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How to Use Step Lights in Indoor Spaces

How to Use Step Lights in Indoor Spaces

Posted by Chris Johnson on Sep 23rd 2015

For a little more impact in a home's foyer, or a little more safety in a dark basement, step lighting can help.

This article will help you learn how to light an indoor staircase, what lights you should choose for your project and how to install them.

Let's get started!

First, decide where you want your lights to go...

On the step.

For a subtle accent on each step, you can install recessed lights within the riser (vertical) or the tread (horizontal) portion of the step. Your stairs will get a little more impact, but the lights won't alter the overall brightness of the room very much. Tread lighting will give steps a runway-like appeal, while riser lighting will typically illuminate the center region of the stairs. If you choose to install your lights here, you'll need to cut portions of the steps to set and hardwire the lights. We recommend you consult with a professional electrician before setting off to work.

Beside the step.

Another popular step lighting option that adds a little more brightness to the room's overall light level is wall lighting. Here, you would install your step lights on the wall right next to your staircase, so the lights would cast beams directly down onto the step. Since you don't have to worry about mounting these lights on the surface of the step, you have a little more artistic freedom - the lights don't have to be flush with the wall, and they can be a little flashier if you choose. We recommend installing 1 light every 3 steps or so, but you can play with this number depending on how bright you want your staircase to be.

Under the step.

If you have an open or floating staircase with no riser between each stair, you can also use step lights underneath each step. The right low-profile lights will make each step seem to glow. Depending on the structure of your flight of stairs, you can install the lights in 2 different ways:

  1. Side-mount square or round step lights on either side of the step for a subtly lit look.
  2. Run linear step light fixtures across the bottom of each step for a bolder, brighter aesthetic.

Beyond the step.

You can also make your steps into a striking focal point for your indoor space by adding lighting to your banisters or handrails. Perfect for extra safety at night, or just a little more pizzazz, simply run a line of lights down the underside of your balustrade. We recommend very low-profile, linear, surface-mounted fixtures like LED tape lights for this job - they won't mess up your structural integrity, and you can customize them to fit the exact length you need.

Then, decide what kind of lights you want to use.

Recessed or surface-mounted?

Do you want your lights to be flush to the surface of your step or wall, or do you want them to rest on top of it? When installing lights within the step, you almost always want to have them recessed. Otherwise, you could trip!

For lights that go on the wall beside the step, this distinction is really up to you. Sometimes, recessing your step lights into the wall creates a very sophisticated appeal, but if you've chosen fixtures that make a more of a statement on their own, you may prefer surface-mounting them to draw more attention.

Depending on how low-profile the fixture you're installing under your floating steps may be, you may want to recess it. No one wants to see a bulky fixture protruding like a sore thumb from a minimalist design, but if your step lights are thin enough on their own, you might not be able to tell a difference when they're hidden under the steps.

When attaching lights to your handrail or banister, it can be difficult to recess lights into such a small area. For this application, it's easiest to use thin surface-mounted lights tucked away from sight.

Hardwired or battery operated?

Hardwired lights are generally more stylish - they usually emit higher-quality light, and offer sleeker-looking designs. If you're looking for permanent lights that you can control with a switch, these are the way to go.

Battery operated lights are easier to install, but generally aren't as pretty - especially for indoor applications. Usually, we recommend battery operated lights for utilitarian purposes, as guide lights for safety in an unfinished basement, for instance. Their uses are much more limited because they only come in so many styles and they're not as durable.

You can use battery operated lights for wall lighting, handrail lighting, and even under your steps, but we don't encourage installing them within your steps. You'll most likely be able to find a greater variety of hardwired step lights that will work with every step light application, and will hold up better over time.

Round, square, or linear?

Step lights come in many shapes, sizes, and styles. The three most popular are round, square, and linear.

Round and square lights provide small pops of light, and are probably what you picture when you think of traditional step lights. These are what you need for wall lighting, tread or riser lighting, and even lighting under your stairs. Using one light at a time will quietly accentuate your stairs, but for more impact you can install these lights in rows. Round and square lights are also the easiest to recess into your step or wall.

Linear lights like light bars and tape lights give off even sheets of light, and work best when lighting handrails or underneath steps. You never see these light fixtures when you look at a staircase, because they're hidden from view - you only see the brilliant light they create.

White or color-changing?

Traditionally, step lights provide warm or cool white light. However, with modern LED technology, homeowners now have more color options than ever! If you choose a color-changing step light kit or color-changing LED tape lights, you can play with a rainbow of hues when creating your perfect staircase scheme.

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