Tips for Stairwell Lighting

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What's best for stairwell lighting? These are the best stairwell sconce lighting
Estee wall sconce for stairwell lighting from Hudson Valley Lighting's Mitzi Collection

What's the Best Way to Configure Stairwell Lighting?

Q: Randall, I still see electricians and architects placing recessed cans in the middle of stairways. It is very difficult for homeowners to replace the lamps once they burn out, even using long poles designed for that purpose. On a number of occasions, I have seen the base of a lamp broken off in the socket after using one of these devices. As a lighting designer and electrician myself, I always recommend that a hanging fixture be used for stairwell lighting instead or to use a can or two at the landing of the stairway for ease of lamp replacement. Is this the best way to light these areas?


A: This is a very good question that hasn’t been asked before in this column. I do see this situation all the time, and it is not the best option for stairwell lighting. Just as they do in hallways, recessed downlight fixtures tend to make the space seem narrower than it actually is. Like you have suggested, I prefer hanging fixtures or wall sconces, which are much easier to reach for maintenance purposes. If the stairway is narrow, an ADA-approved sconce is the best wall sconce for staircase lighting (there are plenty out there, and all project 4 inches or fewer from the wall) or one that is actually recessed into the wall, such as Belfer Lighting’s Reflex Series. Pendants hanging from chains or cords work well for stairwell lighting with sloped ceilings.

You could also use step lights, although I do feel that they can be too commercial looking for residential stairwell lighting. But if your customers prefer this option, install them at 12 to 18 inches on center above the stair tread and 3 to 4 feet apart. A few recessed adjustable fixtures (located above the landing for easier relamping) could be directed toward art and add visual interest to what is normally a pass-through area. In fact, the stairway is a great spot for illuminated family photos. I would start with the baby pictures at the bottom of the stairs and then work your way up chronologically to the present day: Maybe people won’t be so surprised by what you look like now once they have seen all that you have been through.

Related Question

Q: I am changing the old fluorescent tubes in my kitchen to new recessed LED lights. My original estimate included the installation of 6-inch cans, trim and lights, but now the electrician tells me that he no longer uses cans. He is now installing lights directly into junction boxes. I realize this reduces costs for him, but there isn't an "airtight" option with J-box installation like there is with cans. Is that an important consideration? Also, would the absence of a can affect my ability to change the fixtures in the future?

A: What your electrician is suggesting is a surface-mounted fixture that is about the size of a dessert plate. It uses an LED source, which is dimmable. My main concern about this type of fixture is that is does produce quite a bit of glare. A more traditional recessed fixture does a much better job of hiding the light source. Using an airtight recessed fixture does keep heating and air conditioning from being lost through the openings created by the installation of recessed fixtures. The shallow LED "dessert plates" are airtight since they do not pierce the ceiling. You could easily change out these fixtures to another surface-mounted fixture or a pendant-mounted fixture from the existing J-box.

Read on for the rest of Randall's answer

Randall Whitehead headshot

Randall Whitehead, IALD, is a professional lighting designer and author. His books include "Residential Lighting, A Practical Guide." Whitehead has worked on projects worldwide, appeared on the Discovery Channel, HGTV and CNN, and he is regular guest on Martha Stewart Living Radio. Visit his website www.randallwhitehead.com for more information on books, upcoming seminars and the latest lighting trends.

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