Hearing scary scrabbling noises coming from your kitchen at night? Need some task lighting while slicing and dicing your empty beer cans and rusty nails with your Ginsu knives? Often, the light from overhead kitchen fixtures leaves a lot to be desired. It may be coming from flickering fluorescent fixtures, or recessed lights that don’t quite hit the G-spot (that’s G for Ginsu…). You may even have a sad, underpowered little unit like the one at left, begging to be replaced. Fortunately, if you have upper cabinets, it’s pretty easy to get lit up; the recessed area under most upper cabinets provides the perfect platform from which to light up your world.
Illuminating your options
As you begin your quest for illumination, you will encounter three basic types of under-cabinet lighting: battery operated, hard-wired or plug-in. If you’re doing new construction, or remodeling and have access to wall cavities to do some wiring, hard-wired is definitely the way to go. You’ll be able to control all the lights with a single switch, you won’t have wires dangling into your culinary masterpieces at inopportune moments, and you won’t be tying up all your outlets. Whichever route you go, you’ll want to get the biggest fixture that will fit the space, to provide maximum coverage.
The other choice you’ll face is the type of bulb. From least to most energy-efficient, they are tubular incandescent; halogen, which is dimmable, and provides light most like natural daylight (they also get fairly hot); Xenon (which I think comes from Superman’s home planet — China?), which burns cooler and lasts longer than halogen; fluorescent, which is available in various configurations and offers bulbs in cool and warm shades; and LED’s, which are by far the coolest and most energy-efficient. They also tend to be the priciest, but the cost has been coming down, and when you factor in the longevity (which can be ten years of constant use) and energy savings, LED’s are well worth considering.
Hard-wiring Made Easy
If you’re able to go the hard-wired route, a little planning is required. You need to know the exact height of the upper cabinets. Most cabinets have a recessed area about an inch deep under them, and your goal is to have the wiring for the lights extend through the back edge of this recessed area, and then straight into the back of the light fixture.
Most fixtures have one or two knockouts on the back, where you’ll want to install a cable clamp to protect the wiring as it enters the fixture. (Some fixtures will come with the clamp; if not, any hardware or home center will have them). If you don’t, somewhere down the line the interaction of sharp edges + live wires may earn you the nickname “Sparky.” If neither of the knockouts is where you want it, just drill a hole the same size anywhere along the back (making sure it won’t interfere with any of the guts of the light when it’s reassembled), and make sure to use a cable clamp.
Making the Connections
Wiring is pretty straightforward on these fixtures. Generally, they’ll have a white (neutral) wire, a black or red (hot) wire, and a bare or green (ground) wire. These wires will match up with the same color wire coming into the fixture. If you have several lights, all of which will be controlled by the same switch, you’ll be running two pieces of cable into each: one from the light switch or previous fixture, and one out to the next fixture. The cable going out to the next fixture gets wired together with the current fixture, again matching colors, and should exit the fixture through its own cable clamp, as the clamp on many low-profile fixtures is too small to accommodate two pieces of Romex cable.
Screw ‘em Up
After running the cable into the fixture, the fixture can either be attached to the underside of the cabinet, or left dangling onto the countertop below. Most spouses of my acquaintance are not amused by the second option. The majority of fixtures mount with two screws, using a keyhole setup. Normally, you’ll want to center the fixture under the cabinet; to do so, first mark the center point under the cabinet. Next, measure the distance between the two mounting holes, and divide it in two. Mark that distance to either side of the center, after dry-fitting the fixture to see how far out you want it from the rear wall. After double-checking the spacing on your mounting points, drill a shallow pilot hole, being careful not to protrude into the cabinet (another area of spousal non-amusement), and screw the mounting screws about two-thirds of the way in. Slide the fixture over the screw heads and push it back into the narrow portion of the keyhole, and securely tighten the screws.
Most plug-in fixtures use the same mounting procedure. One thing to keep in mind when installing plug-in lights is to orient the fixture with the cord exiting the fixture as close to the outlet as possible. (Some fixtures allow you to choose where the cord exits, some don’t). To protect your dangling cord from flashing Ginsu knives, it’s a good idea to secure the cord under the cupboard using properly-sized cable clips.
If you don’t want to rip your house apart to install hard-wired lighting, and you don’t have enough outlets (one kitchen I worked on had ONE), the remaining option is battery-powered lights. Most of the newer models make use of LED lights, so you won’t have to replace batteries every day. There are many options, from this Energizer Hard Case Professional 3-LED Puck Light single light unit to 12-LED Under-Cabinet Track Light, available from the big box retailers, or online from Amazon and many others.
So whatever your goal, be it to banish the creatures of darkness or to better focus on your food prep and beer can disposal, adding under-cabinet lighting is a relatively quick, easy, and inexpensive way to accomplish it. Take a ride to your local home center and peruse the various offerings; most have displays set up so you can compare the various types of lights side-by-side. Bring ‘em home, hook ‘em up, and find YOUR G-spot!