Choosing the Best Under-Cabinet Lighting

Under cabinet and interior cabinet lighting are great additions to any kitchen, but for the average homeowner, the multitude of choices may be a little confusing. When faced with choices between low voltage or line voltage, or understanding what direct wire means, and then choosing between LED, halogen, fluorescent, and xenon, you might think you need a degree in electrical engineering just to buy some lights. So in this article, I hope to take the mystery out of these terms and provide you with enough information to choose the lighting that will work best for you. We offer residential and commercial electrician Melbourne services for repairs, installations and emergencies throughout Melbourne.

The first thing you need to consider when shopping for your lighting is whether to get hard-wire or plug-in fixtures. This is an easy choice, and it just comes down to budget. Plug in lighting is relatively cheap and easy to install, but means you will need a receptacle nearby, and you will have unsightly cords hanging down the wall, and the fixtures will need to be switched on individually. If this doesn’t sound appealing to you, then you’ll want to look for fixtures labeled: “hard-wire” or “direct-wire”, and unless your kitchen is already set up for these fixtures, you will need an electrician to install new wiring and a switch or dimmer to control the lights. Once that’s sorted out, the next choice you’ll face is bulb type.

The big four: Halogen, Fluorescent, Xenon or LED. Each of these has advantages and disadvantages from energy consumption, to quality of light, to cost. Halogen is my least favorite of the four. It’s the least energy efficient, and it gives off a lot of heat. This is a problem in the kitchen because it causes nearby spices and produce to spoil faster, and all that heat is energy wasted. Furthermore, the bulb life is very short with an average life of less than 10,000 hours compared to 100,000 or so with LEDs. The advantages of halogen are the cost of the fixtures (they are one of the cheapest), and the quality of light. Halogens give off a warm inviting glow, and are at the top of the heap for color representation; which is great for setting off your granite countertops, and backsplash. They are also dimmable, and not all of it’s competitors have that ability. Still, these advantages aren’t enough to outweigh the disadvantages in my opinion, so halogens are out of the running for my money.

How about Fluorescent lights? I think these are strong contenders. They are energy efficient, have a long bulb life, with an average of 40,000 hours or so, and are inexpensive to purchase. The big problem I have with fluorescent light, is they can be slow to light up – taking a minute sometimes to come to full brightness, and the quality of the light is really poor. It can make your countertop and backsplash seem washed out, and make food look unappetizing. On the other hand, not all fluorescent fixtures are the same. There are better models out there that give off a nicer quality of light, and have better ballasts which make the lights more stable and faster to light up. So if you’re going this route, stay away from the cheap $20 and under fixtures. Finally, while there are dimmable fluorescent light bulbs available for some other fixtures, I haven’t yet run across any fluorescent under cabinet lights which are dimmable, so if this is important to you, you should probably consider other options instead.

Next in the line-up: Xenon. Xenon lights are one of my favorites they have the same great quality of light that halogen has, but with a longer bulb life (around 20,000), less energy consumption, and low heat output. They are also dimmable, but the fixtures are more expensive than fluorescent and halogen, and they are not as energy efficient as fluorescent and LED. Be aware that a lot of the xenon fixtures are low-voltage, which may or may not suit your needs. If you’re not sure what this means, I talk about the difference between low and line voltage lighting below.

Finally there is LED. Probably everyone at this point has heard about how energy efficient LEDs are, and the bulbs last forever. At 100,000 hours of expected life, you’ll probably never have to change the bulbs in your lifetime, which is good, because you can’t really change the bulbs in a lot of these fixtures. Many of these fixtures are also dimmable, but not all, so if you’re shopping for LED and want to use a dimmer, check on this before you buy (you’ll also need to get a special dimmer switch that works with LED lights). The down side: the light can be really cold and uninviting, and they are the most expensive fixtures of the bunch. However, the expense you pay up front may be outweighed in the long run by the money you save on your power bill. If LEDs seem appealing to you, consider shopping for lights which offer a warmer color spectrum.

Another term you may come across when shopping for your fixtures is “low voltage” or “line voltage”. The biggest advantage of low voltage lighting is it’s size. With this type of lighting, the main guts are separated out in a transformer, which allows the actual lighting fixture to be very low profile. In addition, the wire leading to the fixture is much smaller, can be run through tight spaces, and concealed easier, and is also safer since it only carries 12 volts (as opposed to 120 volts for line voltage wire). The challenge with low voltage lighting is finding a place for the transformer. The transformer is where the power gets converted from line voltage to low voltage and needs to be installed somewhere nearby. It can’t be concealed behind the wall, and must be accessible, so it usually ends up in the attic or taking up space in the cabinets. Because of this, if you decide to go with low voltage lighting, it’s important to communicate with your electrician and your cabinet installer. If they can plan ahead for the installation, It will save a lot of time and potential headache. Also, be aware that these transformers do put out some heat, and you may notice a humming noise as well. Personally I prefer line voltage fixtures which are wired directly to the house wiring, and are a lot more straight forward to install.

So that’s it. Hopefully I’ve taken some of the mystery out of all these terms, and now you’re ready to go out and shop for your new lighting!

Tim Hutchinson is a kitchen remodeling contractor in the Seattle, WA area, and the owner of NW Homeworks. He has been remodeling homes since the early 1990s and enjoys sharing his collected knowledge and experience. To learn more about Tim and his company, Northwest Homeworks, please click here at his website

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