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Kitchen Lighting Tips

The need for better kitchen lighting

The kitchen in the house where I grew up was lit by a single fluorescent ring bulb smack dab in the middle of the ceiling. It was too bright when you clicked it on for a midnight snack and too dim when it came to reading the fine print on the Nestlè chocolate chip package. But like most kitchen lighting back then, it “worked. ” These days, “workable” just doesn't cut it. Most kitchens now serve as dining room, office and family room. Lights are on in the kitchen more than in any other room in the home. And since we cook, work, play and pay bills there, we need a wide range of lighting to create a pleasant environment for all our activities and to prevent eyestrain and accidents. In the course of totally remodeling a kitchen or building a new home, you might be able to afford the luxury of working with an architect or designer to get your lighting and wiring just right. But until then (which for some of us is never), there are simple ways to improve kitchen lighting without a lot of hassle, dust and expense. Here are a few of the easiest, least painful improvements.

A single overhead fixture provides good light for general cleaning and navigation but does a lousy job of casting light inside cabinets—especially in deep and corner units. One solution is to use the existing light fixture electrical box as a starting point for a new track lighting system (Fig. A below). Track lighting—available in incandescent, fluorescent, and high- and low-voltage halogen versions—has multiple fixtures that allow you to direct and focus light where you need it. T-, L- and X-shaped connectors let you install tracks and lights in hundreds of configurations. A wide variety of specialized fixtures allow you to customize and rearrange your lighting as needed. There are highly focused units with reflector bulbs for task lighting and others for general or mood light. Many systems have adapters for pendant lighting too. Once you've selected your fixtures, position them so they don't shine directly in your eyes. Don't install fixtures directly in line with sinks and other work areas; your head will block the light. Install them to the sides instead, then angle them toward the target spot. Install them where they won't interfere with the swing of upper cabinet doors. And since track lighting fixtures are so prominent, select a system that complements the look and feel of your kitchen.

Undercabinet lighting puts light where you need it most. Your body and the upper cabinets often block the light from centrally located ceiling fixtures, keeping it from reaching the countertops where you need it most. To avoid working in dim shadows, install lights beneath the upper cabinets (Fig. B) to illuminate those cutting boards and cookbooks. Undercabinet lighting is available in three varieties: Fluorescent lights are reasonably priced and long-lived, and they cast an even, “cool” light. They're available in varying lengths to accommodate different cabinet widths (Fig. B1). Designers warn that fluorescent lights used in proximity to certain strong wall or countertop colors can create an “unappetizing” glow. T-5 fluorescent bulbs—about half the diameter of standard fluorescent bulbs—provide good illumination without being obtrusive. Halogen lights, most commonly in the form of small discs or pucks, cast a white, highly focused light that's easy to work by (Fig. B2). Halogen light closely resembles sunlight. Surface-mount and recessed fixtures are available. Incandescent lights come in a variety of wattages and configurations. Strips of incandescent minibulbs tend to be of lower wattage and work better for ambient light than for true “working” light. Whichever type of lighting you select, install it toward the front edge of the cabinets so it illuminates the entire countertop rather than the wall. Install a 1- to 2-in. valance along the lower edge of the cabinet to keep light from shining directly in your eyes. Where possible, install continuous lighting so countertops are evenly lit. If you have shiny countertops, use frosted bulbs or frosted lenses over the bulbs to minimize harsh reflections.

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