Get it done / Let there be light
Undermounted cabinet lights and selecting the proper LED bulbs
Photo by the author
I’m a gal who loves bright spaces and, while we have a decent amount of natural light in our house, there are a number of rooms that have felt drab for years, particularly in winter when daylight is limited. While other projects have made the house feel fresher, more functional, and have moved us toward personal design preferences, finally adding lights to the kitchen was a gamechanger.
With three young children, I am home and in our kitchen a lot. For years, I’d been bemoaning the lack of lighting that was installed when the house was built fifteen years ago; we’ve been in it for eight. Our kitchen had one fixture over the table, two recessed lights over the sink, and one overhead light in the center of the kitchen—enough to get by on, but never enough to make me enjoy being in the space, particularly after dark. But, because life with kids is busy, and lighting can be both confusing and expensive, we put the project off for years.
The lighting project took ten to twelve hours, with the bulk of our time—six to eight hours—spent on research. While we considered several DIY options (there are plenty available at hardware stores), we inevitably decided to hire an electrician, mostly because our research led us to choose LED low voltage tape-strip lights, which require installation of a specific transformer to convert the traditional 120 volts of energy into twelve volts. We also decided we wanted the lights on a dimmer, which is tricky with DIY products. This all cost more up front, but allowed us a more customizable finished product. In the eight years that we’ve lived in our house, through countless home improvements, I can’t think of a project I’ve enjoyed more. My three girls laugh at least once a week when they are in the kitchen having a snack, and I turn off the light switch. “Girls,” I say emphatically, “how did we ever live like this?!”
Useful Info: Nailing down details
When it comes to under-mounted cabinet lights, there are four main types of lights to consider; puck lights, light strips, cabinet boxes, and rope lights. We chose LED tape strips for several reasons. Cosmetically, they have the lowest profile; ours are installed next to the front lip of the cabinet, making them virtually unnoticeable. As such, they are a good space saving option, but also offer evenly dispersed light along the entire countertop, and are applied by simple tape adhesive.
The lighting market has shifted toward LED fixtures— though under cabinet lighting boxes and puck lights can still be found with halogen options. Most of this comes down to preference: in the past, the hue of the LED bulbs was too blue, or cool, for many consumers. Today, there is a wide range of color options to fit any need. Also, according to the US Department of Energy, LED bulbs are six to seven times more energy efficient than conventional incandescent lights, cut energy use by more than eighty percent, and can last up to twenty-five times longer.
There are plenty of DIY cabinet lighting options, but choosing DIY will depend on your skill level and whether you choose hardwired or outlet lights (and maybe a dimmer).
A really simple DIY option, for example, is battery powered puck lights, which are easily installed, but may mean a high battery bill, depending on use.
For us, plugging in strip or puck lights would have been complicated because we have cabinets along two separate walls in our kitchen, and would have needed two to three available outlets to make it work—not to mention the amount of wires that would have needed to be run and hidden through our cabinets. Hiring an expert made the most sense.—L.L.
Useful Info: Selecting an LED bulb
There are two words to remember when it comes to choosing an LED light bulb: Kelvins and lumens. While that may sound foreign and scientific to those who grew up buying bulbs defined by watts, it’s pretty simple: lumens means level of brightness and Kelvin means level of color (think warm versus cool). You’ll find both measurements on the back of a light bulb box or LED fixture.
The Kelvin scale spans from 2,700 (a warmer, softer glow) to 6,500, which is very white light akin to fluorescents and rarely used for domestic purposes. Most consumers prefer something in the 2,700–3,000 range for living rooms, dining rooms, and bedrooms, and 3,100-3,500 for kitchens, offices, and workspaces.
Still, there are preference variations within that range. Our electrician, for example recommended 3,000 strip lights for our undermounted cabinet lighting, but when we tried the 3,000 lights in our kitchen, we found the color too stark and cool, and opted for the 2,700 strip fixture instead. It’s helpful to visit a lighting store with fixtures on display to get a sense of varied color and brightness.
As we begin navigating this new lighting world, here are some quick guidelines: if you liked a forty-watt bulb, look for 450 lumens; a sixty-watt, 800 lumens; a seventy-five watt, 1,100 lumens; and a 100 watts, 1,600 lumens.
Why, you may ask, is the trend toward LED bulbs? They are far more energy efficient and have a significantly longer lifespan. An 800-lumen bulb, for example, has the brightness equivalent of a sixty-watt bulb, but only requires nine watts of energy and lasts for approximately 25,000-50,000 hours.—L. L.