What are some green solutions for lighting under kitchen cabinets?

Asked by Donna
Templeton, IA

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


David Bergman

Answered by David Bergman

New York, NY

David Bergman Architect

October 30, 2012

One of the great ways to simultaneously improve lighting quality while reducing energy consumption is – prepare for a revelation here – to put the light where it’s needed.

We tend to emphasize shifting to energy-efficient light sources such as fluorescent and CFL and, while that’s certainly important, it isn’t going 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 bathrooms where function and tasks are the focus.

But a common mistake, both in these rooms and elsewhere, is to use a central source of high intensity light to try to light the entire space. What happens is you end up with a lot of light going where you don’t need it – wasting energy, of course – and an overall blandness due 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 general ambient 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 therefore be casting a shadow exactly where you don’t want it.
  • Which reminds me of a saying my mother used to employ when someone blocked the light or her view of, say, the TV: “you make a better door than window.”

Three light choices

So now that we’ve somewhat unnecessarily established the need for undercabinet lighting, which I suspect 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 exponentially increasing number of LED options. They come in two form factors: continuous strips and small circular “puck” lights. I’ve never favored the latter because they tend to create hot spots alternating with darker areas.

The primary downside of LEDs versus fluorescent is cost, but the spread between them is decreasing and there are several compensating advantages. LEDs will last longer and use less energy, don’t have mercury in them, and some are dimmable. (At least in theory. In one current project, we specified a top brand 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 installations where the lights have been placed at the back of the cabinet near the wall.

  • This usually results in uneven lighting and depending on the distance between the LEDs, may also create visible “scallops” of light on the backsplash.
  • So the better practice is to place the lights toward the front edge of the cabinets, with a valance 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 is simple: dark counters will absorb light and require more intense lighting to compensate.

So that black granite 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 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.

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