Published On: Sat, Dec 2nd, 2023

What are the options for replacing fluorescent kitchen lights?

What are the options for replacing fluorescent kitchen lights?
What are the options for replacing fluorescent kitchen lights?

Q: The kitchen of my 1987 house has fluorescent tubes in the ceiling, which is dropped down 5½ inches so acrylic panels covering the lights look like part of the ceiling. I hate the quality of the light, and I hate having the light coming from the center of the room — it leaves the sink dark when I wash vegetables or do dishes. But probably most of all, I hate how ugly and outdated it looks. What options do I have?

A: You probably need more than one solution. Kitchens work best when they have good ambient light (the general lighting that makes the space bright), as well as task lighting concentrated in work areas and accent lighting to help make the room welcoming and add a bit of drama.

If the quality of the light were your only issue, one quick fix would be to replace the fluorescent tubes with LED tubes that produce light with a so-called “color temperature” you find more appealing. Options range from “warm,” yellowish light (a color temperature of 2700-2800 Kelvins), similar to the light from incandescent bulbs, to “daylight” (5000- 6500K), which is the bluish light you’d experience outdoors on a bright but overcast day. Some lighting experts suggest 3000-4000K for kitchens; others say “daylight” is better because it makes details look more crisp.

Fluorescent tubes come in a range of color temperatures too, but they don’t render color as well, are prone to flickering, burn out faster, require special handling when you go to toss them (because they contain mercury) and aren’t as energy-efficient. So if you switch out what you have, go for LEDs. Switching to LED tubes can be as easy as taking out the fluorescents and installing the LEDs, or it might involve changing the wiring within each fixture to bypass the ballast. Viribright Lighting, a manufacturer of LED lighting products, has a good guide on how to read the label on existing tubes to understand what you need to do to convert to LEDs.

How to change a ceiling light fixture

Changing just the bulbs wouldn’t get rid of the boxed-in panels that look dated, but it would save you from needing to tear out the dropped ceiling and finish the true ceiling above. You could still improve lighting over the sink, perhaps with pendants. Limitless options exist for these and they would add design flair that would divert attention from the ceiling panels. You could also add under-cabinet strip lights to illuminate countertops, and twinkle or other accent lights in a display cabinet or along an open shelf.

Another option would be to leave the ceiling pretty much as-is, but abandon the fluorescent fixtures and adapt the existing framing around the lights as a grid for track lighting. You could replace the clear acrylic panels with white panels to give the ceiling a more uniform look and help it fade into the background: The attention would be on the track lighting. Point the fixtures in different directions to give you both ambient and task lighting. For example, over the sink, avoid placing a fixture directly behind where you stand; instead, place one to the side and angle the light so it illuminates the sink. Track lighting, like pendant lighting, comes in all sorts of styles and would instantly give your kitchen a fresh look. One drawback, though: Especially if you do a lot of cooking, the fixtures on track lighting will probably collect grease and dust and need periodic cleaning.

If you’re willing to redo the ceiling, you could get recessed can lights and install LED bulbs, or you could install modern look-alikes: canless LEDs, which are recessed but don’t have replaceable bulbs and are therefore much more compact, or round flush-mounted LEDs, which extend about an inch down from the ceiling but otherwise look almost the same. Either way, an electrician would need to bring wires to each spot where you want a fixture. Because the canless and flush-mounted styles don’t need a recessed housing, there aren’t any complications with insulation if attic space is above the kitchen.

With both canless and flush-mount LEDS, if the fixtures stop working, you would need to replace the whole fixture, rather than just the bulb. Three 65-watt-equivalent LED floodlights cost $10.97 ($3.66 per bulb) at Home Depot, a lot less than replacement fixtures. However, because you’d be starting from scratch to install can lights or either kind of look-alikes, the initial cost of can lights would be considerably more. It would probably be many years before the benefit of being able to replace just the bulbs would pay off, given that the non-bulb options are not that expensive and require less labor to install. A four-pack of commercial electric canless LEDs is $89.97 at Home Depot. Each produces light equivalent to a 65-watt incandescent bulb and adjusts (at the time of installation) to five color temperatures, from 2700K to 5000K. A box of two Slochi flush-mount LEDs that are 7½ inches in diameter and about one inch tall lists for $23.99 on Amazon. Each disk produces light equivalent to that of a 100-watt incandescent bulb and can be adjusted to make light that’s warm, daylight or in between.

With can lights or flush-mounted ceiling lights, you might still want to add pendant lights, perhaps over an island or a breakfast counter. And accent lights would add the same magic that they would with other ceiling light solutions.

With all of the solutions, adding dimmers, especially for ceiling lights, can also make a huge difference, assuming you are using dimmable bulbs or fixtures. When you’re busy cooking, you want bright light. When dinner is in the oven, dimming the light a bit can signal it’s time to move on to the next phase: relaxing and enjoying the meal.

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