Kitchen Lighting: Is It Time for an Overhaul?

Eyes change with age, and so should your lighting plan

Today's kitchens are not just for preparing meals. They're the heartbeat of the home, where we do everything from paying bills on the computer to doing projects with the grandchildren. If your kitchen was built or remodeled before the turn of this century, you probably don't have adequate lighting.

As we mature, our eyes become less forgiving, admitting less light. Sensitivity to glare increases, and our eyes adjust more slowly from light to shadows. The American Lighting Association estimates that a 60-year-old requires twice as much light as a 30-year-old to safely execute the same tasks. To maximize the function of your kitchen and ease of everything from cooking to cleanup, make sure your illumination is up to par and equal to the needs ahead. An update may be in order.

Devise a Lighting Plan

“Planning is the most important part of the job,” says Terry McGowan, director of engineering and technology for the American Lighting Association and the owner of Lighting Ideas in Cleveland. Kitchens are different, depending on tastes. But McGowan says every mature kitchen-user has these needs:

  • Shadow-free overall illumination (ambient light).
  • Strong, focused task lighting to ease specific tasks.
  • Shields or diffusers over bulbs to minimize glare.
  • Bulbs that show colors accurately.
  • Easy access to switches and fixtures for safety and maintenance.

The first step in planning for your remodeling, McGowan says, is to make a note of locations where you don’t have sufficient light. Pay particular attention to areas where you have difficulties finding items in drawers or cabinets, seeing appliance settings, or working with sharp objects.

Lighting designers recommend layering light by combining fixtures that can play multiple roles, and that can balance ambient, task, accent and mood lighting. To do that successfully, you'll need to understand the purpose, as well as the pros and cons, of different types of lighting, fixtures and bulbs. And you'll need to get a sense of the mechanics, maintenance and safety issues.

Total Maximum Light

The major types of kitchen lighting are:

  • Ambient: the overall lighting for the room.
  • Task: bright, focused work lights.
  • Accent: spotlights for a collection or favorite item.
  • Mood: individual lights that create an atmosphere for parties or relaxing.

As you enter your kitchen, the switch you're most likely to hit first turns on your primary ambient lighting. It should be even, without the spotlight-and-shadow condition that can challenge aging eyes. Typical ambient light sources include such ceiling fixtures as recessed cans, pendants, track lights, chandeliers and wall-mounted tracks or sconces.

These fixtures are usually placed high, which makes changing bulbs difficult. Plan ahead by choosing fixtures that accommodate long-lasting LEDs (details below). Consider, too, a long pole with bulb-changing attachments.  They're available at hardware stores.

In a well-planned, layered lighting scheme, ceiling fixtures can double as task lights — a necessity for any kitchen work area that requires extra brightness, like sink and stove areas, reading nooks and countertops where you slice and dice or operate small appliances. For example, by aligning ceiling cans above the front edge of the countertop, you'll cast a glow on the front of the top cabinets, making it easier to find what’s inside and brightening the counter.

Other task light options include:

  • Multiple-bulb strips.
  • Individual pucks (see below) installed in multiples for even illumination under cabinets to illuminate countertops.
  • Portable table lamps for reading or computing areas.

Accent and Mood Lighting

Accent light primarily highlights collections, artwork or a special design element in the kitchen, like an ornate backsplash. Sources include:

  • Pucks: bright individual fixtures that cast a cone-shape glow.
  • Tracks, which can be re-aimed to double as task or ambient lighting.
  • Fixtures built into open- or glass-fronted cabinets.
  • LED strips at ceiling or toe-kick level, which can accent decorative moldings; these also make great night lights or mood lighting for parties.
  • Ambient and task lights equipped with dimmers that can multitask as mood lighting.

This Bulb’s for You

Bulb type and color temperature determine how natural colors will look. “Ideally, when people turn a light on, they should see what they expect to see," McGowan says. “They should recognize skin tones, see the red they know is in the rug, the colors they would see in natural light. LEDs and compact fluorescent lights don’t render color so well, they have a long way to go.”

Among the many bulbs available are incandescents, or classic light bulbs. Because of their low energy efficiency, they are phasing out internationally. (In the United States, incandescents are supposed to be gone by 2014, but the House of Representatives recently passed a bill delaying that date indefinitely.)

Other types include:

  • Halogen: These are longer-lasting than incandescents (3,000-plus hours) and more energy-efficient. Besides being dimmable, they deliver the best natural color, which can offset the gradual color-perception loss that comes with age. They are pricey, however, and because of their design, burn hotter than regular light bulbs.
  • Xenon: These high-intensity discharge bulbs are estimated to last at least 2,500 hours. They’re energy-efficient, dimmable, have color benefits similar to halogen but are cooler and cheaper.
  • Fluorescent tubes and compact fluorescent lights: Known as CFLs, they may last up to 6,000 hours and are energy-efficient. Not all fluorescents are, however, dimmable (see below). Although their color rendering varies depending on the bulb’s color temperature, they stay cool and are inexpensive. Fluorescent lights have a flickering quality. It's not something that's typically noticeable — TVs and computer monitors do the same thing — but over time it can be tiring for slower-to-focus, aging eyes.
  • Energy-efficient LEDs: (aka Light Emitting Diode) LEDs are predicted to last 25,000 to 35,000 hours — or 20 times longer than incandescents. They are energy-efficient, cool, some are dimmable (see below) and they come in a range of color temperatures. They can, however, be pricey. LEDs don’t suddenly burn out; they gradually grow dimmer. You replace LEDs when the output drops below 50 percent. Rather than just change the bulb, you'll need an electrician to swap out the fixture. They are commonly used for ceiling installations.

Regardless of the type, bulbs are available in a wide range of shapes and wattage, with either a screw base or a pin base. The style of the fixture dictates what shape, wattage or base you’ll need.


Many pros favor using dimmers wherever possible because they help break kitchen lighting into zones, permitting more flexibility for controlling mood and function. Dimmers, for example, can tone down high-wattage ceiling lighting on sunny mornings and can lower task lighting to a soft glow to set a party mood.

One important thing to know: Dimmers don’t work with older fluorescent fixtures and don’t always have a perfect interface with new ones: The light will go off when it’s lowered to roughly one-third of its potential brightness.

Safety First

Safety should top every kitchen lighting wish list. There are a few different aspects to safety: Before you invest in a fixture, check for the UL sticker on the packaging, which indicates the unit has undergone rigorous testing at the factory before hitting the market.

While it sounds obvious, not everyone remembers just how dangerous an unlighted kitchen is. It’s important to position switches near every kitchen entranceway. Consider motion-sensitive controls or large, soft-touch switches that you can bump with your elbow in place of standard toggle switches. This can be important when you come home with your hands full of groceries.

As for precise switch placement, that’s usually governed by local codes. All locally licensed electricians should know the requirements. In general, you want to avoid installing switches too low or too high, within splashing distance of a faucet and in hard-to-reach places, like behind a cooktop.

As with most kitchen-related issues, there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution. A lighting showroom staffer or savvy electrician can help determine what works best for your kitchen. It also may be worth calling a lighting designer or interior designer with lighting experience for a quick consultation.

Freelance writer Elzy Kolb studied lighting and interior design at Parsons in New York.

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