A Complete Guide to Basement Lighting

Basement Lighting

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Lighting is a design element that can become an afterthought when building or remodeling a home. Yet developing a solid lighting plan enhances other design elements, increases your home's value, and adds to your safety and enjoyment of the home.

Basements have less natural light than do other parts of the home. Adding more artificial lighting retroactively is difficult and expensive. So, getting your basement lighting planned right is critical.

Basic Basement Lighting Requirements

As with other areas of the house, a basement's lighting must first meet code. With code met, you are free to expand upon the lighting to suit your own needs.

Code differentiates between uninhabited and habitable basements. An uninhabited basement, generally, is one that's empty or is used for storage or for vital services and utilities. A habitable room is one that's used for living, sleeping, eating, or cooking: essentially, the definition of a basement that's finished or developed into a living room, home theater, bedroom, or apartment.

When Uninhabited or Used For Storage

According to the electrical code, you must provide at least one light per room. This light can be controlled by a switch on the light or by a wall switch. The wall switch must be near the entrance to the room.

Code can be met with a ceiling light and a wall switch. If it's a small utility room, you can create the same configuration or even have a ceiling light that turns on and off with a pull chain.

When Used as a Living Space

If you intend to finish your basement, code requires:

  • At least one lighting outlet controlled by a wall switch in every habitable room, kitchen, and bathroom.
  • The wall switch must be located near an entrance to the room on a wall.
  • In rooms other than kitchens and bathrooms, one or more receptacles controlled by a wall switch are permitted instead of lighting outlets. Often with this arrangement, a floor lamp is plugged into this type of receptacle.
  • Occupancy (motion) sensors are allowed only if in addition to wall switches and if located where a switch normally would be located. Also, the sensors must have a manual override feature.
  • A lighting outlet is required in hallways and stairways.
  • Any entry to the basement should have an exterior light.

Types of Basement Lighting

Recessed Lighting

If ever there were a perfect match of lighting fixture and space, it's this one: recessed lighting and basements. Recessed lights work so well in basements because they tuck out of the way. Nearly the entire unit is contained within the ceiling; only trim is showing.

  • To tone down recessed lights, put them on dimmer switches.
  • Create recessed light zones to keep the lighting only in the areas you want—not the entire basement. Incorporating dimmers plus zoning your recessed lights not only saves energy and money but gives you greater flexibility.
  • Recessed lights can be unfocused and diffuse. To highlight certain areas, install gimbal recessed lights. The light heads have a range of mobility which allows you to target certain areas.

Ceiling Lights

Ceiling lights located in the center of the ceiling and controlled by a wall switch are standard for many rooms. Not only do they meet code but they provide basic lighting for any type of room. Builders usually install switch-controlled ceiling lights as the default lighting in many rooms.


Ceiling lights are good at providing general room lighting but aren't the best for creating light zones. If you have a ceiling light, you can convert it to a recessed light or pendant light.

Sconce Lighting

Sconce lights are switch-controlled light fixtures that are attached to the wall and usually point upwards when used for general wall lighting. Sconce lights, too, can be pointed downwards and used as reading lights. In this case, the switch may be on the light unit itself or in the wall.

Floor Lamps

Floor lamps are individual lights that rest on the floor and can be moved around as needed.

Floor lamps are the ultimate in flexibility. You can plug the floor lamp into a switch-controlled wall outlet and turn the light on or off at the door. Or you can move the floor lamp anywhere there is an outlet and use the switch on the lamp.

Tray Lights

Tray lighting is a type of basement lighting system that uses a narrow ceiling perimeter built-in tray as the base for hidden lighting. Tray lighting is good for setting a mood within a room, and it is especially beneficial when you need the room to be mostly dark, as when watching a show or relaxing.

Building the tray and seamlessly merging it with your basement is often the work of a skilled carpenter. But adding the lights to the tray is simple. Rope lights or LED tape lights can be fitted in the trays. Controlled by an app on your phone, the lights can take on any color you choose.

Track Lights

Track lights are switch-controlled individual, movable lighting units that attach to a solid metal or wire track. Track lights have some flexibility as the light heads can be moved easily along the track, with no tools required.

Track lights, though, can be a visual impediment, especially for lower basement ceilings under 8 feet tall. If this is the case, locate the track to the side of the room, close to a wall. Track lights can be used for illuminating pictures, fireplaces, bars, countertops, and any other type of localized area that requires task lighting.

Faux Natural Light Windows

Faux windows have trim, casing, and polycarbonate panes that look just like glass. They even have sunlight streaming in—or what looks like sunlight—and can be fitted with drapes.

Mounted directly on the wall and plugged into standard electrical outlets, faux natural light windows won't fool anyone into thinking that these are real windows. But they do add an element of fun for a relatively low cost.

Basement Lighting Design Principles

Define Usage

Most areas of the home have clearly defined uses—kitchen, bathroom, living room, bedroom, office. So what about your basement? Function defines design.

For instance, a basement that's largely a media room or theater will have different lighting than one that's an apartment for a family member. Does the basement have a laundry room? You'll need strong general lighting, along with task lighting on the countertop or folding table.

Decide on Brightness

When building or remodeling the basement, err on the side of having more illumination potential than less. Sconces, ceiling lights, recessed lights, and more are hardwired behind walls and ceilings. Adding more lighting is far easier to do in the building or remodeling stage, when walls and ceilings are open, than later on when the walls are closed up.

Build In Flexibility

Permanently installed lighting can be made flexible with a few alterations:

  • Set up lighting zones.
  • Add dimmer switches.
  • Install switch-controlled receptacles.
  • Use wi-fi lighting and smart bulbs to extend lighting to areas not serviced by electrical wiring.

Coordinate With the Room Design

The size, color, and configuration of the basement heavily figure into basement lighting. Basements segmented into many rooms need several types of lighting. Lighter colored basement walls are more reflective, so they require less lighting.

Create or Expand Basement Natural Lighting

With the upper floor and surrounding earth encroaching on the basement, bringing in natural light requires extra planning. While it's more difficult to introduce natural light than artificial light to the basement, the payoff is well worth it. Natural lighting is free and it gives this space a warm, relaxed feeling.

Sun Tubes

Sun tubes, light tubes, or solar tubes look like giant, dim recessed lights in your basement's ceiling. In reality, these are large-diameter reflective tubes that extend from the roofline to the basement ceiling. Sunlight is collected at the roof and sent down to the basement for low-intensity natural general lighting.

Sun tubes aren't true skylights, so direct sunlight rarely reaches the basement. But the light is true natural light, and using sun tubes can save money on artificial lighting during the day.

Keep in mind that the sun tube does need to pass through the upper floor. But by sacrificing some upper-floor closet space, you can invisibly run the tube downstairs.

Add Basement Windows

Windows are always the best way to bring natural light into a room. With basements, the windows are usually smaller and higher than windows found on the upper floors. Even so, a little fenestration goes a long way in sun-starved basements.

When the basement is deep, the window opening must be cut into the foundation wall. For this, you'll need to consult with a contractor or structural engineer to avoid structural failure that could affect upper floors.

Window openings in shallower basements can be cut into the wall stud system and are supported by appropriately sized window headers. This is a significantly easier and more straight-forward project than cutting into poured concrete or concrete block foundation walls.

Create a Daylight or Walk-Out Basement

A daylight or walk-out basement has one or more full walls at ground-level. Usually, daylight basements are in houses located on sloped terrain. The downslope side of the house creates an opening.

Making a daylight basement in a house on mostly level terrain requires excavating a section of the earth next to a wall and shoring up the earth with a retaining wall. A water management plan is a necessary component to prevent water from pooling up in the excavated area and flooding the basement.

While building a daylight basement is a costly, elaborate project, it can improve the intensity and quality of light in the basement and will increase the overall value of your home.