Adding under cabinet lighting is a cost-effective way to add task lighting and give your kitchen a higher-end look. When installed correctly, it enhances the look of the countertops and backsplash while keeping your fingers safe during food prep and making it easier to follow recipes. Before starting, decide on a budget and level of effort you are comfortable with. Plug-in under cabinet lighting is easy to install yourself and involves little to no adjustment to the existing cabinetry while hard-wire solutions may require a licensed electrician. Three popular types of under cabinet lighting are puck lights, under cabinet fixtures, and LED strip lights.
Named for having a hockey puck shape, puck lights are usually round fixtures that can either be surface mounted or recessed into cabinets. Because of the round design, puck lights create a more focused pool of light. This can be a pro or con depending on personal preference. The pools of light are excellent for highlighting a section of countertop, whether it be your home grown herbs or designer knife set. If you prefer an empty counter or want a more evenly distributed light, you may be happier with a more linear light distribution. Spotlights can also create an unflattering glare on granite or marble countertops.
Puck lights can be hard-wired, plugged in, or battery operated depending on the fixture. When installing the lights, a good rule of thumb is one puck light for every six to twelve inches of space. The closer together the fixtures are installed, the more uniform the light. If you are using plug-in or battery operated lights and want to recess them into the cabinet, start by using a double sided tape to temporarily adhere the lights. Turn them on; if there’s not enough light, use more fixtures closer together. It’s much easier to make any adjustments now, before you make any significant cuts or changes to your cabinets. If you choose to hard wire the fixtures, you may not be able to test the placement before setting the lights into the permanent installation.
You also have some flexibility with light source, including incandescent, halogen, xenon, or LED. Incandescent, halogen, and xenon puck lights offer the lowest up-front cost, but use the most electricity to run and can get quite hot. Halogen and xenon lights get so hot that we recommend keeping chocolates, fresh flowers, fruit, and your herb garden out from under the lights. People who pick halogen or xenon lights tend to limit the use of under cabinet lighting to task lighting and do not leave the lights on for more than a few hours a day.
Under Cabinet Fixtures
Connectable under cabinet fixtures such as LED light bars give your counters a uniform light distribution. Similar to puck lights, you can buy LED, xenon, or fluorescent fixtures available in hard-wire or plug-in models. Hiding the wires is as easy as adding a valance to the front of the cabinets and tucking the wires up underneath. While some installation guides suggest using staples to keep the wires out of sight, we don’t recommend it. If the staple is too tight, it can damage the wiring and lead to problems with the fixture over time. Instead, thread the wire through brackets or small hooks to keep it out of sight. Some people add a hole to the bottom of the cabinet and tuck the wiring through the cabinet itself.
Fluorescent and LED under cabinet fixtures give you more flexibility with color temperature compared to other fixtures. Unlike incandescent and halogen bulbs, which put out a consistent color of light across all products, fluorescents and LEDs have a Kelvin measurement, which tells you how warm or cool a light the bulb or fixture produces. A lower Kelvin temperature around 2700K is similar to the light from an incandescent. This brings out wood tones and makes a space feel warm and inviting. Lights 4000K and higher produce a clean white light that brings out granite countertops and blue or green in your backsplash. A higher Kelvin temperature also helps improve focus and reduce eye strain, so it’s recommended for people who frequently use the kitchen counter for reading recipes and other tasks.
LED under cabinet fixtures have a higher CRI or color rendering index than most fluorescent fixtures. This means the light from LEDs more accurately displays the counters true color. High CRI bulbs make color appear more vibrant and saturated. This is especially true of reds and skin tones, so it’s more important for wood grain counters than granite, but you may still notice a difference with the latter.
LED Strip Light
The most versatile option for under cabinet lighting is LED strip light, or tape light. It is available in a variety of colors including color changing strip light. It also provides more light than puck lights, without creating the spot light effect on countertops. If installed correctly, the LED strip light shouldn’t be noticeable. When used over a sink or in places where water might splash up under the cabinets, waterproof tape light is recommended.
LED strip light is very easy to install. First, make sure the installation is positioned so that the plug can reach an outlet and that you’ll be able to hide the remaining wiring. Many types come with a 3M adhesive backing that allows you to peel and stick the lights to the bottom of the cabinet. These can either be plugged into an outlet or hard wired. Depending on how reflective your counters are, you may want to use a strip light channel and diffused or frosted lens to minimize glare on granite or marble countertops.
The downside of LED strip light is that the color rendering isn’t as good as some of the other under cabinet lighting options. While you have a great flexibility with colors, for under cabinet lighting, we recommend warm white or cool white. This will give you the best visibility for task lighting. If hard wiring the lights, it may require the connections be made in an electrical box to meet code requirements. Alternatively, you can plug in the lights, but you will see the cord running to the outlet.
It’s also important to note that the maximum run for LED strip light is 16 ft. This shouldn’t be a problem for adding some extra light to the countertops, but could be if you’re adding lights under the bottom cabinets along the floor for pathway lighting at night. Once you reach 16 ft., you will need another battery and driver to finish the run. Connecting more than 16 ft. will draw too much power which can overheat the LEDs and shorten its lifespan. It’s also possible that the end of the run will be too far away from the power source and fail to light at all.
Tips and Tricks for Installing Under Cabinet Lights
- Install the lights at the front of the cabinet, not the middle or back. This centers the lights with the middle of the countertop, giving the best beam spread.
- Use a frosted lens for highly reflective counters to stop the light from bouncing back and blinding you or causing glare.
- Warm color temperatures (3000 Kelvin and below) will bring out reds and orange tones better than a higher color temperature. It will also make the kitchen look more cozy and inviting.
- Cooler color temperatures (4000 Kelvin and above) are better for task lighting, such as reading recipes. It brings out the blues and greens in a backsplash better than lights with a warmer tone, but some people think it looks too piercing. Talk to a professional and take the overall design into consideration before selecting bulbs or fixtures.
- Look for bulbs and fixtures with a high CRI (color rendering index). Bulbs with a CRI of 90 or above do a better job at rendering reds and skin tones, making objects (like your hands) easier to see.
- If hard wiring your lights, try to install the light switch close to the switch for the general lighting so that you don’t have to wander around the kitchen in the dark while trying to avoid turning on the overhead lights.
No matter which type of under cabinet lighting you chose, if done well, it transforms your kitchen and can even catch the eye of buyers if you’re looking to sell. Should you run into any problems with installation, please contact a professional.