What are some green solutions for lighting under kitchen cabinets?

Question

What are some green solutions for lighting under kitchen cabinets?

Asked by Donna

Having cabinets made for a remodel and would like to add under cabinet lighting

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David Bergman's picture

One of the great ways to simultaneously improve lighting quality while reducing energy consumptionis - prepare for a revelation here - to put the light where it's needed.

We tend to emphasize shifting toenergy-efficient light sources such as fluorescent and CFL and, while that's certainly important, it isn'tgoing to really help if you've got the fixtures lighting the wrong places.

Lighting a kitchen

It's a natural urge to provide a lot of illumination, especially in spaces like kitchens and bathroomswhere function and tasks are the focus.

But a common mistake, both in these rooms and elsewhere, isto use a central source of high intensity light to try to light the entire space. What happens is you end upwith a lot of light going where you don't need it - wasting energy, of course - and an overall blandnessdue to the relatively even lighting throughout the room.

So one of the tenets of lighting design is to use multiple sources, usually starting with enough generalambient light to get around the space and then adding task lights to do exactly what they sound like:provide light for tasks like food prep, makeup or reading.

  • In kitchens, this is further emphasized by the fact that, if you light the room solely from the ceiling,the light will most likely be coming from behind you when you stand at a counter, and you'll thereforebe casting a shadow exactly where you don't want it.
  • Which reminds me of a saying my mother usedto employ when someone blocked the light or her view of, say, the TV: "you make a better door thanwindow."

Three light choices

So now that we've somewhat unnecessarily established the need for undercabinet lighting, which Isuspect you already knew, let's shift to looking at the type of light.

Basically, you have three choices.

  • We'll rapidly diminish that to two choices because there's really no good reason to use halogens anymore.They use a lot of energy, burn out fast and get really hot.
  • For many years, shallow fluorescent fixtures were the standard.
  • Now, though, we have an exponentiallyincreasing number of LED options. They come in two form factors: continuous strips and smallcircular "puck" lights. I've never favored the latter because they tend to create hot spots alternatingwith darker areas.

The primary downside of LEDs versus fluorescent is cost, but the spread between them is decreasingand there are several compensating advantages. LEDs will last longer and use less energy, don't havemercury in them, and some are dimmable. (At least in theory. In one current project, we specified a topbrand of fixture with the recommended dimmer, but all they did was strobe on and off.)

Positioning the lights

There are two other points to mention. One is the location of the lights. I've seen many installationswhere the lights have been placed at the back of the cabinet near the wall.

  • This usually results in unevenlighting and depending on the distance between the LEDs, may also create visible "scallops" of light onthe backsplash.
  • So the better practice is to place the lights toward the front edge of the cabinets, with avalance to hide the fixture itself.

Finally, counter color

The final point to make here may not be obvious.

Consider the color of your counters. The concept issimple: dark counters will absorb light and require more intense lighting to compensate.

So that blackgranite may be all the rage, but it doesn't make a lot of sense.

David Bergman is a LEED Accredited Professional, a practicing architect for 30 years, author of "Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide" and the blog EcoOptimism.com. He also teaches sustainable design at Parsons the New School for Design.

For more information:

Read "How do I calculate how many lumens I'll need to replace the fluorescent bulbs in my kitchen with LED recessed lights?" a Q&A answered by Harold Remlinger.