Lighting our new home

I’ve been fascinated with lighting since building my first home in 2003. The ceilings in that place have more 6″ downlights than anyone would reasonably install. Continuous Xenon lighting was used under the cabinets in the kitchen and bar. I like a lot of light, and that home demands it with its high ceilings and lack of natural light in the main living spaces.

We started out with horrible incandescent 130-volt BR40 reflectors in the ceiling fixtures. The builder installed them because they’re cheap and long-lasting. When you take a 130-volt bulb and run it at 120 volts, two things happen: The color temperature turns slightly orange (yuck), and they last a really long time. Some of the bulbs we never got around to replacing were still original when we sold the home in 2015.

In the main kitchen, dining, and living areas, I began experimenting with light bulbs intended for retail display applications to improve light quality and efficiency. The bulbs cost a lot more up-front, but were better in every other way compared to the halogen bulbs I could get from a hardware store.

As LED retrofits like the Cree LR6 became available, the future seemed within reach. Cree made LED lighting desirable: They offered attractive lights with incredible longevity, efficiency, and ample, high quality light output. They weren’t for normal folks. At a cost of over $2,000 to retrofit my kitchen and den, I never bought one.

Eventually the CR6 was launched as a 6-inch retrofit lamp for normal folks. They were initially priced at a reasonable $50, and today you can typically pick one up for $20 before any utility subsidies kick in. If you still have incandescent (or worse, CFL) bulbs in your ceilings, give these a try. They’re amazing, unless you have really high ceilings and need something more luminous.

This summer, we bought a 1960’s ranch home.  It leans toward a mid-century modern design aesthetic, which I really like. The previous homeowner had filled it with CFL’s and fluorescent tube lights. The lighting was shadowy and had a sickly color. We took the opportunity to remove the existing light fixtures, patch the drywall, and consider how to light a home 2015-style. To bridge the gap, we bought some fairly basic ceiling fixtures for a few rooms and stuffed them with Cree A-lamps. The kitchen is still shadowy, but at least the nasty color cast is gone.

The next step seemed obvious: Under-cabinet lighting. The Xenon under-cabinet lighting in our former home was stunning, but the transformers failed frequently, and it’s expensive. LED seems like an obvious choice, but many fixtures we saw in lighting stores have poor color rendering. (Read this if you’re interested in LED color accuracy.) And what happens when a light module fails? There’s a good chance the entire under-cabinet lighting system would need to be replaced.

Last weekend we visited some friends who are in the final stages of a kitchen remodel. What I saw under their cabinets surprised me: LED strip lights. These lights are typically sold on a 5-meter spool for anywhere from $5 to $300. With a pair of scissors you can cut these strips down to just about any size you could want. They’ve earned a lousy reputation because the cheaper strips from China proliferate; They don’t have enough copper to dissipate the heat they generate and they use low-grade LED chips, so they fade quickly and offer subpar light quality. I hadn’t considered these seriously until I saw someone using them.

It’s nearly impossible to judge the quality of these products online, but It turns out there are a few companies offering apparently high-quality LED light strips.  Flexfire LEDs and Diode LED offer strips with a tremendous amount of luminosity and impressive color quality. Klus Design offers an amazing range of affordable aluminum extrusions for building custom lighting with LED strips. I’ve ordered some pieces to tinker with, and I’m really excited about the possibilities. I’m not sure I’ll have much reason to install recessed lights now.

Take a look at the Klus Design catalog [PDF]; It’s amazing.