Recessed Kitchen Lighting Reconsidered

Evidence-based design brings kitchen lighting out of the shadows

May 10, 2017

What's wrong with this kitchen lighting scheme? Can lights located in aisles cast shadow on tasks when the cook stands at the counter. Under-cabinet lights mounted against the wall cause glare. There are too few fixtures to light an island of this size. Read on for solutions that will bring better lighting to your kitchen designs.

Most kitchens are woefully underlit. Lighting is often an afterthought, yet even when it’s carefully planned, designers and lighting experts often don’t agree on which lamps work best in particular fixtures and where those fixtures should be located.

In what follows, I’ll look at factors such as the number of fixtures and the type of lamps (bulbs) used, but I’m particularly interested in the size and location of recessed can lights for best practices for lighting in the kitchen. I’ve written about this before (see “The Right Way to Light a Kitchen"), but I recently measured comparative light levels on actual jobsites, and the data backs up my contention that, in most cases, the wrong fixtures are being placed in the wrong locations.

Here are some considerations for kitchen lighting layout.

How Much Light Is Enough?

There has been almost no new research on this topic for the last 30 years, and competing expert opinions leave designers confused about how much light is needed in the kitchen. The code isn’t much help: IRC 2015 requires just one light fixture for the entire kitchen, yielding perhaps 6 foot-candles (fc). That will help you avoid banging your hip on the corner of the island countertop, but it’s very dim light for working in the kitchen.

kitchen lighting layout tutorial Industry groups also weigh in on the topic. In the book Kitchen & Bath Lighting: Concepts, Design, Light, which the National Kitchen & Bath Association (NKBA) released in 2015, the text suggests 50 fc for prep counters. This jibes with the January 2017 update of the Illuminating Engineering Society’s (IES) “Lighting and the Visual Environment for Seniors and the Low Vision Population” (ANSI/IES RP-28-16), which also recommends a minimum of 50 fc at the countertop surface.

My personal target is a 100 fc minimum, and even more for clients older than 60 (see “Aging Eyes Need More Light,” below). But I also put everything on dimmers, which enables users to soften the lighting while also saving energy and extending lamp life in halogens and LEDs.

Ideal Location for Recessed Canned Lights in the Kitchen

I believe there’s considerable misinformation about where canned lights in the kitchen should be located in relation to countertops. In a couple of books used by kitchen designers, I’ve seen illustrations showing recessed can placement well away from the task. The illustrations don’t include dimensions, but out of curiosity I traced and enlarged them, then scaled them using the 25-inch countertop as a guide. In doing so, I found that one illustration shows the cans 49 inches out from the wall and another shows the cans a whopping 56 inches out. 

This spec seems to have originated in a kitchen lighting book that was popular in the ’90s. The book’s theory was that lights centered in walkways wouldn’t create “hot spots” on the upper cabinets and that under-cabinet lights would do the heavy lifting (see “Under-Cabinet Lights Won’t Save You,” below). 

I bought that book, but the advice in there to center the cans in the aisles made no sense to me, and I stopped following its guidelines after one or two projects. But it has bothered me that this bad advice is still being disseminated. Then, a few years ago, I met with a prospective client who complained of really bad lighting in his newly redone kitchen. This launched me on the path of putting numbers to good and bad lighting. Now I measure, before and after, every kitchen I’m asked to redesign. You can’t manage what you don’t measure.

My opinion, based on common sense—and now also on empirical evidence—is that the proper place for canned lights iin the kitchen ntended for task lighting is directly over the edge of the countertop, which is roughly 24 inches out from the wall. This location puts the beam right above the work surface and, equally important, it prevents the cook’s body from blocking the light when he or she stands at the counter working. It also throws light directly into open drawers.

Recessed lighting installation

Placing and Testing Fixtures in the Kitchen

To test my theory, I first purchased one 4-inch and one 5-inch recessed can and a variety of lamps. I then enlisted the help of current client Mike Flaherty, who is having a second-floor addition built at his 1920s bungalow, along with associated first-floor upgrades. 

Part of the under-construction kitchen ceiling was open, which made it possible—one evening after dark—for us to hold the can lights up at the proper height (5 feet above the counter) and at a variety of distances from the wall, starting at 24 inches and going out to 48 inches. I stood on a stepladder while Mike stood by the counter or in front of it (photos, above) and recorded the measurements from my trusty Meterman LM631 light meter.

Could there be errors? Sure. For instance, I have two light meters, plus a light meter app on my Android phone, and each gives different readings. But I do trust the accuracy of the relative values from a single meter.

Test Results

The results confirm that the location of a can light makes a big difference, especially when, as happens in the real world, people stand at their counters while they prep and cook (see the “Recessed Light Location Test Results” table, below). 

For example, with a PAR30 flood in a 5-inch can located 24 inches from the wall, I measured 42.8 fc at the work surface. When the can was moved out to 36 and then 42 inches from the wall, I measured 27 fc and 13.1 fc, respectively—drops of 37 percent and 70 percent.

The reduction in light levels was more dramatic when Mike stood at the counter as if prepping (see “Actual Field Measurements,” below). With the can 36 inches from the wall, the 27 fc dropped to just 1.4 fc; at 42 inches out, the 13.1 fc plummeted to 0.6 fc—worse than candlelight! And with a 4-inch can, all of the results were about 30 percent lower.

kitchen lighting actual field measurements illustration with recessed lighting

recessed lighting results from testRecessed lighting can results from test

Takeaways From the Experiment

Placing cans in the walkways puts task lighting on the floor and spills ambient light onto the counter—it’s completely backward. Recessed cans are particularly inefficient for ambient lighting; better are surface-mounted or pendant fixtures that throw light in all directions.

The bottom line: For task lighting, cans should be placed 24 inches out from the wall, centered over the edge of the countertop. 

Admittedly, these test results are for a single recessed fixture and lamp in a dark kitchen under construction. There is no cumulative effect of side-by-side fixtures, as would be the case in most kitchens. Nonetheless, these foot-candle measurements were dramatic. Here’s what I think we can learn from them:

  • Lamp type affects the amount of light delivered. A PAR lamp delivers two to 10 times more light on the task than a BR lamp with the same lumen output. My advice is to use BRs only for ambient lighting where you want a wide, diffuse spread, such as in family rooms or hallways. (Read more about lamp types here.)
  • The narrower the beam spread, the stronger the light levels on the task. In a fixture 5 feet above the countertop, a PAR30 with a 40-degree beam spread creates a circle of light about 100 inches in diameter; a narrow spot with a 10 degree beam spread creates a circle of light that’s about 22 inches in diameter. It follows that beam spread affects the number of fixtures needed and their spacing: If you use narrow-spread lamps, you will need more fixtures spaced more closely together to achieve the same light levels.
  • Larger can diameters deliver more light. This seems self-evident. However, I was surprised to find that the most intense narrow spot (NSP) in a 4-inch can didn’t have the punch to deliver the recommended minimum 50 fc from 5 feet above the countertop; I was also surprised that the narrow flood (NFL) did, delivering 79 fc. Again, lamp type matters.


After seeing these results, I will continue my practice of placing canned lights in the kitchen directly above the edges of work counters. In a future article, I’ll share several recent projects showing light levels before we started, computer simulations of the new lighting layout, and actual measurements after the work was completed. 

I’ll also continue to use my go-to fixture and lamp—a 5-inch, airtight, IC-rated can with a 75-watt equivalent PAR30 NFL LED lamp. By itself, this spec puts down 117 fc on the countertop, and in concert with cans on either side (usually 3 or 4 feet apart) you can reach even higher light levels. You can also generate 100 fc with a single 5-inch can using an NSP lamp (9-degree beam), but you won’t find that bulb at your local big-box store.

I use IC-rated cans everywhere, whether or not the ceiling is insulated, because if air can get through, then sound can, too. It also simplifies the fixture order.

What’s Next?

When Mike’s kitchen is complete, I’ll redo the foot-candle measurements with all of his kitchen lights on to see the cumulative effect. I’d also like to measure a 6-inch can with a PAR38 flood and spot to see how each performs in 10-foot ceilings. In addition, I want to measure output from an LED retrofit kit and from a low-voltage MR16 fixture with different lamps and beam spreads.

All of this data will help us to better understand how the different “layers” of lighting combine to create a successful project. As Sara Sullivan, a lighting designer with 186 Lighting Design Group, has said, “Each layer has a purpose in the kitchen: general ambient lighting, task lighting, and decorative lighting. There is no one answer that can truly be applied to every space or client; you need to revisit your ‘toolbox’ every time to create that perfect composition.”

Aging Eyes Need More Light

Vision problems accompany aging, and for older people, poor lighting is a very real safety issue. Expert opinions differ on how much more light is necessary as people age, but there is clear consensus that more light is better.

Phil Richards, a lighting educator with Juno Lighting Group, in the Chicago area, recommends a foot-candle light level in the kitchen that is “your age plus 20.” Naomi Miller, senior lighting engineer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, recommends 50 to 100 foot-candles (fc) on the task. Steve Brielmaier, in a January 2017 article titled “25 Lighting Tips for Seniors” for LampsUSA, features a chart based on age groups and recommends 75 fc for 40-year-olds, 150 fc for 60-year-olds, and a whopping 225 fc for 80-year-olds. (Find out more about various vision aspects of universal design here.)

Under-Cabinet Lights Won't Save You

Under-cabinet lights are wonderful, but at kitchen sinks in front of windows, there are no upper cabinets to mount them to. The same goes for islands and modern loft-style kitchens, which use mostly base cabinets.

Light from under-cabinet fixtures mounted against the wall can reflect off polished countertop surfaces and cause distracting glare. Mounting the fixtures at the front of the cabinet reduces this problem and provides a bit more light to the work surface. 

Undercabinet lightsThe other problem with under-cabinet lights is getting homeowners to use them. This is true for many of my clients, and I attribute it to their experience with the hot halogen or xenon fixtures that were popular the last time they remodeled their kitchen—you could keep pizza warm under those lamps. But LEDs have changed the game, and they come in different output levels, plus they’re dimmable. 

One huge advantage under-cabinet lights have is that they’re below the viewer’s eye level (except when seated) and are less likely to cause glare. The exception is when the counters are highly polished—which the great majority of countertops are—then the reflection bounces right up into your eyes. Honed or matte countertops help, but the real solution is to mount under-cabinet lights behind the front rail of the upper cabinets instead of at the back against the wall. This location changes the angles of incidence and reflection and may prevent the glare. It also helps to deliver foot-candles on the working area, which is toward the front of the counter, not the back.

About the Author

About the Author

Doug Walter, of Doug Walter Architects, in Denver, has specialized in residential remodeling for 25 years. He has a long history with Universal Design and aging in place. He helped write the NAHB’s Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist curriculum and holds an ICC Certificate as an Accessibility Inspector.



My go to fixture for years has been Halo, but recently I'm using Juno and Elite quite a bit more. This is for screw in lamps; for dedicated LED my choices would change. From what I saw at IBS, dedicated LED fixtures can put out more output and have longer life than screw in fixtures; that will be the subject of future research. Almost any can will give you the same performance, so I'd ask your electrician which brands he/she finds most reliable and easy to install. My pet peeve is with white trims; they disappear during the day, but have the opposite effect at night, when the painted white trim acts as a reflector to shoot glare out in all directions. Much better to have a polished or haze finish parabolic reflector that directs the light downward instead of outward.

For years my "go to" spec has been Halo H5 ICAT cans, with a haze reflector trim (kind of a brushed stainless look). But recently most of my electricians seem to favor Elite Lighting, and I'm fine with that. It's not the can per se, it's the lamp (bulb) that goes in it that makes all the difference. A PAR 30 lamp in a narrow flood or spot puts out TEN TIMES the light delivered to the countertops, given the same wattage (11) and lumens (900). I refer to this in the upcoming March issue of ProRemodeler in a follow up article, "Lighting: Theory Meets Practice". Look for it!

Thanks for your article. We're building a new home with 9' ceiling for the kitchen. It'll have under cabinet lighting and 3 pendent lights over the sink & island counter. We need advice on how many can lights (in 2 rows) we need and how far apart for the can lights to be.

Any thoughts on how can light trims affect footcandles on the work surface? Baffled, or tapered cone? Clear Alzak, White, or Haze? Etc., etc. We more often than not use 6" can lights, and haven't felt they were a "dated" look. We've long followed the positioning you suggest, 24-25 inches off the wall to match the countertop depth. LED undercabinet lights, front-mounted behind a 3/4" light rail are the norm for us as well. It seems like we're getting good task lighting on countertops, but perhaps we should start measuring the end result. Thanks for the excellent article!
Tom Owen
Creative Kitchen & Bath

Congratulations for being ahead of the curve on knowing that the best location for cans is at the edge of the countertops. I haven't measured differences between delivered output of trims, but that's a worthy topic to research in the future.
Far more important is the TYPE OF LAMP you use. In a 6 inch fixture, your choices are BR38 or PAR 38, which I haven't tested yet, but just bought several lamps in this size to test. I will tell you that for 5 inch cans, I just switched out a client's BR30 floods with PAR 30 spots, both putting out 900 lumens using 11 watts, and the BR30 was delivering just 15 foot candles, while the PAR's delivered ten times that, or 158 foot candles. I'll be showing photographic proof in my upcoming follow up article.
Most designers and builders don't measure their results, but it is SO simple: "there's an app for that"! I have two free light meter apps on my smartphone, which I use almost every day. There's no excuse for not measuring your results; it will change the way you do business. Remember, NKBA and IES agree that 50 foot candles is the MINIMUM for lighting on kitchen countertops. Most kitchens fall far short.
Keep up your good work, and keep reading!

Great article....I will be using the 24” counter placement method.
I too am facing the 5” vs 6” can decision.
But my biggest concern is the actual spacing between lights...
Is there a way to calcuoate that they should be 3’ vs 4’ spacing between lights.
It’s a large room with 1 window in middle.


Brian, spacing depends on beam spread of the bulb you're using. Floods can be spaced further apart than spots, BUT I hate floods for task lighting, because of how much spill light that causes glare. So my preference is closer rather than farther apart. This is a very good thing to test in your next remodel: make your best guess, install the cans in the open ceiling, and have your electrician power the circuit up and observe the coverage on the countertop and see if you like it. If you don't, add cans and move them closer together. Good luck!

What a great article. It makes so much sense! We had planned on putting in recessed lighting over the cabinet edge, but with all windows (no under cabinet lighting options) we are concerned that, with our 12 foot ceilings, recessed will not provide adequate task lighting. Our local lighting store suggests track lighting with a 4 foot drop (at considerable extra cost). Is this the only reasonable option or would recessed lighting work? Thanks!

Wow, that's a tall ceiling. I hope it's flat, as sloped ceilings call for special lighting. You'll definitely want 6 inch cans with PAR 38 bulbs in them; the main question is how close to space them. If the ceilings are open, I'd start with 3 feet apart and put a couple in and have electrician power them up; then measure delivered footcandles. Make sure you're getting at least 50 fc.
The good news with tall ceilings is the beam circles will cross, and help each other out. You might want to look at spots or narrow spots instead of floods. Your electrical supply store should sell them, or buy them online like I do!

Thanks so much for getting back to me. Yes they are tall. Too tall. Luckily it is a flat ceiling over the kitchen. But you think we might be able to skip the drop rail lights (we were going to drop them to about the 8 foot level), and so with narrow spots 3 feet apart or closer and get good task lighting?
A second question. In our 14x17 foot kitchen, if we still do the rail lights for task lighting over the counters, do you recommend we put in recessed cans over the walkways to add general light?
Thanks so much, your advice is greatly appreciated! It is mind boggling to figure this out yourself when your ceilings are not standard. We should probably hire a lighting expert, but not sure it is in the budget. Do you consult form a distance? We are in Washington state.

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