Designed to be hidden by the existing contours in a room, concealed lighting is an odd collection of both familiar and unusual-looking hardware. But these pint-size fixtures and their pinkie-size bulbs can bring welcome light to the kitchen cabinets of your home that have always been in the dark.
When mounted under a kitchen cabinet they provide comfortable, hardworking light for the countertop below. When placed above a cabinet they produce pleasing light that fills the shadows in the ceiling above. They can also be used in toe-kick spaces, inside display cabinets and behind coves and crown molding at the perimeter of a ceiling. Maybe the best news: Because these lights are designed to be hidden, they cost less than most decorative fixtures and are easily added to your home.
Concealed lighting hardware falls into four main categories: mini-tracks, strips, pucks and fluorescents.
Mini-tracks. Available in low voltage (typically 12V and 24V) and regular line voltage (120V), these are miniature versions of track lighting. The track contains wiring, but can be cut to length and run almost anywhere with the help of connectors that turn corners and link lengths of track. Bulb holders — small enough to fit in the palm of your hand — are available in a wide variety of types and can be connected anywhere along the track.
Strip lighting. Essentially poor-man's track, strip units offer fewer options, and the bulbs are set in a fixed pattern and typically are exposed. They work very well inside a cabinet.
Puck lights. For display-case or under-cabinet lighting, low-voltage halogen pucks are a good choice. Their diameters are about 2 ½ in. and some are thin enough to recess within the thickness of a ¾-in. shelf.
Fluorescent fixtures. These thin-profile fixtures, commonly used in under-cabinet installations for lighting countertops, contain one or two small diameter tubes. A plastic cover, called a diffuser, is used to even out the light.
The first order of business in lighting anything is to choose the type of light you want — that's determined by the light bulb. (Just to be confusing, lighting professionals refer to bulbs as lamps.) There are four primary types to consider: standard tungsten, halogen, xenon and fluorescent. The first three are incandescent bulbs — they rely on a heated wire to produce light. Strip lights and pucks use incandescent bulbs exclusively; some track systems can also use fluorescents.
Incandescent bulbs have tremendous range. They can be used every few inches for even, continuous light, or put in a spotlight to call attention to an object. Dimming is easy and light color ranges from the crisp “white light" of halogen to the warm, yellow light of tungsten. However, incandescent bulbs do put out UV (ultraviolet light), which can cause plastic and fabrics to discolor.
Incandescent bulbs also burn hot, an issue when you're trying to hide lights in tight spaces. Be careful of the proximity to wood, fabrics and lacquer finishes, and make sure there's good ventilation. Xenon, which nearly approximates halogen in light color, puts out half the heat per lumen.
Fluorescent bulbs offer low heat output, excellent energy efficiency and long bulb life. Although they can be dimmed, the hardware is expensive — $100 or more. Fluorescent light can also be very “cold" (a blue-gray light that isn't kind to either people or display objects). Manufacturers make small bulbs in warmer color temperatures, but smaller sizes can be hard to find.
Some of the factors to consider in choosing the right system (hardware and bulb) are: the location of the installation, the subject, energy efficiency and cost. Don't judge on appearances as you would with most fixtures — you can't see this lighting.
Except for under-cabinet fluorescents and inexpensive strips, which are widely available at home centers, you'll find the best selection of concealed hardware at lighting distributors and showrooms. The salespeople usually are knowledgeable, and if they don't have exactly what you want in stock, you'll be shown catalogs till your eyes water.
Mounting most of these lights requires only a couple of wood screws or shelf clips. Running the cable is more difficult, but even if you have to disturb finished walls, your patch work typically is hidden. Most concealed lights don't draw much amperage, so you may be able to use an existing circuit. If you aren't experienced in calculating draw and pulling wire, turn the job over to a licensed electrician.
Whether you're wiring or just doing the design work, these tips will help:
Undercabinet lights. Don't try to place lights selectively; you'll end up with a “missing tooth" look when you're finished. Most cabinets have adequate recessed space to accommodate thin fluorescent fixtures. Tracks and strips can be obscured from view with a decorative metal L-bracket or wood trim. If you use wood, paint the backside matte white.
Install these lights as far forward as possible. This makes fixtures more difficult to see and cuts down on unwanted reflections on the back wall. Dark, shiny counters can pose reflection problems too; try using a diffuser.
Overcabinet lights. Try these if you have at least 12 in. of open space between your cabinets and the ceiling. Place the fixtures as far forward as possible in order to maximize the surface area lit. Space bulbs close together in a track or strip or, instead use a full-length fluorescent fixture. For long, low-voltage runs behind crown molding, you may. need 24V (rather than 12V) to avoid a voltage drop that dims the bulbs farthest from the transformer.
Lights inside a cabinet. A strip fixed to the front of each shelf works well here. If the shelves don't run full length, attach a strip vertically to both sides. Light cabinets with glass shelve by mounting puck lights under the cabinet top so the light cascades down.
Traffic-pattern lights. This is strip lighting that's installed in toe kicks and under the lip of kitchen countertops. Affectionately known as “munchy lights," they can light your way to the fridge on a midnight run.