Kitchen Design

The Best Light Bulbs For Maximum Visibility in Your Kitchen

May 19, 2016

Shopping for light bulbs can be as simple or complex as you make it. My roommate and I, who spend an inordinate amount of money at the nearby corner store (because it's right there!), tend to suffer through whatever light bulbs they've got in stock—more often than not they're soft white 60-watt incandescents. I realize I should be embarrassed.

But in our living room, where there are four to five lamps lighting a space barely larger than a dog house, these hazy bulbs create a warm, layered blanket of light that we love in the evenings. In the kitchen, however, where we try to use them in lieu of our fluorescent ceiling fixture, they fail—in the kitchen, it turns out, you actually need to be able to see.

A world of natural light in our office test kitchen. Photo by Mark Weinberg

What every kitchen needs, as much as a sharp knife or a mixing bowl, is great light. Of course a great big window, where perfectly clear natural light filters in during the day, helps quite a bit—but cooking dinner (save for a few steps), is an evening task. And as much as I'd like to report that you can light a whole kitchen with vintage-inspired, sepia-toned Edison bulbs or milky incandescents, you shouldn't.

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The lighting experts at Batteries Plus Bulbs—specifically Jori Gohsman, one of their Senior Category Managers—were kind enough to set me straight: Here's what kind of light bulbs are good for your kitchen, and how to get plenty of cozy vibes while still lighting it up right. I won't be offended if you skip to the end for their suggestions, but what follows is how we got there.

Color Temperature

The first thing you need to know is that Kelvin is actually more important than wattage when it comes to selecting a light bulb; that's what will tell you the color temperature of your bulb on a spectrum of cool (indicated by a higher Kelvin) to warm (lower Kelvin).

Cooler bulbs are easier to see by, so that's what you want to rely on in the kitchen—whereas warmer bulbs give off that cozy, casual vibe that makes lounges and restaurants so inviting. Besides affecting visibility, the color of a bulb can also change the dynamic of a space just as any other element of decor can.

#colortemperature #lighting #lightingdesign

A photo posted by Smart Living (@smartliving_lightingdesign) on

Here are the different options you can shop for, starting with the most kitchen-friendly:

  • Daylight (5000K): With a white, almost bluish light, daylight bulbs are meant to "resemble noon on a cloudless day" (I'm thinking this is what my fluorescents must be). Rather than using them everywhere in a kitchen, spring for them as accents where you do food prep or read recipes, for example. (Reading, Jori tells me, has actually been proven to be easier under daylight bulbs than any other.) Style-wise, they'll make cool-colored decorations pop but will muddy any orangey decor.
  • Cool White (4100K): A great workhorse bulb for your kitchen and bathrooms (or for any room where the decor is blue or green rather than reddish in color), cool whites are crisp without feeling overly so.

And on the other end of the spectrum, best for rooms where knife work isn't required, are the warmer options:

  • Soft White (2700 to 3000K): This is what classic incandescents emit: a gentle, yellowish, familiar light that's warmer than a cool white bulb would give off. It will pull out the reds and oranges in your decor, so relegate them to rooms that aren't too blue.
  • Warm White (2400K): The warmest color temperature, warm white bulbs more closely resemble candle light than a bulb at all. They're all ambiance—so they do their best work in the living room, dining room, and bedroom.

Puxadores de couro é Trendy! #dinnertime #kitchen #decor #interiordesign #trendy #trendybyflora

A photo posted by Flora Gazel (@trendybyflora) on

Bulb Types

I am sure that many of you froze in your seats when I mentioned traditional incandescents, which are known not just for their warmth (2700K) but for being known energy hogs (they put out more heat than light, according to National Geographic!). There are, fortunately, more energy-efficient and longer-lasting alternatives:

  • Halogens, which are available exclusively in a relatively warm 3000K, show 100% true color—something that a jeweler, for instance, might care about, and they're inexpensive. But they're now considered an old technology, and will actually dim as they warm.
  • CFL's, which can be spiral-shaped as in the one pictured below, are basically mini-fluorescents meaning they can require some time to "warm up." But while they can last ten times longer than traditional incandescents (I have one that I haven't changed in three years!) and are available in any color temperature, they contain a small amount of mercury—so if you break one, the extensive cleanup required makes them less than convenient.


A photo posted by John Larigakis (@larigakis) on

  • LEDs, which initially were known for their higher price point, have the lowest energy cost and are available in increasingly affordable and flexible technology. You can choose from directional, semi-directional, or omni-directional styles—the latter being the most diffused, best for lamps, and directional being best for spotlighting—and almost any color temperature. New warm LEDs (around 2400K) would be great for a chandelier or moodier lighting, and you can even find vintage-inspired Edison-style versions (2000K), if you're hoping to add (efficient) ambiance to a living room.

But with so many ups and downs to each, the bulb style you choose is a personal (or even political) choice as much as an aesthetic one.

Adding Ambiance

So let's say you're outfitting a kitchen with cool white light (via fluorescents, CFLs, or LEDs), which will give you good visibility throughout the space. You might add in a few daylight bulbs, by way of directional LEDs perhaps, to brighten your work stations.

But what if sometimes, you want to be able to set the mood in your kitchen ?

I asked Jori if layering decorative bulbs, with their warm amber glow, in space that's already outfitted with cool whites and daylights (like a kitchen) would ever be a good idea. "You can get away with having both," she said—and I cheered!—but recommended instead installing a dimmer for more control over brightness, or even opting for color-changing LEDs so you can control the temperature (as you dim them, they'll cool all the way from 3,000 to 2,200 Kelvin).

So the tiny lamp with a soft white bulb in my kitchen, which emits a soothing yellow light we simply cannot see by? It can stay! Because it's nice when we're not using the kitchen as a kitchen. But as soon as I start cooking, it goes off and the overhead goes on—because I like the idea of keeping all my fingers intact.

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Amanda Sims

Written by: Amanda Sims

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Peter May 21, 2016
I think you mean Edison style, not Einstein style. Feel free to delete my comment after you edit the article. :-)
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Amanda S. May 21, 2016
Thank you, Peter ;)
Smaug May 19, 2016
When I was doing some electrical work in NorCal a few years back (ok, not that few) kitchens were required to have at least one fluorescent light, though the requirement was often met by simply putting a CFL in an ordinary fixture. Sunken lighting was all the thing then; I hope THAT has passed. Halogen lights are actually incandescent; the addition of halogen gases in the bulbs cause the evaporated tungsten to condense on the filament rather than the inside of the bulb (the black you get in old standard incandescents), so that the bulb can operate at a much higher temperature. That's why the bulbs are made of quartz; glass can't take the heat. They are, I believe, a bit more efficient as far as light to temperature ratio, but no big bargain, and of course they have safety concerns. This use of "Kelvin" as a measure of light is unfamiliar to me- the only Kelvin scale I know of is the temperature scale (based on absolute zero) used in most sciences.
Personally, I've grown quite fond of CFLs- I find the modern ones quite efficient and pleasant to use, and they can often be had at very good prices- so far I've kept LEDs to a few flashlights due to the price, but it is improving.
702551 May 19, 2016
The use of Kelvin to describe color temperature has been around for decades and well known to photographers. It has to do with matching a blackbody radiator with that of the light source that is being measured.

In fact, it was commonplace to use tungsten-balanced film for environments that had that sort of light or daylight-balanced film for those environments. If you used the wrong film in the wrong setting, you'd get weird results, but there were various color correction filters/films to get the image to what the photographer envisioned.

The lighting industry uses CRI (color rendering index), but fluorescent lights don't have the same spectrum output as incandescents. Fluorescent lights pump out huge amounts of light in the green wavelength which is why old color film photographs taken in fluorescent lit scenes had a noticeable sickly greenish cast. Fluorescent bulbs also pump out a bunch of UV.

From a color output perspective, CFLs are still terrible compared to the alternatives.
702551 May 19, 2016
I hated CFLs for the few years when I had them for a variety of reasons and when LED bulbs became affordable I banished CFLs from my home.

In my mind, CFLs are a total sham. The earliest ones only came in cool white so every room looked like a coroner's walk-in refrigerator. Years later, bulbs with better color temperatures arrived, but that didn't fix any of the other shortcomings with CFLs.

The longevity numbers for CFLs are a joke. They are based on how long the bulb would last if it is never turned off. Turns out that in real world usage (lots of switching on and off), the electronic ballasts are usually the parts that fail, not the lighting elements.

Next problem, CFLs buzz. I could hear them. Fine for a noisy shop/industrial environment when they are twenty or thirty feet up, not so pleasant in a standard home with eight foot ceilings.

Worse, the light output of CFLs steadily drops over time. Over the course of a CFL bulb's predicted lifetime, at the end it will emit about half of the light that it put out brand new. Yup, that 100W equivalent CFL might be feebly putting out about 60W equivalent in three years.

CFLs are also poor performers, taking several minutes to reach peak light output and perform poorly in colder environments. They can be used in outdoor fixtures in warmer climates (like California, Hawaii, etc.), but aren't good for many other places.

When LEDs arrived, I removed all the CFL bulbs, stuck most of them in a bag by the recycling bin with a sign that said "Working bulbs. Free!" and they were gone in an hour. I kept 2-3 CFLs which I've been using in my outdoor patio light.

Based on my personal experience, CFLs are complete garbage as home lighting technology.
702551 May 19, 2016
Oh yes, another shortcoming with CFLs: most are not dimmable.

Even many of the ones labeled as dimmable have poor dimming performance. Trust me, I tried several of these dimmable bulbs and they all ultimately ended up in non-dimming light fixtures after weeks/months of frustrating poor dimming performance.

Maybe some of the new CFLs are better, but the technology was brought to the consumer marketplace before manufacturers were capable of putting out a decent product and with the widespread emergence of good LED lighting options, CFL's ship has sailed.

For sure, LED isn't perfect (pricing is still high and there's still the fact that the way light manufacturers measure longevity isn't the way people use light bulbs), but LED is miles better than CFL.
AntoniaJames May 19, 2016
The material / color of the globe and shade also make a big difference. I have onyx pendants over my sink, one on each side. The effect is soft to someone standing halfway across my tiny kitchen, but the halogen light coming down is perfect for dishwashing and prep on the postage stamp sized counter adjacent to it.
Just a reminder too that anyone upgrading lighting in their kitchen should check with your city or town's office that handles permits for residential electrical work. In CA there are strict laws on energy efficiency that will probably affect your choices - though with more high efficiency options these days, meeting the requirements should be easier now than it used to be. (And yes, get a permit and signed inspection. When you sell your house, you may be required to disclose any non-permitted work done.) ;o)