Add a glowing touch to beautiful cabinets.
By Brad Holden
Want a quick way to improve upper kitchen cabinets? Install lights under them. Undercabinet lights eliminate shadows in work areas and improve the room’s atmosphere. Some may be controlled with a dimmer switch to make your kitchen even more inviting. You can design cabinets to accommodate these lights and wiring or add them after the cabinets have been built and installed.
Four major types of undercabinet light fixtures are available: fluorescent, halogen, xenon and light-emitting diode (LED). Some can be dimmed; others cannot. Some emit warm, golden light; others shine a cool light that’s closer to daylight. Learning about the features, pros and cons of each type will help you select the best options for your kitchen cabinets.
All four types of undercabinet lighting are available in easy-to-install fixtures (see Sources, below). Often, individual lights plug into power blocks, which connect to a transformer (see photo, above). The transformer plugs into a wall socket. On larger units, the transformer is housed in the fixture. Fixtures can be purchased as individual components or complete kits. Kits include everything you need: transformers, connectors, plugs and power blocks.
Some fixtures can be hardwired if you want to hide wires inside a wall or use a switch mounted in a wall. In this case, you wire the transformer into a junction box, then plug the fixtures into the transformer. (For information about hardwiring, go to americanwoodworker.com/installingundercabinetlighting.)
Only halogen and xenon lights can be dimmed, a feature I really like. I turn my kitchen lights all the way up when I’m working and dim them for a more relaxing ambience when it’s time to eat. There are three switching options: an add-on touch-pad dimmer, a hardwired wall switch or a fixture with a high and low setting. Xenon lights must be hardwired if you wish to dim them. Halogen lights can be hardwired or installed with a touch-pad dimmer. The dimmer can sit on the counter or mount under the cabinet near the lights. It’s as easy as plugging the transformer into the dimmer and plugging the dimmer into a wall outlet.
Warm, Cool or Neutral Light
Color temperature, given in degrees Kelvin (K), indicates a light’s color appearance (see chart, below). Warm lights below 3,500 K project a yellow or orange appearance (see photo, right). Cool lights above 3,500 K emit a blue or green cast. Fluorescent and LED lights run the spectrum from warm to cool. Halogen and xenon lights emit a warm cast. Most people prefer lighting that appears warm.
Spot or Strip Lights
All four types of lights are available in small spot or puck lights, or long strip fixtures (see "Undercabinet Lighting Types", below). Puck lights are more versatile. They can fit into small spaces or can be linked together to cover a large area. Use one puck light every 12 to 18 in.
Fluorescent and LED lights are about five times more efficient than halogen and xenon lights.
Click any image to view a larger version.
Undercabinet lighting can be easy to install. Many fixtures plug directly into multiple-outlet power blocks, which in turn plug into a transformer. Plug the transformer into an existing wall socket.
Fluorescent and LED undercabinet lights cast warm-colored light (left) or cool-colored light (right), depending on the bulbs you select. Halogen and xenon fixtures cast a warm light.
Undercabinet Lighting Types
Fluorescent lights have come a long way in recent years. New fixtures don’t hum or flicker when they’re turned on. Fluorescent lightbulbs are available in warm, cool and daylight color casts. They’re efficient and don’t produce much heat, making them comfortable to work near. In addition, they won’t melt the butter on your counter! A typical fluorescent undercabinet lightbulb will last 10,000 to 20,000 hours. Along with the familiar strip form, fluorescent lights are also available as compact puck lights. Most fluorescent lights are not dimmable.
Halogen lights produce crisp, warm white light very similar to what standard incandescent bulbs emit. In fact, halogens are incandescent bulbs with halogen gas inside to prolong the filament’s life. Halogens are dimmable, compact and available in pucks or strips. The main drawbacks are that they’re not as efficient as LEDs and fluorescents, and they generate a lot of heat. A halogen bulb lasts as long as 4,000 hours. That’s the shortest bulb life-span of the four types of fixtures, but much better than a standard incandescent bulb, which lasts from 750 to 2,000 hours.
Xenon lights are incandescent bulbs that contain xenon gas to extend the filament’s life. A xenon bulb produces light similar to that of a standard incandescent, only slightly less yellow in color. And it will last 8,000 to 10,000 hours. Most xenon lights may be dimmed if they’re hardwired to a standard dimmer switch. Xenon bulbs are available with two different bases. The more standard xenon bulb has a wedge-shaped base; a bi-pin base is available as a replacement bulb for some halogen fixtures. Xenon lights last longer and generate about 15 percent less heat than halogen lights do.
LED lights are available in fixtures that produce either warm or cool white light. They’re extremely compact and consume miniscule amounts of energy—a single fixture with three bulbs uses only 3 watts. They generate very little heat and last as long as 50,000 hours. LED lights have two drawbacks. First, they’re not dimmable. Second, they’re expensive: Expect to pay $100 or more for a high-quality undercabinet fixture.
(Note: Product availability and costs are subject to change since original publication date.)
Woodworkers Hardware, woodworkershardware.com, 800-383-0130.
Pegasus Associates, pegasusassociates.com, 800-392-4818.
This story originally appeared in American Woodworker January 2007, issue #126.
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