Tiny House Details: Chapter 3, Lighting

Tiny House Lighting

Tiny House lighting is important during the long winter nights

For the majority of my adult life I have rented apartments for my home. As a renter, I always took lighting for granted. I moved in, flipped a switch, and light would appear. I changed bulbs when necessary, but lighting fixtures were beyond the extent of my knowledge. Once I set out to design a tiny house, I found my ignorance challenged by an unexpected abundance in lighting choices. How ignorant you ask? Well, lets put it this way, I was unaware that “sconce” was a word.  Not only did I have to battle my ignorance I also had to consider lamp type, placement, fixture type and cost. Below is a summary of what I learned and a story of the saga I endured…

Lamp Type:

Light Emitting Diode (LED):
These lamps are wonderfully bright, energy efficient, and compact in size making them ideal choices for a tiny house. Although they are relatively expensive in upfront costs, they tend to last longer and be more conducive to off-grid power set-ups. In my experience, LEDs seem best suited for spotlighting task areas in the house. Although I have not tried the LED bulbs designed to broadcast light and illuminate entire rooms, reviews of these products suggest they are not as suited to this as incandescent or CFL bulbs. Other complaints of LED lights typically describe an unaesthetic blueish color to the light. These complaints are a bit outdated as more yellowish wavelengths are becoming more available in LEDs due to the public demand for a “warm white” bulb. Some users experience a “flicker” with LED lights but this problem can be eliminated by reducing the small fluctuations in household voltage.

Compact Fluorescent light (CFL):
The CFL bulbs are an inexpensive and energy efficient replacement for incandescent bulbs making them a great compromise to the larger upfront costs of LEDs. This lamp type has an intermediate lifespan between LED and incandescent bulbs and gives a terrific color of light. The biggest complaint most owners have about this light is the fragility of the bulb and the relatively toxic contents of mercury.

This technology type is similar to the original application of electricity to lighting and over 100 years old. These bulbs are cheap, bright, and hot. The United States Congress have passed legislation to phase out this lighting type due to its inefficiency and soon these bulbs will no longer be available. Some tiny house folks have joked that have a few of these bulbs would be all that was needed to heat a tiny house. However, there are more efficient heat sources and you don’t have to worry about the heat in the summer time.

In my opinion this lighting type is similar to incandescent technology. Halogen lights have a tremendously bright output given their relatively compact size and are commonly used in more specialized applications. The main disadvantage is the relatively high cost of the bulbs given their short-lifespan and the heat output.

Field-Induced Polymer Electroluminescent (FIPEL):
I have no experience with these lights. I read about them recently as an interesting new commercial venture that produces light with electricity and a conductive plastic. As I understand it, the technology is relatively old but new carbon nanotube production methods have effectively increased light output. Although no hands-on reviews are available yet, the advantages of these lights appear promising. I believe these lights will likely have all the benefits of CFL lights yet lack the shortcomings of fragility and toxic contents. According to the developers, FIPEL bulbs are expected to be available in late 2013.

What we installed:
After experiencing a paradox of choice, Tammy was overwhelmed with the thousands of lighting fixtures and a multitude of lamp options. I was abandoned and left to narrow down the options. To simplify my choices I tried to focus on my needs, budget and long term cost to operate. Each area of the house had different needs so I tried to consider each area as a separate project instead of trying to find a light type that would be a compromise fit for everything.

Kitchen, Reading Bench, and Bathroom:

IKEA Inreda LED puck light

IKEA Inreda LED puck light

For the areas of my home that were task-oriented I chose the spot-light puck-style IKEA Inreda LED lights. Although these lights are designed for cabinets they work well for our needs. The lights cost approximately $50 and are bundled as a pack of four with a built in transformer and a plug for an outlet. Katy, our tiny house builder, stripped the plug and hardwired the lights so they would work with a traditional light switch. The IKEA Inreda LED lights have worked well for us the past 14 months, however the quality of these lights are a bit flimsy and not robust. The connectors between cables are relatively loose fitting requiring extra care in the set-up. We had to trouble shoot a few issues with a poor cord connection because of the cheap IKEA components. Thanks to Katy, we had easy access to the LED hardware for trouble shooting. She artfully hid the cords under molding and placed the LED hardware (cords and transformer) in sensible cabinet areas for future maintenance and repair. In retrospect I’d suggest using a USA based LED manufacturer like Affordable Quality Lighting that makes better quality components and values customer service.

Loft and “Great Room”:

Wall light Sconce

Wall light sconce with CFL bulb

For areas of the house that needed more general lighting I chose more traditional wall sconces with CFL bulbs. These sconces were relatively inexpensive, put out plenty of light, and allow for upgrading bulbs in the future if we decide to try LED bulbs, or potentially, the new FIPEL bulbs.


The porch light was my most challenging decision. This light choice was challenging because of the limitations of outdoor options, house design and the amount of light needed. Because the house has windows on both sides of the front door there was no room to fit a wall-mounted porch light. Further, the porch roof is only a few inches above my head so a recessed light was required. Since there was only about 4 inches of space between our loft floor and the porch roof this was too shallow for a traditional recessed light fixture. I ended up choosing a recessed LED step light from Affordable Quality Lighting.The compact size of the LED fixture was perfect with a recessed depth of less than 2.5 inches. It makes me smile that our porch light for the tiny house was so small that it required a fixture that most people use for lighting stair steps. Even the LED “bulbs” were small, at about the size of a quarter dollar.

I no longer take light fixtures and house details for granted. After going through the process of choosing tools and materials for the tiny house I can now appreciate the small details I find in other homes. I now pay attention to how things work and the rationale behind why they were chosen. After reading an entire post about lighting I’m sure that you are also a connoisseur of tools and materials so tell me in the comments about your favorite lamps. Why are your favorite lamps so special? Further, if I missed any lamp types or fixtures that deserve recognition please let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading!


Further resources: For greater detail on lamp specifications see this guide and FAQ provided by ELEEK in Portland, Oregon.

12 thoughts on “Tiny House Details: Chapter 3, Lighting

    • Tomas, Katy made them for us. I believe the material is hemlock. :) Katy recommends Parr lumber in Portland for all her building supplies. :)

  1. Those FIPEL lights sound very cool. I’m definitely a fan of LEDs, though, and the LED flashlight I bought amazed me with how many lumens it produced. Now if I could just figure out if it was putting out particles or waves…

  2. Great article! We just put some more LED bulbs in today to replace our ~8 year old (greenish) CFLs over our dining room table. What used to be lit by 4 x 15W CFLs is now illuminated by 4 x 4W LEDs with roughly the same light output, but with better color. Yay for progress!

  3. While I don’t live in a tiny house, at least not yet, lighting is very important to creating an environment that I enjoy. One criteria important to me that you did not talk about is the ability to dim the lights. I find that being able to adjust the brightness is crucial for creating changing moods in my living space. With the exception of task lighting at my desk and in the bathroom, every light in the house has dimming capability. And while some of my area lighting is a mix of incandescent and halogen, I typically run them at very low levels. I know CFLs can be purchased with dimming capability, but I cannot speak for LEDs as I have not done the research myself. I have been planning on switching everything over to either CFLs or LEDs. Your post is just the trigger I needed to get moving on that little project. I guess I’ll have to do some research on dimming options with more energy efficient lighting. Thanks for the great post!

    • Also, when we were doing research for our canned lights, we stumbled on a brand new category of lighting: “Smart Lights.” The whole thing is still very much in its infancy (and may never take off), but I thought the concept was innovative.

      Philips makes a line of Smart LED Lights called “Hue” (www.meethue.com) which are worth a look. Ultimately we decided against them because the reviews pointed out some significant drawbacks typically associated with a first-generation product (have to use a Smartphone to turn the lights on/off, smartphone apps were a bit buggy, certain features didn’t consistently work, relatively expensive, etc).

    • Hi Mark, thanks for reading. I believe all of these lamp types have models with a dimming feature. It may be a bit more difficult to find LEDs with this feature but I believe they are out there. :)

    • Hi Tina, we basically plug into a standard household outlet (120 volt, 20 amp) like an appliance. Our peak usage with all of our heating, computing, and lighting appliances is about 6.3 amps and runs about $18/month during the winter (our largest energy consumption season).

      • Thank you Logan. I was wondering what you did… the tiny house sits out in the trees at the ranch and looks very isolated. Glad you are sharing info for those of us that dream of our own tiny house. My best to you and Tammy.

  4. Pingback: Deciding how to decide: How to deal with overwhelming decisions in tiny house design. | Smalltopia

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