Before You Buy Closet Lighting

Energy-efficient lights are better and safer for closets

Walk-in closet with shoes on shelves
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Good closet lighting is too useful to be ignored. A lot of closets either don't have a light or are illuminated by an exposed incandescent bulb screwed into a surface-mounted fixture and operated with a pull-chain. The first situation is inconvenient, but the second is dangerous. Closets tend to be filled with clothing and other flammable materials, and incandescent bulbs—including halogen lights—get very hot. Energy-efficient compact fluorescent lights can get closer to stored items without creating a fire hazard, and they use considerably less energy than standard incandescent and halogen bulbs.

Safety First

Building codes closely regulate lighting in closets, but many older homes fail to meet these minimal standards. Standard incandescent bulbs are the major culprit, especially when they are exposed. Recessed and surface-mounted incandescent light fixtures in a closet must be fully enclosed within a fixture housing with a cover. They may not be partially enclosed. If you can't find a glass globe or some other type of cover for your attic light, install a new fixture.

A recessed fixture with an incandescent or LED bulb must be at least 6 inches from all closet storage areas. Surface-mounted fixtures with incandescent or LED bulbs must be at least 12 inches from storage areas. Surface-mounted fixtures with compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs must be at least 6 inches from storage areas.

Halogen Lights Are Bad for Closets

Halogen is a type of incandescent lighting that includes a gas to increase light output. This allows tiny halogen bulbs or fixtures to produce a lot of light. However, the bulbs and fixtures get extremely hot, making them unsuitable for small, enclosed spaces and areas where they may come in contact with other materials. Designers like halogen lights because they can be very small and therefore decorative, but you can find the same decorative looks in small fixtures that use energy-efficient (and much less hot) LED lights instead of halogen.

Go Fluorescent

While many CFL bulbs have fallen well short of their claims for long life (and are rightfully being replaced by longer-lasting and more efficient LED lights), fluorescent is still the top choice for closets because it's the coolest-running light and is relatively energy-efficient. If you have a standard surface-mounted or recessed light fixture in your closet and want to switch to fluorescent, there's no need to change the fixture. Simply swap out the incandescent bulb with a CFL bulb that offers a similar light output. If the fixture is controlled by a dimmer switch (most closet lights aren't), be sure to choose a "dimmable" CFL bulb so it works with the dimmer.

Install Your Own

If you don't have a light in your closet, you can always install a battery-powered light fixture. There are many products that can be simply screwed or stuck in place. Some models can be turned on and off by touching the light cover, while others utilize a switch or cord. Motion-activated lights are also available.

Battery-powered closet lights work best in small closets, as they don’t produce much light. But they are so inexpensive and easy to install that you could easily add one on each side of the closet. A light that will automatically turn itself off after a short period of time will save you from buying a lot of replacement batteries.

Note that surface-mounted light fixtures may be installed only on the closet ceiling or on the wall above the closet door, according to the National Electrical Code (NEC) and most local building codes. They may not be installed on any other walls.

Add a New Hard-Wired Fixture

The best closet lighting will be provided by a fixture wired into an electrical circuit. This is a much easier option if there is an attic over the closet, where an electrician can easily tap into an existing circuit. Install a fluorescent fixture, then run a switch to outside the closet for maximum convenience. A switch that stays lit when the light is on will help remind you to turn off the light when the door is closed.