track lighting overhead and undercabinet lighting in kitchen
Photograph by Geoffrey Gross
A combination of adjustable track lighting overhead and dimmable task lighting for the counter helps make this kitchen more appealing and more efficient.
Bad lighting can take the joy out of a kitchen. It makes cooking more of a chore and discourages people from getting together. Even the finest cabinetry, appliances, and countertops look dull and unappealing in dim lighting. Yet many people who live in older homes — and even some in new ones — make do with light from a single fixture in the ceiling. The owner of the house seen here faced that situation. Although the house is new, most of the light in the kitchen came from one incandescent fixture high on the ceiling. Electrical contractor Peter Eng, of New Milford, Connecticut, suggested a remedy: L-shaped track lighting on the ceiling to boost overall light levels in the room and low-voltage halogen task lighting under the cabinets. The track lighting Eng chose does not require additional wiring in the ceiling. Power for both legs of the track comes from the electrical box where the old fixture was attached. And because the track is surface-mounted, it is faster and simpler to install than recessed lighting. Plus, track lighting is flexible; you can move heads as needs change, and it's easy to add heads. It also accommodates a sloped ceiling like this one.
Undercabinet lighting comes in several varieties and is readily available at lighting stores and home centers. Homeowners who find fluorescent light unappealing will appreciate halogen fixtures, which cast a bright, white light. Although they're not as efficient as fluorescents, halogen bulbs are an improvement over incandescents. They are one-third more efficient and last about twice as long — roughly 2,000 hours. Low-voltage halogen fixtures are available as undercabinet track systems, strip-style fixtures, and recessed or surface-mounted disc lights. Newer xenon fixtures are another option. They operate at lower temperatures than halogens with comparable efficiency. Xenon bulbs cost about the same as halogens ($4 to $5), but they last up to 10,000 hours. Many undercabinet fixtures are low-profile, making it easy to conceal them in the shallow recess on the bottom of upper cabinets. Although many undercabinet fixtures can be plugged into an existing receptacle, Eng hard-wired these, so no wires would show and receptacle slots wouldn't be filled. He also put a dimmer switch on them so they can be dialed back when the homeowner wants only a little accent lighting.
With basic wiring skills you can complete both of these lighting upgrades in one day. As with any electrical work, your first step is to turn off the power to the circuits you plan to work on at the main panel. And before you handle any of the wires, use a circuit tester to make sure the circuits are shut down. Building codes now require that kitchen receptacles be ground-fault circuit interrupters, which turn off instantly when they sense a leak in the electric circuit. If power for undercabinet lights is fed from a nearby receptacle, as was the case here, it's a good time to make sure the receptacle is a GFCI. If it's not, you should replace it with one. When running new cable, make sure the gauge of the wire is appropriate for the circuit breaker in the main panel. A 20-amp breaker requires 12-gauge wire, while a 15-amp breaker allows the use of lighter 14-gauge wire. And what do you do if you feel you're in over your head? Call in a licensed electrician.
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