All About Lighting

The main types of home lighting include overhead, wall, task, and specialty lighting. Whatever your needs, be sure to match the lighting fixture and bulbs with its purpose before purchasing or installing.


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Ambient lighting may not dispense enough light for individual tasks, but it should have sufficient brightness to support the room's basic activities -- playing games, watching television, reading, or dining, for example. Install fixtures high enough so that even your tallest friends won't bump their heads.

Match the style of the fixture to the room's architectural style rather than to the furniture style. With the exception of the dining room and entryway, the central light in a room should not be a major focal point.

Tips When Replacing an Overhead Fixture: When purchasing a new overhead light, check the total wattage of the current light as well as the rating of the new fixture. If your current fixture provides adequate light, pick a replacement fixture that uses about the same total wattage. However, if the room has always seemed dark, use a higher-wattage light and install a dimmer switch.

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The two types of electric sconces (wall lamps) are direct-wire and plug-in. Most sconces fit close to the wall and direct light up or down. Up-lighting enhances the room; down-lighting brightens specific areas.

1. Direct-wire sconces: These sconces have no exposed cords and are permanently wired into an outlet in the wall. An electrician is needed for installation. Some direct-wire sconces operate from light switches in the room and turn on and off with the ceiling lights or from a separate switch. Others have a switch attached to the sconce and are turned on independently. Determine your needs before purchasing. If it is to be a part of the room's total lighting, select one that turns on at the switch. If you want to use it independently, such as for bedside reading after the main light is turned out, choose the kind with its own switch.

2. Plug-in sconces: These hook to the wall with brackets and are plugged into an existing outlet. Although these are easier and less expensive to install than direct-wire sconces, the exposed cord from the fixture to the outlet can be unsightly. (Tip: Cord strips that match the metal in the lamp can be purchased from a lighting or home improvement store to encase the wire and attach to the wall.) Plug-in sconces are operated by a switch on the lamp. To turn the sconce on and off at the wall, plug the cord into an outlet controlled by a wall switch.

Another type of wall lighting is the hinged arm or swing-arm wall lamp. A swinging bar allows these lights to be positioned against the wall or to extend away from the wall. These work well when there is no room for a side table and lamp but additional light is needed for tasks such as reading or needlework. Swing-arm lamps come in both direct-wire and plug-in styles.

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Because ambient lighting doesn't cover the entire room, table and floor lamps usually provide additional light. Task lighting casts light in specific areas for certain jobs.

For task lighting, soft white bulbs are better than the clear or colored variety. If you experience glare, the wattage is too high. Three-way bulbs or a light controlled by a dimmer switch can adjust the light level.

For the most comfort, place a table lamp so that the bottom of the shade is approximately at eye level. When the shade is higher, the glare from the bulb causes eyestrain; lower lamp light sheds the light onto the table instead of the work.

Keep table lamps in proportion to the table. As a general rule, the shade should be approximately two-thirds the height of the lamp base, deep enough so that a small portion of the neck (the fitting between the lamp and socket) is visible, and about one-and-a-half times the width of the lamp base.

Some retailers code lamps and shades to make it easy to mix and match shades and bases successfully. Rules and proportions vary with each lamp base and shade shape.

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Accent lighting draws attention to an aspect of the room, such as art. Recessed spotlights and track lights are the most common accent lights, but sconces, uplights, decorative spotlights, and some table and floor lamps also can provide accent light.

Spotlighting: To draw attention to a specific item, such as artwork, place an accent light at a 30-degree angle and focus its beam on the object. Approximately three times the room's normal light level is required to create a spotlighted focal point.

Wall washing: This works well when a wall or multiple objects on the wall are the focal point. A row of accent lights that evenly brightens the entire area should be placed on the ceiling two to three feet from the wall. On an especially high ceiling, this lighting should be three to four feet from the wall.

Wall grazing: Stone or brick walls, fireplaces, and textural areas can be emphasized by skimming a row of lights down the surface. Track or recessed lights should be placed six to 12 inches from the wall and aimed down and across the wall.

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Varying light levels can enhance almost any room of the house. Dimmers are commonly used in the dining room; however, kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms, and entryways can benefit from bright light, which is needed for everyday tasks, and softer light that creates an intimate mood.

Dimmers are available in toggle, rotary dial, or touch-sensitive styles. Before purchasing a dimmer switch, check to see whether your overhead light can be dimmed. If it can, buy the switch to match your light style. Note: Unless equipped with a special dimmer at installation, most fluorescent lights and bulbs cannot be dimmed. Some halogen lights also require special dimming switches.

Some dimmers have two components: One automatically turns the light to full power or a preset power; the other adjusts the light. Deluxe models automatically adjust lighting to preset positions or control multiple lights from a single switch.

Dimmer attachments (on-line, socket, or plug-in dimmers) also are available for floor and table lamps. These are available at hardware, home improvement, and lighting centers.

Dimmer Problem-Solving Tips: Occasionally, a dimmer interferes with cordless telephones or stereo equipment. Ask for a dimmer with a noise filter and check that the outlet is grounded. If a lamp with a dimmer control occasionally buzzes, the noise is usually caused by bulb filaments that vibrate when the power cycles on and off at the lower settings. Switch to lower wattage bulbs to solve the problem.

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