Create Ambiance in Outdoor Kitchens

By Jason Elrod

The kitchen is the center of action in practically every home. It’s human nature to congregate around food, drink and conversation. And this love of the kitchen is rapidly spreading to outdoor kitchens. But how do you create the same comfort and ambience in an outdoor kitchen?

The answer is to extend the usable hours of the outdoor kitchen by adding thoughtful and well-placed lighting. You can serve up unparalleled ambiance and safety with energy smart task lighting, fun accent lighting, general area lighting and step lighting.

Task lighting is defined as “lighting to see by.” Not only do your clients need enough lighting to see by when they are chopping tomatoes or reaching for a fire extinguisher, they also need lighting that does not cast misleading shadows, cause unwanted reflections, or represents color inaccurately. The trick with outdoor task lighting is not to mimic brighter indoor kitchen lighting, but rather to create small “stations” of light that allow objects to be visible when the homeowner is within the light’s beam spread. Task lighting should not dominate or become the inadvertent focal point of a back yard.

A series of small 1- to 3-watt LED bullet lights that swivel is one option and can be recessed into wood or even masonry over a counter area. Spaced every 12 to 18 inches over an outdoor kitchen work surface, LED mini-swivel bullets can provide pools of light appropriate for illuminating a buffet or a food preparation area, and the ability to swivel and direct the light provides endless flexibility for spotlighting tasks.

When choosing outdoor task lighting, look for contained brightness, warmth, and a high color-rendering index (CRI). This means a high lumen output with a beam spread that is wide enough to illuminate the task, but narrow enough that it does not trespass into non-task areas such as a garden. With any LED lighting, seek a warm white glow that mimics incandescent, and has a color temperature of 2700-3500K (measured in Kelvin degrees.) A high CRI rating indicates the accuracy of colors under that light—which is important when trying to decide if a steak is too pink or overcooked.

LED linear lighting is generations removed from its ancestor, the half-inch-diameter tubular incandescent rope light. LED linear lighting comes in different shapes, lengths and colors; and it’s not just accent lighting — it is bright enough to consider as task lighting. If you are looking for task lighting in an unsheltered area that takes a weather-beating, look for encapsulated LED tape light that is IP68 rated. IP means Ingress Protection, and the numbers indicate how impervious a fixture is to dust and water. Fully encapsulated in a PVC jacket, this multipurpose tape light is both flexible and weatherproof. It can even put out as many as 45 lumens per watt — enough light for your client to see what he or she is doing on a counter area. And these products can also be dimmed when using the correct components.

In addition to its task light possibilities, the applications of IP68 rated linear LED lighting are endless in an outdoor setting. Its slim profile and flexibility make it easy to run under kitchen counter areas, deck railings, benches, steps, soffits, capstones and more. LEDs have a much longer life than incandescent lights, so don’t hesitate to use them in hard-to-reach areas where it may have been a hassle to change light bulbs previously. Many LED linear lighting products are low-voltage (12 or 24 volts), which makes them safer than line voltage (120 volt) options when used in outdoor kitchens in damp environments.  Installation is easy because the LED linear lighting can be cut to length on site, and mounted to surfaces using aluminum or plastic track or clips.

Sometimes, however, you just need general lighting in a kitchen area. Abandon flood lights and glaring PAR lamps. Opt for dimmable LED recessed cans in a patio ceiling or in soffits. Some homes have 4-inch or 6-inch recessed cans installed in patio areas. Retro-fitting existing recessed can housings with LED down lights or installing LED down lights during new construction is energy smart without sacrificing light intensity or light quality, and they don’t have glare. Put them on a dimmer so that they can be dimmed down for a night of quiet conversation, appetizers and wine; and then turned up for cleaning up after the party. Look for LED down lights for recessed cans that are UL listed for damp locations. Install them in patio ceilings, under soffits –anywhere you would want the full-range of dimmabililty to create a mood or to light up a larger general area.

Step lights are often an overlooked component of outdoor lighting; and, as a result, steps are often unseen and people stumble and fall in the dark. Use step lights to guide people to and from an outdoor kitchen paying attention to illuminate changes in elevation (a step or incline) or changes in surface (concrete to grass).  Step lights are often built into the hardscape, and electricians will run 120V wire and install single gang electrical boxes in advance, anticipating the future installation of step lights. If this is the case, LED step lights are now designed to fit directly into those electrical boxes and use standard 120V wire that is already stubbed out. You can choose face plates that suit the design of the outdoor kitchen and landscaping: stainless steel, dark bronze, white — with or without louvers or a scoop over the lens.

When your clients invest their time and money in an outdoor kitchen, it only makes sense to help them get the most out of it by making it the place to congregate even after the sun goes down.

Jason Elrod, director of sales, residential and commercial lighting at American Lighting, where he is instrumental in sales, product development and new product introduction. He has more than 10 years of lighting sales experience, and is responsible for the American Lighting sales team and sales representatives nationwide that call on electrical distributors, lighting showrooms and other distribution channels. Under his direction, American Lighting has launched the Product Knowledge Series and the Mobile Lighting Showroom, both designed to train and educate distributors about the latest in LED lighting products. For more information, visit

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