Kitchen & Bath: Kitchen Lighting Options
A kitchen lit only by a central fixture has an institutional
feel. Countertop light never seems quite bright enough because
the ceiling fixture behind the user casts a shadow on the task
area. Paradoxically, lighting only the countertops leaves the
general area only dimly lit and makes the cabinets seem even
The rather obvious solution, seen in every properly
illuminated kitchen, is to provide both types of lighting,
ambient and task. A third type, accent lighting, highlights
objects or points of interest and gives the space added visual
definition. Designers call this method "layering the light" and
use it to aesthetic and functional effect in the kitchen and
When designing the overall system, it's best to begin with the
task lighting, then fill in as needed. Task areas are best lit
with bright, continuous, or overlapping zones of light.
Fluorescent tubes work well here because of their large surface
area and high light output per watt. Most objections to
fluorescent lighting can be successfully addressed by
specifying the right type in the right location. There are many
types of fluorescent tubes, and some are better than others. T8
lamps ("T" for tubular, "8" for diameter in eighths of an inch)
offer excellent light color options and have a narrow overall
profile -- lamp and fixture typically measure about 1 1/2
inches. The smaller T5 (5/8-inch-diameter) lamp (below) is
difficult to find in any color other than "warm white" and
(Both of those are poor choices. Avoid color complaints by
looking for two numbers: Indoor fluorescents should have a
color temperature of 3,500K or lower. The Color Rendering
Index, CRI, is the other number to look for. It indicates how
accurately a given lamp displays colors. Always select lamps
with a CRI above 80. Because each manufacturer designates color
properties differently, the CRI can be difficult to determine.
You may have to refer to the specific product literature,
always a good idea anyway.)
The hardest thing about a tubular fluorescent fixture is
making it look good. This isn't a problem in an undercabinet
installation, because the fixture is typically masked by a
valance or recessed cabinet bottom. Look for fixtures that use
electronic ballasts to eliminate the hum and flicker associated
with magnetic ballasts.
lighting systems depend on many lamps to provide
overlapping, shadowless illumination (below). Separate lamps
consume more power, generate excess heat, and require more
frequent replacement. Incandescent lamps are easier to control
with dimmers than fluorescent, but that isn't a common concern
with task lighting.Pendants and
Above an open island or peninsula
countertop, hanging, or pendant, fixtures offer plenty of
design opportunities and bring the light close to the task area
where it's most effective (below).
Alternatively, directional "spot" lamps in recessed
downlighting cans or track-mounted fixtures can be used to
spotlight the sink area. It's a good idea to provide separate
switches for these areas so that they can "jump to life" while
in use but be deemphasized when not. Line-voltage PAR30 halogen
lamps use power up to 30% more efficiently than standard
incandescents and are well suited for use in track and recessed
cans used for task lighting.
Low-volt halogen fixtures
using MR16 lamps (below) are popular with consumers because of
the many design options and the dramatic effects provided by
their crisp, white light. But these lamps cast strong beam
patterns and hard shadows and so should be carefully planned
for when used for task lighting.
Although more efficient and one to two times longer lasting
than incandescent lamps, low-volt lamps also rely on
transformers to step down the voltage, driving up the initial
cost of these systems.
The general, overall light in the kitchen, usually mounted in
the center of the ceiling and controlled by a switch at the
room's entry, is known as ambient lighting. In California, the
energy code mandates the use of lamps that produce a specific
level of illumination per watt consumed, effectively limiting
the choice to fluorescent. So the trick is to disguise the
fixture, and there's no end to the creative strategies. Catalog
shopping unearths multiple variations on the central fixture
theme, usually a light box with some type of diffuser panel
suspended in front of the tubes (below).
Indirect lighting, reflected off a light-colored ceiling, is
another good way to go (below). If wall cabinets aren't filled
in solid to the ceiling, the space above provides a good
location for a tube array. A wall-mounted box valance can serve
the same purpose. In regions with more lenient codes,
incandescent and halogen fixtures can be used in the same
manner and controlled with dimmer switches for atmospheric
The halogen MR16 "spotlight" lamp (below) is one of the best
accent lights and is available in a huge variety of styles. You
can use it for lighting artwork, architectural details,
collectibles, or food presentation areas.
You might consider the kitchen table as a task area, or just
as reasonably treat it as an accent focus. Decorative pendants
are used to good effect in many designs, adding light, color,
style, and, when dimmer controlled, variable atmosphere to the
Light effects. Miniature
track lights or low-voltage linear systems (below) mounted in
an overcabinet location can throw subtle accent light on the
They're sometimes also mounted in the cabinet kickspace for a
similar showy effect or inside glass-front cabinets to
highlight special items (below). These slim energy-efficient
fixtures are typically a low-watt incandescent configuration,
to allow dimming. Fluorescents can be dimmed, but the special
ballasts are generally too expensive to consider for
Computer desks are often
installed in the kitchen. Computing is one task that generates
its own light, but an accent light can still be a useful and
decorative supplement here. It's best to use a fluorescent
fixture to minimize reflected glare on the screen.
Zone the Light
With such a combination of lighting options in a room, it
makes good sense to circuit lights separately, in zones. By
mixing types of lights, an endless variety of lighting "moods"
is possible. Accent lights should be low-voltage and dimmable.
The light over the sink should have its own switch, as should
lights over the island, counters, and kitchen table.
Controlling all the lights in the kitchen with a single switch
deprives the user of economy and aesthetics. Programmable
switching systems, such as Lutron's RadioRA (below), are a
fairly recent development. A preset lighting "scene" can be
recalled anytime with the touch of a button.
A motion sensor isn't handy only for spooking vagrants -- it's
also a great way to control a walk-in pantry light when the
user's hands are full. And the lamp can be made to turn off
again, automatically, after a preset interval, eliminating that
forgotten light behind a closed door.