General Kitchen Lighting: Types

Pros and Cons of Each

Luxury kitchen
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In almost every room of the house, we use both general lighting and task lighting. One room where many of us particularly want to provide both types of lighting is the kitchen.

Task lighting is the lighting we use to clearly see something we are doing. Reading lamps and desk lamps are two examples. General lighting is the illumination we use to light up the whole area, to help us walk around and find our way to specific areas and additional light sources.

Most often, these days, general lighting is provided by overhead electrical fixtures. In the kitchen, these can be one of three types -- recessed fixtures, surface fixtures, and pendant fixtures. Each has its pros and cons, and many kitchens have more than one of the types.

Recessed Lights

Recessed lights disappear into the ceiling and help preserve a sense of openness and space. Many people also prefer them because they seem to need less cleaning. They might be a good choice for those reasons, particularly if your kitchen is a finished room.

Recessed lights, however, require enough open space above the ceiling for the housing to be fitted in. This means that the ceiling joists limit the locations where you can install a recessed light. Plumbing and wiring can also interfere with the  installation of recessed lights, particularly if your kitchen is below an upstairs bathroom. And, because recessed lights are above the face of the ceiling, they do not illuminate broad areas.

It will take several of them to provide full general illumination for the average kitchen.

If your kitchen has an unfinished, insulated attic above it, the good news is that you can use the less expensive and easier-to-install recessed lights that are made to be used in new construction. The bad news is that there are additional challenges to installing these fixtures.

A recessed light housing that will be in an attic needs to be both airtight (AT) and insulation compatible (IC), so that it will not serve as an exhaust vent for your home's warm air during heating season, and will not become hot enough, on its outer surface, to damage any insulation that comes in contact with it. Recessed lighting fixtures that are both AT and IC are more expensive than similar fixtures that are not.

Starting in the 1980s, recessed light fixtures became the norm for general kitchen lighting. But within the last ten years, this has started to change as people realized that the combination of the ceiling penetrations and the greater number of fixtures needed make this type of lighting potentially less efficient than either surface or pendant fixtures. Two trends have emerged since then. One is that the manufacturers have been redesigning recessed fixtures to be much more efficient The other is electricians and homeowners have been leaving the kitchen ceiling closed, and mounting the light fixtures either on or under it.

Surface Lights

Surface lights can range from small "mushroom" fixtures that hold a single bulb to 2' x 4' fluorescent fixtures with multiple tubes. Because they are on the surface, there is no issue with the integrity of the ceiling, or of what's in the space above it.

Surface fixtures can also light a wide area, although a small single-bulb fixture will not cover a very large area. The area you want to cover is part of the process of choosing a fixture. Surface lights are also, in general, easier to clean than recessed lights -- it's just that the dust that collects in a recessed fixture is less visible.

Surface-mounted light fixtures were the standard choice for most general kitchen lighting from the early 20th century into the 1980s. That's when recessed fixtures first became widely available, and took the lead for a couple of decades. Then, with a growing awareness of the greater efficiency of a closed ceiling plus the design of more attractive units, surface light fixtures started to make a comeback. Today, many people are using a combination of different fixture types to get the illumination they want where they want it while keeping the system efficient.

On the downside, while surface lights are mounted "up out of the way," they are still visible installations on the ceiling. They tend to break up the expanse, visually, more than recessed lights do. And they do require periodic cleaning because  the dust on them is visible.

Pendant Lights 

Pendant lights are really a specialized form of surface lights. Their great advantage is that they bring the light closer to the areas where you need good visibility. For that reason, they can also be used to provide task lighting. The judicious installation of pendant lights can provide double service, by lighting both a work island and the area around it, for example.

As pendant light fixtures have regained popularity in recent years, initially for their efficiency, they have also become more attractive. The open metal shades with a single bare bulb are still available, but fixtures with clusters of pendants are too. And there are styles ranging from Tiffany to post-modern. Many people are choosing to incorporate at least a few of these versatile fixtures into their overall design.

The single greatest disadvantage of pendant lights is the same as their greatest advantage -- they hang down from the ceiling. They can get in the way, and need to be limited to areas where people won't be walking unless your kitchen has ceilings that are more than 8 feet high. In kitchens with tall ceilings, pendant lights can both bring the light closer to where you need it and help reduce the sense of being in the bottom of a well.

And, like surface lights, pendant lights will need a periodic cleaning to remove the visible dust that they collect.

Recessed, surface and pendant lights are all available in models that accept a wide range of light bulbs. If you have a particular type of lamp (light bulb) in mind for your general kitchen lighting, such as an MR-16 Halogen bulb, then you will need to shop for fixtures that will take that lamp.