How To Choose Lighting for Your Home

Home Lighting Basics

An often overlooked part of redecorating and remodeling is proper and creative lighting, and it is one of the most effective and economic improvements you can make. Whether the project is a low budget basement makeover or a major room addition, the time to think about lighting is before you begin.

During the initial planning stages of remodeling or redecorating, check to see if you have adequate outlets for additional lamps. Before laying new carpeting or flooring, consider floor mounted outlets if your furniture will 'float' in the room away from the walls.

As you become more creative with lighting, you'll put more demand on your electrical system. Check to see that you have adequate capacity or plan to upgrade it. You should have an electrical service box equipped with at least a 100 amp. main circuit breaker. Lighting in a home falls in three categories:

  • General or Ambient
  • Task
  • Accent

The main living areas of a home should have a flexible combination of all three. General lighting provides overall illumination, background brightness that gives a room a comfortable glow. It creates a mood, lets you see to move through a room easily and safely.

Good general lighting is used to expand the shell of a room visually and provide warm even illumination by lighting the walls. Energy-efficient fluorescent fixtures concealed behind a valance or cornice provide defused light. Dimmer switches used to control light intensity can easily change a room's mood.

Task lighting localizes light sources for a variety of specific activities and provides glare free illumination directly to the work area.

Accent lighting highlights those special things in a home that make it uniquely yours - a collection of porcelain, a favored family treasure or a part of the room, like a fireplace mantel. As you rearrange furniture in a room, remember to incorporate the lighting elements needed to highlight the architecturally interesting features of your home as well as its furnishings.

Today portable and permanently installed lighting fixtures come in every imaginable size, shape and description and it is worth several shopping expeditions to consider your options. Visit lighting specialty shops, department stores, home furnishings stores, and for a high tech look or special needs, see what industrial suppliers have.

In selecting a free-standing lamp your first consideration is how it will function in the room. Select portable lighting sources based on how they work within your floor plan, furniture placement and color scheme.

Before making any structural changes or investing in new lighting fixtures, try this little experiment. Borrow or buy a few inexpensive clip on lamps with bulbs of different wattages and shaded in pink, soft white, frosted - the selection can be staggering. During a week's time, play with them. Move the lights throughout your room in as many new ways that you can think of. Do the same thing with fluorescent tubes that mount easily to the wall. You'll be amazed at the different moods and affects you can create. Your time spent experimenting will give you a clear idea of the many lighting possibilities.

To help you incorporate the elements of good lighting design in your next redecorating or remodeling project we'll walk through a typical home to illustrate how lighting can dramatically improve each room.

Entry, Stairs and Hallways

Wall fixtures add decorative interest and illumination to the standard ceiling fixture in an entry. If the area is small, use 60-100 watts and up to 150 for larger spaces. Light the hall closet with a 40-60 watt bulb, larger if the closet is a walk-in. Be careful to mount the closet fixture at least 18-inches from items on shelving.

A staircase requires fixtures and switches at both the top and bottom of the stairs to prevent accidents and provide easy access. To prevent an annoying glare, use a partially shielded fixture if you can see inside the fixture as you walk down the stairs.

In a long, narrow hallway track lighting or recessed fixtures creates a gallery affect suitable for a collection of art work or photography. Repeat fixtures every 10 feet and consider using fluorescent fixtures mounted behind valances where constant light is required (where there's no windows) because they're more economical.

Living Spaces

In a living or family room, combine general lighting with accent lighting to define areas with pools of light to create a warm atmosphere. Accent lighting is one of the most dramatic and economical decorating changes you can make to these spaces. It can take many forms.

Incandescent fixtures can be mounted on the ceiling, attached to a track or recessed. These types of lights highlight texture, by creating shadow patterns. A most dramatic effect can be created with down light focused on a brick wall or a dimensional piece of art. If there is a sofa or seating area on the wall being lighted, install it so people seated there do not see the interior of the fixture or have a bright bulb shining in their face.

Special purpose lighting such as free standing spots create a highlight and deep shadow to showcase a wall or grouping of art work. Mounted directly on the frame, a picture light calls attention to the painting along with providing illumination. Floor cans tucked in the corner of a room or shining through foliage give dramatic uplight to a room.

Use wall lamps where space is limited and incorporate a floor lamp to add vertically to a room. Pharmacy lamps are a stylish way to provide directional lighting for reading, but be sure the bulb is below eye level and doesn't shine in anyone's eyes.


Many activities take place in a kitchen - eating, food preparation, reading recipes - all require a variety of task lighting.

The most economic and efficient way to provide perimeter lighting is with a large diffused fixture centered in the working area. For each square foot of space plan 3/4 watt of fluorescent or 1 1/2 watts of incandescent lighting.

For cleaning and food preparation over a sink downlighting is most efficient; if the sink is located under a shelf or cabinet, mount two 36" fluorescent tubes in a shielded fixture or behind a valance. You need a minimum of two 100 watt incandescent bulbs or two 75 watt floodlights spaced 15" apart.

Over the range use a 60 watt bulb, most preferably located in a range hood. Fluorescent under- cabinet lighting is a quick improvement to any kitchen and necessary for food preparation and reading the fine print in recipes.

If a remodeling project includes the addition of a kitchen island, mount lighting directly over it. Two 40 watt fluorescent tubes or 75 watt reflector floodlights are good choices. A hanging fixture that provides direct lighting both upward and downward works well over an eating area.


Personal grooming, be it applying makeup, doing your hair or shaving requires shadowless light. Include lighting overhead in the ceiling, in the tub area (if your local building codes allow it), over the toilet and concentrated around the mirror, but not directly at it. Highly translucent milky white plastic or glass enclosed fixtures are most ideal because it lets light through to light your face.

To light a small mirror use a ceiling fixture mounted over the front edge of the sink or counter and two side lights centered 60" above the floor and 30" apart from each other. Multi-bulb theatrical lighting strips use 25 watt globe lights and should be mounted across the top and on both sides of a mirror. To light a large mirror the bulbs should be long enough to light both sides of your face. Remember soft white fluorescent tubes are most flattering to skin tones.

When selecting materials for a bathroom, keep in mind a light colored counter top helps reflect light up under the chin, dark colored tiles, fixtures, wall and floor coverings absorb the light.

Dining Room

A lonely fixture hanging from the dining room or dining area ceiling is adequate but not ideal lighting. This is especially true if your dining room table does double duty and is used for homework or sewing. You can improve the situation by simply replacing the old with a new fixture with down lights or install a dimmer switch to temper the amount of light.

Have you ever wondered how to determine the correct size of chandelier for your dinning room? Its diameter should not be more than the width of the table minus 12" - this is so no one bumps into it getting up from the table. Center it over the table. In a room with an 8-foot ceiling height the bottom of the fixture should be 30" above the table, add 3" for each additional foot of ceiling height.

Additional lighting over a buffet in the form of recessed or track lighting from the ceiling or decorative wall mounted fixtures expands the space visually and adds interest.


Shallow diffusing fixtures mounted on the ceiling provide soft, shadow free light. Wall mounted fixtures on either side of a dresser provide decorative as well as additional lighting. To avoid groping for items inside closets, add a row of fluorescent lighting. If there is a dressing area include a full length mirror surrounded by theatrical lighting strips. In a larger bedroom define a seating area with an off-centered chandelier coordinated with bathroom fixtures.

For reading in bed here are some options: track lighting hung on the ceiling or mounted vertically on the wall, a wall mounted fixture with adjustable arm or a ceiling suspended fixture installed about 30" above the mattress.

Desk Lighting

Lighting for a desk area is determined by its use. In general, the light should be uniform and free of glare and shadows. The bottom of the shade should be 15" above the work surface and ambient lighting above the desk is needed to create a balance. If there is a shelf over the desk, install lighting strips directly to the bottom of the lowest shelf.

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