From the monthly archives:

August 2011

Besides exceptionally small bathrooms, deploying bathroom light fixtures will involve more than installing a single central ceiling light. Beyond ceiling fixtures, there are three types of lighting to consider for illuminating a bathroom, in order of importance: task lighting, ambient lighting and accent lighting. The locations of the lights are another key consideration. The color and finish of the fixtures need to be taken into account. Finally, the types of bulbs used will play a significant role in the quality of light in the bathroom.

Task Lighting

Task lighting is primarily concerned with illuminating a person performing a task, like applying makeup, brushing teeth or shaving in the mirror. Overhead fixtures are sometimes installed above the sink and mirror instead of using proper mirror lights, resulting in an unflattering shadow effect on the person’s face. A better light distribution can be achieved by lining the perimeter of the mirror with light bulbs, as is done in theater dressing rooms. A more subtle way to get the similarly even light distribution is with a vertical sconce on either side of the mirror, and a horizontal sconce (a vanity strip) along the top of it. A sconce is a narrow light fixture that mounts against a wall. The vertical sconces should be placed about 60 inches from the floor, while the vanity strip is typically mounted 78 inches from the floor.

Other main application of task lighting is for bathtub and shower stalls. Shielded recessed downlights (lights that are angled downwards) are the best solutions for baths and showers. The shielding protects the bulbs from shower spray. Recessed lights are flush mounted into the ceiling, usually with a false ceiling that can accommodate the wiring. Tubs without showers may use a hanging light or a mini chandelier.

Ambient Lighting

Ambient ceiling lights are typically recessed lights or hanging lights. Multiple ceiling lights will be needed for larger bathrooms. The hallmark of ambient lighting is indirect lighting—i.e. light bounced off of a wall or ceiling. Wall washers are commonly used for ambient light. Like scones, they’re attached to the wall, but throw light up to the wall and ceiling above them. Rope lights, which are flexible clear tubes with a chain of LED bulbs inside, have many applications for ambient lighting. For instance, they can be used for cove lighting. Cove lighting uses partial ceilings that jut out two or three feet along the tops of walls, and contain rope lights in their recesses. The rope lights aren’t see directly; only their glow is visible from eye level.

Accent Lighting

Not all homeowners need accent lighting, but it’s particularly popular in luxury bathrooms. An accent light is used to highlight some item of interest, such as a painting, a bust or flowers. Accent lights are often recessed into the ceiling, and tilted toward the object in question.

Light Distribution and Bulb Selection

There’s more to light distribution than aesthetic considerations. The power needs to be distributed somewhat evenly. The most frequent convention is to use a maximum of 300 watts per square foot—e.g. three 100-watt bulbs or five 60-watt bulbs. This is an especially important guideline for mirror lights if you’re planning to place multiple bulbs in a relatively concentrated area.

For task lighting, one of the most important factors for bulb selection is how the quality of light accentuates skin tones. CLFs are more energy efficient, but they give off a rather cold light that’s more appropriate for illuminating inanimate objects. Incandescent bulbs or LEDs are recommended.

Color and Finish

For those who aren’t renovating, the choice of color and finish of light fixtures will gravitate toward the bathroom’s existing design elements. If you’re working from a clean slate and unsure of a finish, chrome and nickel are the most popular choices, since they blend with many bathroom styles—but are ideally suited to bathrooms with cool-colored walls like light blue. For warmer toned walls (e.g. yellow), copper or bronze are generally more compatible. Other popular finishes include rustic and traditional. The glass finish shouldn’t be ignored. Frosted glass creates less glare than clear glass. Use the former for task and ambient lighting, and the latter for accent lighting.

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