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If there was ever a place in the house that needed extra light, it’s the shaded areas beneath the cabinets. Any time you’re looking under the cabinets, you’re standing between the ceiling light and the area beneath the cabinets, plunging them further into shade.
Whether you need more light in the kitchen, in the closet, over your workbench, or for your computer desk, under-cabinet lights are the way to go. All but a few of them are LED lights that keep electricity usage to a minimum. LEDs used to have artificial-looking light that was hard on the eyes, but the technology has advanced. Now they can produce a warm, soft glow or a bright white light without hurting your eyes either way.
Keep reading to choose the right light for your needs — whether it’s lights with direct wiring, battery-operated lights, or ones with a regular plug.
The physical size of under-cabinet lights is important. You have limited space under the cabinets that you don’t want it taken up by huge lights, so you need flat lights that lay as flush with the mounting surface as possible. Styles of lights are rolled strips, hard light bars, and round puck lights. Get out a measuring tape and see how much room there is from the bottom of the cabinets to the top of the tallest appliance or item under the cabinet. If you’ve only got two inches left, a light that hangs down two and a half inches isn’t going to work for you.
Direct wire: Direct wire lights are lights that must be hardwired to the wires in the wall. Unless you’re comfortable doing electrical work, you should hire an electrician to install them for you. Keep in mind that this entails an additional expense beyond what you’re paying for the lighting itself.
Batteries: Battery-powered lights are good, but they typically don’t last as long as the manufacturer claims — lights can drain a battery faster than you think. Batteries aren’t environmentally friendly, either.
- Plug: Lights that plug into a regular wall socket are the easiest to install and maintain. You don’t have to replace any batteries or hire an electrician to install them. On the flip side, they also have unsightly wires dangling around them. You could fasten the wires up out of sight with a staple gun or wire holders.
LED: LED lights are far and away the most popular and most widely available types of lighting on the market. LEDs are inexpensive to produce. They don’t generate a lot of heat, and they have an extremely long life compared to ordinary light bulbs. The technology in them has improved, so they’re not nearly as harsh on the eyes as they used to be.
- Fluorescent: Fluorescent bulbs create a sort of institutional light when you turn them on, but they are inexpensive, long-lasting, and easy on your electric bill. They’re not as widely available as they used to be, but you can still find them, if that’s what you want.
Lumens refer to how bright a light is, whereas watts refer to how much energy is used. Unfortunately, incandescent light bulb manufacturers confused the issue for many years by using watts to measure brightness. For instance, a 100-watt bulb was brighter than a 75-watt bulb, which was brighter than a 60-watt bulb, and so on.
With the advent of LEDs — which use a fraction of the wattage to create the same amount of light — all that had to change. Note that the watts for LEDs are industry averages. Your lights may vary.
Did you know?
Motion sensors on under-cabinet lights don’t work well unless it is completely dark.
Wireless remote: LED lights often come with wireless remote controls. Older models included a physical remote with each system. Frequently, modern systems are controlled via an internet connection so you can turn them on and off with your smartphone.
Inline switch: Under-cabinet lights that plug into the wall sometimes come with an inline switch on the cord itself. That way, you don’t have to reach under the cabinet to feel around for the on/off switch. It is a popular option on an increasing number of models.
- Dimmer: Dimmer knobs are popular, too. They are available on inline switches or remote controls. Online systems almost always include a dimmer function that is accessible from your smartphone.
Motion sensors for under-cabinet lights have a spotty record. Motion sensors are a fairly technical item in their own right. Including them in an under-cabinet light means significantly raising the price of the lights or significantly lowering the quality of the motion sensor. Neither is a good option, so we recommend caution.
Bar lighting: A bar light is exactly what the name implies: a long, rigid bar with LEDs built into it. The physical dimensions of the bar are unchangeable. What you get is what you get, so be sure you note the length, depth, and width before buying them to make sure they’d fit under your cabinets.
Cuttable/adjustable strips: These are rolls of flexible material with LED lights strung along the strip. They can often be cut to a custom length, although there are limitations. They are sometimes advertised as adjustable.
- Puck: Puck lights are round lights that mount flush on the underside of the cabinets. They are almost always battery-powered.
Adhesive backing: Because LED lights are lightweight, they can be mounted with an adhesive backing instead of using screws or drywall anchors. You can still use those methods if you prefer, but it’s not always necessary. The downside is the adhesive doesn’t always stick.
- Screws: This is the older, more traditional way to mount lights under a cabinet. It’s a permanent mounting method that is secure and doesn’t suffer from the failures that adhesive backing does. It is more difficult to install; you usually have to work on your back holding the light up over your head while trying to put tiny screws in place. This can make the installation a two-person job.
Under-cabinet lighting prices
Inexpensive: Anything under $20 is considered the low price range. This is where you can find lights with electrical cords, basic puck lights, and rigid bar lights.
Mid-range: From $20 to $55 is where you find remote controls, LED strips, kits with multiple light strips or bars, and the occasional dimmer knob.
Expensive: Above $60, you’ll find smart systems that connect to your smartphone, have millions of different colors, or both.
If your kitchen cabinets aren’t connected in one continuous run, but you want to put LEDs under all of them, you can connect them with 12V cable.
If you’re installing LED strips near areas of high condensation (stoves, hot water taps, etc.), you should get strips that have a coating rated at IP65 to protect your lights against short circuits.
If you want your under-cabinet lights to come on at the same time as your kitchen lights, get direct wiring lights.
Other products we considered
We like Wobane Under Cabinet Lighting Kit. The kit has everything you need to install the four sets of lights either inline in one long strip or side by side for extra lighting in one area. The 3M backing holds the lights firmly in place on virtually any surface. There’s no need to change batteries since it plugs into the wall.
We also like Litever Under Cabinet LED Lighting Kit. Again, this kit includes everything you need in order to install the six light bars. They can be installed in a number of different configurations to meet your lighting needs. There is an inline dimmer switch on the electrical cord so you can raise or lower the light to exactly the level you want.
Q. How many LED strips can be linked together?
A. The answer to this is based on the wattage used. For most applications, you can run 80 watts of LEDs from a single plug before the power starts to drop at the end of the line.
Q. Why are my under-cabinet lights flickering?
A. You might have a bad dimmer. Conversely, you might have one of the newer dimmers that has trim adjustments that allow for flicker at certain points on the dial. Consult your manual to determine how to reduce the flicker.
Q. Can under-cabinet lights be used to keep food warm?
A. No. LEDs and fluorescent lights don’t produce heat. Incandescent bulbs produce a lot of heat but are rarely found in under-cabinet lights.