Under Cabinet Lighting Types & Installation Options

Under Cabinet Lighting Types & Installation Options

Good lighting can make the difference between a room that is pleasant and inviting or one where the light is too bright or where shadowy pockets exist, making it dark and dingy. A properly lit room often has several layers of lighting that homeowners can use for different purposes. An under cabinet lighting system is one way to add a layer of light to a kitchen, craft room or any other area of your home that may have dark areas due to cabinets or shelving.

In this guide, we'll outline the different types of under cabinet lighting, its benefits, common UCL fixtures and how to install this type of lighting in your kitchen and elsewhere. We’ll also go over where and how to install UCL, how to choose the best fixtures for your purposes and detail options such as dimming and remote control within your preferred choice of lighting for kitchen cabinets and other areas.

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What is Under Cabinet Lighting?

Under cabinet li ghting is exactly what the words infer. It's lighting added under a cabinet, shelf or similar surfaces to produce localized light that helps working tasks. In many rooms, general lighting can only go so far with your own body creating a shadow on the workspace. An LED light bar illuminates work surfaces and provides sufficient lighting to allow you to easily manage tasks.

What are the Benefits of UCL?

You’ll enjoy several distinct advantages when installing UCL lighting. For one, UCL is quite cost-effective, especially when considering the cost of installing larger light fixtures nearby. Secondly, this type of lighting is extremely efficient because it directs light to where you need it, unlike whole room fixtures, which disperse light everywhere. The quality of light in the area where you install it will decidedly increase, giving you a much more pleasant work environment. UCL is also aesthetically pleasing as it’s hidden from view underneath a cabinet or similar fixture. They can even be used as a night light when placed under cabinet fixtures can also help increase the value of your home.

What are the Types of Under Cabinet Lighting?

UCL lighting fits two basic styles: puck and linear, but the differences go beyond those two designations. Puck lights are round, getting their name because they resemble hockey pucks. For linear lighting options, you can choose tape lights or light bars.

Which type you choose depends on how much lighting you need in that location and what types of tasks to intend to accomplish there. Before buying any lights, determine how much room you have. UCL lights are supposed to stay out of sight while also staying out of the way of usable space below. The power supply is another consideration. Do you have a readily available outlet or must you use battery-operated units? Keep in mind that light bars and LED puck lights have larger housing and are often better placed against the backs of cabinets.

Where the lights are is also a crucial component determining selection. Consider these factors:

  • Kitchen counters require more light, which can call for larger light bars, especially when illuminating a long surface
  • For non-kitchen areas when task lighting is not essential so choose puck lights that can easily illuminate small surfaces
  • Tape lights are idea for display cases or shelving and can act as accent lighting
  • Workspaces under storage cabinets need permanent fixtures such as puck lights or light bars to provide consistent lighting

Linear Fixtures

Traditional UCL fixtures involve primarily light bars in a variety of lengths. These are the fixtures that most people think of when adding another layer of lighting. Lightbars not only come in a variety of lengths but also with different types of illumination. Choose from LED, Xenon and fluorescent bulbs. Some have dimmer switches and are suitable for placement in damp environments such as kitchens. A key feature of this kitchen lighting is that you can link them together to create a long row of lights to cover a larger space that eliminates separate wiring between each fixture.

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Puck Lights

Puck lights have long been a favorite choice for homeowners looking to add a layer of lighting. They generally have a diameter of two to three inches. Today, LED bulbs are the dominant light source for puck lights, although earlier versions used halogen or xenon bulbs. These fixtures mount onto the underside of cabinets with small screws included with the product. Many are easily dimmable and battery operated, which eliminates the need to hide a power supply or run electrical wires.

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These UCL lights create a dramatic look similar to spotlights, producing a directed beam under each light with areas in between each light having less illumination. Keep in mind when selecting these that you will need to buy the appropriate quantity. Most puck lights are typically spaced one to two feet apart, although if you have a short distance between cabinets and the counters, you may want to space them closer together so the light will have less distance to spread out. Battery-powered puck lights are a great way to brighten an older kitchen.

LED Tape Lights

Tape lights are an easy solution for adding lighting to complicated areas. Not only do they work well for UCL lighting, but they are also great for architectural accent lighting in a variety of spaces. Tape lights generally are available in long reels of about 16 feet and are favored by those who want low-voltage lighting. The reels are flexible, meaning you can install them over uneven surfaces or have them turn corners. Some tape lights allow installers to simply cut the lights at any point needed to customize your installation. Find our tape lights on Amazon.com.

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How to Install UCL

When you install under-cabinet lighting, each type has different installation requirements. Most light bars plug into an outlet, but if you want a more professional look, consider direct wiring. Batteries power many puck lights, so you only need to mount the lights under the cabinet powered by batteries and only need Whatever you decide, remember that you must have the right power supply and voltage for your lights.

The best time to install UCL lighting is during a kitchen remodel, but sometimes that is not possible. Set aside an entire f day for the process of finding the electrical source, running the wire and hooking up the lights. Make sure that you have plastic-sheathed cable encased in a flexible steel conduit to protect it inside the cabinet from bumps from pots, pans and other kitchen necessities.

You’ll need to locate a 120-volt power source for larger strip lights that need to be separate from the wall plugs in the kitchen or other area where you plan to install the lights as you don’t want to overload an existing circuit. Add up the wattage of all lights connected to the power source to determine the size of the electrical box needed. Once you have located a sufficient electrical box, you’ll need to turn off power to the area.

Determine which base cabinet you intend to run the power into and then layout the wire along with the fixtures. Drill holes into the underside of the cabinet at appropriate intervals to supply each light with sufficient wiring, Push or pull the wiring through the flex and set it inside the back of the cabinet. Cut the appropriate holes to connect the cable into the wall for the power source and for the switch or the dimmer plate to turn on the lights.

The final steps involve connecting the wires to a junction box, attaching the wires to the fixtures and mounting the fixtures according to manufacturer recommendations. Double-check all wiring with a non-contact voltage tester.

Alternately, you can also run wires underneath instead of inside the cabinet if the latter have enough of an overhang so that the wires won’t show.

Note that if you have LED lights, you may also need additional electronics between the main power supply and the fixtures for the LED lights to work. The exception to this rule is if you have purchased AC-LEDs, which can operate directly from an AC power supply. LED strip lights are easier to install than light bars as many have adhesive backing or attach easily to the underside of cabinets with hooks.

Battery-powered puck lights are the easiest of all to install, especially if they come with adhesive backing. Make sure that you lay them out at evenly spaced intervals and mark the spot before installation.

Hard-Wired vs. Battery vs. Plug-in Options

Hard-wired light bars often give you the most lighting bang for your buck, but they are also the most difficult to install. One feature that many have is the ability to daisy chain the fixtures together so that you don’t have to drill additional holes in the cabinets to connect the fixtures to the power source or remove a backsplash to set it up. Some light bars offer plug–in options, which are easier to install, but these do not offer the same flexibility of turning them on and off at will, while exposed cords can be unattractive.

Battery-powered lights offer ease of installation as opposed to hard-wired options, however, you’ll have to periodically change the batteries, which can be a hassle for some. Virtually all LED strip lights today are cuttable, but you have to be careful to cut between the dots on the strip when doing so. Connect light strips with male clip connectors but make sure that your power source is sufficient to accommodate all of the lights.

Remote dimmer switches are great for rooms where you are trying to create ambience. Hard-wired dimmer switches are more appropriate for task areas where a remote can become lost among items on a countertop.

Line-Voltage vs. Low-Voltage

Most lighting systems run off line voltage, typically 120 volts. Many UCL fixture use low-voltage bulbs that only need 12 or 24 volts. If you run lighting of this type, you may need a transformer to lower the standard voltage to avoid blowing out low-voltage bulbs. Plug-in fixtures will contain a mini transformer that will take care of this possibility.

Recessed vs. Low-Profile

Unless you're incorporating UCL lighting into a brand new kitchen or a full remodel, recessing your UCL may not be worth the extra work. Most UCL lights have a low-profile of less than 1.5 inches that allow them to hide easily under cabinet overhangs. If you’re set on recessing, choose puck lights as the housing can be easily removed.

By now, you should have a good idea of which type of UCL unit is best for your purposes. If you’re not handy with DIY and think that a dedicated linear unit is the way to go, contact an electrician for installation and additional advice. The bottom line is if you have thought about installing another layer of lighting, do it as your home will become much more enjoying. Whatever type of fixture you choose, good luck with your project. If you have any comments or questions about this project, please leave a comment below.

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August 10, 2020
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