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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.

Recommendation

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.

Comments

Comments

Lauren; It was for people like you I wrote this article. As you note, the industry is divided on what is best!
You didn't say whether your ceiling is 8 feet, or something more. For an 8 foot ceiling, a 6 inch can is overkill. You can get more than enough foot candles with a 5 inch can and the right lamp. It is harder to reach optimum light levels with the 4 inch can (see chart).
Please insist your builder and designer read this article, along with a prior one, "the Right Way to Light a Kitchen" Feb 2016 in www.proremodeler.com. Hopefully they'll come to a compromise. When it comes to kitchen lighting, it ALL matters: size, lamp type, and placement.
My best advice is to put a free light meter app on your phone, have the builder wire up one 5 inch can centered over the countertop, and try out 2 or 3 different Par 30 lamps (flood, narrow flood, spot) and see which gives you the most foot candles, and which you prefer.
Finally, I'd support the idea of (small) cans in between the decorative pendants, if they are on a separate switch. Many pendants are great for sparkle, but put out little useable light. Good luck!

We have a peninsula with ceiling mounted cabinets above, which happens to be the best work station in the kitchen. The counter width comes out only 6” beyond the cabinets. (Cabinets 24” above counter, 8’ ceiling.) Would this lighting technique still work here? Or should we rely primarily on under cabinet fixtures?

I would do both; put the cans about 12" out in front of uppers, even though they will be 6" off countertop. Consider a gimbal trim so you can play with aiming, and use a PAR 30 spot. And by all means, use the undercabinet lights here too. You can almost never have enough!

Would I still place lights at 24” with 15” kitchen uppers?

Marilyn, I would still put them at 24" so they hit the front edge of the counter, but I'd make sure I specified a Narrow Flood or a Spot PAR30 lamp, rather than a wide flood that would throw too much light on the faces of upper cabinets. And don't forget to add undercabinet lighting, at the front edge of the uppers!

Hi,
Our kitchen was remodeled in 1992. Lighting needs to be improved but I am having a hard time deciding how to add cans without them looking out of place. Currently there are two 6" cans with 10W 3000k led retrofit fixtures centered in the small kitchen. The kitchen is a U shape that measures about 7'6" from cabinet face to cabinet face and 7'6" in length. There is also one centered over the sink that is switched separately and one centered over a bar that extends diagonally from the kitchen. Could I use 5" cans over the edge of the counters or would they look odd with the 6" cans. I would also like to add light over the bar. This would be much easier to explain if I could attach a photo. The problem stems from the two original cans being in the center of the U. They are spaced about 4' apart and 2' from the bottom of the U that happens to be over the stove.. Hope this makes some sense. I am a retired electrician so adding cans isn't a problem. Figuring out the spacing is though. Thanks.

Randy

Randy,

Generally it looks odd to mix sizes of cans, but if you do want to add cans per my recommendation over the work surfaces, you have two options.  1. You could change the 6” cans in the middle of the U out for surface fixtures. (Or take out one existing can, patch the ceiling and go with one 3 or 3 lamp surface or close to ceiling type fixture.

Since they’re in the middle of the walkway, they’re ambient light anyway, and surface type fixtures are better for overall ambient lighting. Then they wouldn’t conflict with the new 5 inch cans.  Or 2. You might consider doing the new cans as 4” ones; that way there’s more of a difference, and won’t look like a mistake, although they do put out less light. Whichever cans you use, be sure to do PAR lamps, not R or BR, for more punch.

You might try putting X’s out of blue painters tape on the ceiling where you are thinking of the new lights , and adjusting based on how they look.  Over the bar, you probably want to see a couple small decorative pendants there, with the bottoms at about 5ft 6 in off the floor. The pendants there and the surface fixture in the center of the kitchen should “speak” to each other, and be somewhat stylistically complementary.

Good luck!

Doug Walter, AIA

Great article and thanks for posting this. I am planning my open kitchen and dining room remodel. We are taking out the wall between the two. There will be a header beam overhead where the wall used to be so the ceiling space will not be continuous between kitchen and dining area. The counter with sink will serve as the divide between the two areas. The new counter will measure 32" deep with no overhead cabinets. Would you still advise placing the cans directly over the work zones at the 24" mark from the header beam or would it be advisable to set them back a little deeper to illuminate more of the counter depth? We also plan to instal cans around the perimeter of the dining area though we are unsure if we want cans centered to the table length or if a chandelier fixture would be better as a focal point and for layering. We would love to hear your thoughts. Thanks.

Rizzo: You are on the right track: whenever there is a kitchen sink I move the can to the center of the sink, although ones to either side may still be centered on countertop edge. With a 32" deep counter, you could do another row close to the beam , because it sounds like you'll be serving from that side. I just did a client's home that was the same set up, and I have two rows of cans, about 24" apart, but each row is on a separate circuit and dimmed, so you can tailor the light level to the activity. With one row on, I get about 45 footcandles on the counter, with both on , I measure over 100 fc.
As to the dining room, you can use cans in three ways: as ambient light with one can in each corner of the room, or as accent lighting focused on wall space for art, or thirdly, as table lighting to supplement the chandelier. For this I use a small adjustable MR16 can placed about two feet to each side of chandelier, switched separately. This way you can have chandelier on dim, for ambience, with the MR16's brightly illuminating the tabletop. Good luck!

I’m not very familiar with lighting, but from what I’ve read I believe the beam angle is the total angle from one edge of the beam to the other, not from the verticle to one edge of the beam. If this is true, the above calculations for the diameter of the circle of light emitted at 5 ft from the ceiling would not be correct, it would actually be half of that distance. For example, you stated, “PAR30 with a 40-degree beam spread creates a circle of light about 100 inches in diameter.” If what i have read is correct, the diameter would actually be about 44 inches.

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