The Money Pit.
KEVIN: Thanks for having me.
LESLIE: Alright. You can catch the current season of This Old House and Ask This Old House on PBS. For your local listings and a lot of great step-by-step videos on home improvement projects that you can do, visit ThisOldHouse.com.
TOM: And This Old House and Ask This Old House are brought to you by The Home Depot. The Home Depot, more saving, more doing.
Task lighting is focused and calibrated to specific work areas, such as counters. And accent lighting does just that — accent and highlights architectural details or objects within your redesigned space, such as kitchen lighting that points up from the top of your cabinets or rope lighting lining the undersides, which, incidentally, is a really easy do-it-yourself project.
When designing your light plan, realize that more light in the kitchen is not necessarily better. Smart lighting is. Make sure to match the amount and quality of light to the function in each area of the room. LED lighting lamps, for example, use 25 to 35 percent less energy than incandescent lamps, provide the same amount of illumination and last many times longer and built-in LED fixtures almost never need replacing.
TOM: Whether or not you’re known for your culinary creations, make sure you can see what you’re doing and do it efficiently with the right kitchen lighting. Hi, I’m Tom Kraeutler.
LESLIE: And I’m Leslie Segrete with today’s Money Pit Home Improvement Minute.
TOM: Kitchen lighting design is truly an art. Choosing fixture styles is a big part of the process, but first you’ve got to address the lighting zones you’ll need for everyday comfort and efficiency.
LESLIE: Task lighting is your starting point and should be installed where you’re most likely to do your food prep and cleanup. Fixtures can be wall mounted, pendant styled, or under cabinets, as long as they provide sharply focused light.
TOM: Fill lighting is the next layer, usually shed by track lighting mounted in the soffit and positioned to control shadows and set the mood.
LESLIE: Overhead lighting is the last illuminating layer, adding light for utility purposes and making your kitchen an enjoyable place to cook and entertain.
There’s no shortage of fixture styles and sizes to choose from for each of these lighting types. And it’s definitely okay to mix and match fixture styles. Put chandeliers over the dining area and install interesting pendants for task lighting. And to shed additional light on the subject, we love sticking little halogen puck lights under cabinets.
Set the Mood with Dimmers
In addition to better windows and designated light fixtures, consider incorporating dimmers into your lighting plan. Easy to install, dimmers work well to deliver just the right amount of light, depending on your mood. With dimmers, you can keep the lights at full brightness while preparing your meal, and then dial them down when it comes time to serve and entertain.
Try the “Naked” Look
Kitchens are a great place to forgo window treatments and create the “naked” window for maximum light. Since windows contribute to the ambient light in the room, leaving window coverings off can boost the brightness level significantly. Installing a bay or bow window or skylight can help to maximize the flow of sunlight while creating an expansive, open feeling in the space. Placing mirrors across from the windows amplifies the effect.
No Window? Trick the Eye
If a window won’t fit in your kitchen, try a little stagecraft. Buy a light box or create your own with fluorescent tubes and decorative wood. Insert a transparent photo of your favorite vista, or create a piece of stained glass artwork to be illuminated from behind when placed over the plastic top of the box.
Let the Sunshine In
VELUX Sun Tunnel skylights are tubes that run from the roof to an interior ceiling on any level. Sun Tunnels are mirror-coated on the inside so that they can bring in a lot of natural light without the expense of building a traditional skylight. When these are installed in a kitchen and track lighting is added above the cabinets, it can create some interesting colors in combination with the skylight.
Go Green with Natural Light
Not all kitchen lighting has to add to your electric bill. Make use of natural light for a warm, welcoming kitchen with the following:
- Minimize window treatments to allow more light in and create a transition to the great outdoors.
- Add a bay, bow or greenhouse window to capture the light and create new space for seating, storage, or decorative displays.
- Bring in sunshine from above with traditional skylights or light “tubes” that shed natural light into dark spaces via their reflective linings.
Ample kitchen lighting, whether artificial or natural, makes cooking and other tasks much easier and also creates a warm, inviting space. It can also be adjusted as needed – from mood lighting for romantic dinners or parties to bright lighting for the kids’ homework. With the kitchen serving as one of the home’s main gathering places, good lighting design is paramount.