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Illinois Country Living

James Dulley

Energy Solutions

Layer bathroom lighting to save
Make smart lighting decisions when remodeling your bathroom

Dear Jim: I plan to remodel my master bath and dressing area and my children’s bathroom. What is the best and most efficient lighting for bathroom projects? - Judi L.

Dear Judi: People don’t often think about lighting and energy efficiency when it comes to bathroom remodeling, but it’s as important as installing the proper vanity or plumbing fixtures. Today’s modern master bathrooms and dressing areas are often as large as some second bedrooms.

If the lighting in both of your bathrooms is like most older bathrooms, it consists of an overhead light, perhaps built into a vent fan. If there is a window in the bathroom, very few builders went to the expense of installing a vent fan. Today, vent fans are almost always installed to address indoor air quality concerns in modern, more airtight houses. While remodeling, definitely install a vent fan.

The lighting for your children’s bathroom will be simpler, so tackle it first. A basic overhead light should be adequate until they get old enough to shave or wear makeup. There’s likely already an incandescent overhead light or fan/light fixture. In either case, replace it with a new ENERGY STAR® qualified fan with a compact fluorescent bulb (CFL).

Since children tend to forget to turn lights or vent fans off when they leave the bathroom, select a vent fan with a motion or humidity sensor to automatically shut it off at the right time. This can save a significant amount of electricity. If you have only a light fixture, use a motion-sensing switch. This allows you to program the length of time the light stays on after no motion is detected.

Planning efficient and effective lighting for your master bathroom and dressing area is a bit more complicated. Use the basic lighting design technique called layering to provide proper lighting for various activities.

The three basic lighting layers are task, ambient, and accent or decorative. Bathrooms are relatively task oriented (showering, shaving, applying makeup, general grooming, etc.), so adequate task lighting is most important. Other than showering or bathing, the task lighting at the mirror and vanity is most often used.

Ideally, place lighting on both sides of the mirror and on top for three-direction lighting. This eliminates shadows when shaving or applying makeup. If the mirror is not too wide, wall-mounted vertical fluorescent tube lighting on each side of the mirror is best.

Several companies offer efficient decorative T2 or T5 fluorescent fixtures. Some are designed to be attached to wide mirrors, and decorative sconces with CFLs are effective around narrow mirrors. Daylight-type CFLs provide the best color rendition for makeup. Halogen bulbs may also be used; they offer a longer life, are somewhat more efficient than standard incandescent bulbs and provide a whiter light.

For over-the-mirror task lighting, consider a new decorative rail light design (the design also works well for accent lighting). It is similar to track lighting with three or four directional fixtures, but they are mounted on a rail which hangs down a couple of inches from the ceiling. It mounts to the ceiling over a standard ceiling electrical box.

For the bath/shower area, recessed overhead task lighting works well. Since you are remodeling on your own, consider installing low-voltage fixtures for safety and easy installation. You will find on the market, recessed light fixtures with built-in exhaust fans. These are efficient because excess moisture is drawn from the shower stall before it ever enters the room.

For ambient and accent lighting, lower-wattage incandescent fixtures - either overhead or sconces - are effective. These can be controlled by dimmer switches to save energy, and some even have a reminder light. As the lights are dimmed, an LED on the faceplate changes from red to green to remind you to dim the lights to save energy. It is wise to install separate dimmer switches for the various layers of light. Another daytime ambient light option is an ODL tubular skylight with a solar-powered remote dimmer.

Have a question for Jim? Send inquiries to: James Dulley, Illinois Country Living, 6906 Royalgreen Dr., Cincinnati, OH 45244 or visit


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