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Multitude of Bathroom Lighting Options Will Dazzle You

November 3, 2006

By Tim Carter
Special to The Clarion-Ledger

Q: Bathroom lighting is my current project, as I have two bathrooms that are being completely remodeled. What bathroom lighting fixtures have you had success with in your jobs? In the largest bathroom, contemporary lighting might interest me. Can I install one of those nifty makeup light and mirror fixtures that I often see in hotel bathrooms, or are those only permitted in commercial buildings? - Carol S., Manassas, Va.

A: I don't know if there's a silver bullet when it comes to bathroom lighting and fixtures. There are many wonderful options, and I think your biggest problem is going to be limiting your selections to just a few. When you visit a real lighting supply house, one that just sells lighting fixtures, I predict you will develop a mild headache from the mind-numbing array of delightful lighting fixtures.

To make matters worse, most lighting supply houses only display 5 or 10 percent of the bathroom lighting fixtures that are available. Be prepared to spend hours looking through catalogues that contain thousands of photos of fixtures.

I've had some successes with bathroom lighting, both in my own home and on many of the jobs I've completed over the years. Believe it or not, I'm still learning how best to use light in bathrooms. New bathroom configurations and layouts create new bathroom lighting opportunities. The trick is to approach each job or bathroom with a new attitude.

The first thing to know about bathroom lighting is that you have two kinds of sources, and both should be considered. The first, natural lighting, is often underutilized or overlooked altogether. Whenever possible, you should use windows, skylights and tubular lights that pipe sunlight into a bathroom. There is no substitute for brilliant sunlight streaming into a bathroom space in the morning. It's a wonderful way to start the day. Bathrooms that face away from the sun can benefit from skylights that reflect natural light from the sky and clouds. The same is true for windows - they will let light in no matter which direction they face.

Artificial bathroom lighting is what most of us are used to. Standard light fixtures use any number of different types of incandescent light bulb. But you should also consider newer halogen and energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs, as they create a different palette of color. Be aware that different bulbs produce different color spectrums, ranging from a warmish, golden hue to the kind of blistering white light you might experience outdoors at high noon on a cloudless day in the mountains.

The biggest mistake you can make in bathroom lighting is to have too little. My experience has shown that you need 300 watts of incandescent lighting per 50 square feet of bathroom. You can have more, but I think you'll discover quickly that more than 8 watts per square foot could be overkill.

A combination of different lighting fixtures almost always produces a magical effect. I call this layering light. In my daughter's bathroom, for example, I installed two recessed halogen lights over the vanity that are operated on one switch. Two other recessed lights, one in the center of the room and one over the tub, are operated by a second switch. When just one switch is on, the bathroom has a nice welcoming glow. When both are on, the bathroom lighting is just right for bathing or brushing your teeth.

Indirect bathroom lighting is another trick that people often overlook. With indirect lighting, hidden light fixtures bounce light onto a wall or a ceiling. This kind of lighting is ideal if you're going for a dramatic look. It is a great way to highlight wallpaper or decorative elements in a bathroom.

You can do contemporary lighting and switch to a different style in a few years. Almost all electrical lighting fixtures mount to the same electric boxes in walls and ceilings. Plan ahead to make sure you have enough side wall and ceiling clearance for most larger fixtures. Installing those lighted makeup mirrors is easy. They connect to a standard wall electrical box. Be sure the box is firmly attached to a stud or wood blocking in the wall.


Visit model homes on weekends to get bathroom lighting ideas. I also urge you to look at home design and decorating magazines for other ideas for unique bathroom lighting.

Be sure all moving doors in wall cabinets and medicine cabinets are able to operate fully without hitting lighting fixtures. Some lighting fixtures can be mounted too closely to mirrors and cabinets, creating huge problems once you discover they're in the way and interfere with access to a cabinet.

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