Technical Lighting Help

Lighting Safety

Photo by Tim Gouw on

Perhaps one of the most highly regulated types of lighting is that which is placed in closets. Over a year ago, I wrote a whole blog post on deciphering the nuances of the National Electric Code requirements concerning this rather obscure light placement.

At the start of the late 1970s energy crisis, efficiency gurus urged homeowners to add more and more insulation in their attics. That, unfortunately trapped heat in ceiling mounted outlet boxes. The increased temperatures caused wire insulation to melt.

Fabric, stacked against poorly placed electric lighting in closets and disintegrating electrical wire insulation, both resulted in fires. The NEC added stricter requirements for closets and Underwriters Laboratories recognized the root cause of increases in fires and elevated the testing requirements, now performed in insulated ceilings. These are safety measures aided by outside oversight. Are there steps the average homeowner can take to insure safety? Here are a few thoughts.

Obey Wattage Labels

Since many of us are using LED replacement lamps, ignoring wattage labels is becoming more common. Try not to become complacent, especially if you are still using incandescent lamping. Wattage labels are a meaningful part of the safe operation of your light source.

Especially problematic are those applications where the lamp base (the threaded portion of the light bulb) is position in an “up” direction. (Remember your high school science, heat rises!) If a 60W maximum is specified and a 100W light bulb is used, the envelop size is the same, but the temperature created is substantially higher. That means the wire will be exposed to hotter temperature levels and deterioration can result.

My mother had a pole lamp that she could not live without. It was illuminated all evening, she read, did puzzles and knitted using it and when she couldn’t see well, as cataracts took more and more of her visual clarity, she simply increased the light bulb wattage. Of course, eventually it stopped working. I got a call to “fix her light.” My first reaction was replacement. “No! I like this one. You’re a lighting guy. Can’t you fix it?”

After I tore the pole lamp apart, I found barely functioning wire. It was all brown and brittle. The Bakelite sockets fell apart in my hand. Were she not a self-sufficient person, a fire could have easily destroyed her home. I rewired it with heavier wire and porcelain sockets. Go ahead mom, use whatever wattage you need. It is built for maximum wattage now.

Unfortunately, not everyone has a son, who is a lighting guy. Most people can’t teardown a fifty year-old pole lamp, rebuild it for higher temperatures and set it up for another 50 years of use. To avoid that, follow the wattage labeling instructions. (Please don’t call me! Rebuilding pole lamps are a pain in the keister!)

Obey Mounting Labels

Many luminaires are engineered to function in a specific direction. A “mounting direction” label indicates “This End Up” to insure proper operation. I’ve mentioned multiple time my neighbor, who has his porch light mounted upside-down. Were it not for the eave above, the unit would fill with rainwater and electrically-short, causing serious damage. He didn’t pay attention to the mounting instruction. Don’t make the same mistake as my neighbor.

Adequate Kitchen Lighting

How often would you walk through a dark room with a sharp object ¼” from your carotid artery? Unless you share some character traits with the Marquis de Sade, this adventure is unlikely. Why then would you cut carrots on a poorly lit countertop? When we bought our current home, there was a single light on a fan in the middle of the kitchen. When we cleaned the room prior to moving-in, I was surprised there were no finger segments that accidentally fell behind the refrigerator! To avoid parasuicide, install proper lighting. General kitchen lighting should be of a recommended level with supplemental under-cabinet lighting a must.

Nighttime Navigation

Attempting to walk from the bed to bathroom at night continues to cause numerous injuries that accelerate with age. Regardless of our familiarity with the surroundings, we still need the aid of light to traverse this short distance. Consider one of the following:

  • A motion activated light under the bed. Once your feet touch the floor, a sensor detects their presence and turns on a light.
  • Include a switch next to each side of the bed, connected to a light that travels the distance between bed and toilet. I recently recommended this idea to a client. The bed was centered in the bedroom with entrance to the bathroom from two directions, one on each side, for each of the sleeping partners. We connected the switch to a few junction box-mounted, aisle lights in the hall and a strip of LED Tape under the vanity counter. On the opposite side, the second switch illuminated different hall lights, but the same under-vanity light. The owners were extremely satisfied.
  • Remember that all nighttime lighting should be aimed downward and indirect. The reduction of glare will be easier to use with sensitive night vision in place.


If nighttime navigation is the number one fall risk in a home, stairs are second, again, especially egregious for seniors. Find those areas where steps and staircases reside in the dark and add some light. Look for landings and step treads that are the same color. Consider steps used regularly at night. Solve the problem with step and aisle lights on the adjacent wall, or use strips of LED Tape under each tread. Railing is also sold with an embed strip of LED Tape, or it can be easily added to an existing rail. Regardless of the method, light the stairs!


When we think of safety in a home, our mind snaps to bathtub falls, silent CO2 gases and errant fireplace cinders. We might not automatically think about eliminating some of the other, more popular incidents with correctly placed light. Light can help avoid incidents, but we should avoid lighting misuse incidents, as well. Paying attention to both will make the home a much safer place in which to live.

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