Don’t Get Left In the Dark! A Lighting Guide For Garages

Bare Bulb

Why Should I Change My Lighting?

There is a strong possibility that your garage lighting could use an upgrade. While the light that came with your garage door opener — if you have one — is good enough to make your garage “not dark,” it is far from adequate to do any kind of work or pursue a hobby. It certainly doesn’t make your garage look any nicer. Plus it probably shuts off after a few minutes so…

The bare bulb that most likely hangs from the center of your garage ceiling casts a shadowy glare that is just not conducive to any kind of organizing or productive activity.

So why should you change your garage lighting? Aside from just being bad lighting, the regular incandescent bulb you might still have is very inefficient. For the same energy cost, you could get something really worthwhile that will make it possible to pursue real activities in your garage. Even if that activity is just being able to find your stuff easier.

What Are Lumens, Watts, K, and CRI?

Time for a little education on modern lighting. It’s not complicated but it is a bit different than it used to be. In the old days when we wanted to buy bulbs, there used to be one number: watts.

This, or so we thought, told us how bright the bulb was. It did, but only in the sense that all standard bulbs used the same technology. This meant that a 40-watt bulb was the same brightness regardless of the manufacturer. The exception was fluorescent bulbs, which were not very popular in houses because they were noisy and flickered.

Nowadays with the decommissioning of the standard incandescent bulb, watts are no longer a good way to compare brightness. But they are a great way to compare energy consumption and cost.

To know how bright a bulb is you need to look at the lumens. The good news is that all new light bulbs have this number on the package.  For reference, this is how many lumens old bulbs produced:

  • 40w -> 450 Lumens
  • 60w -> 800 Lumens
  • 75w -> 1100 Lumens
  • 100w -> 1600 Lumens
  • 150w -> 2600 Lumens

You have probably noticed that some light is more soft and yellowy orange than others. This is often referred to as warm lighting or soft white. This is the color temperature (not actual heat) and it is denoted by K or Kelvin. The Kelvin numbers range from 2,500 K to well over 6,000 K. The lower the number, the warmer (yellow/orange) the light appears; and the higher the number, the cooler (white/blue) the light appears.

Kelvin has a sweet spot at around 4,500 to 5,500 K that is considered “pure white” or daylight at midday. For garages, you want to go more towards the 4,500 K range, and stay away from the more “cozy” lower range (more like late afternoon lighting), unless you are making a man cave, in which a case cozy bar room feel is where it’s at.

5,000 Kelvin is the sweet spot
5,000 Kelvin is the sweet spot (source)

The final lighting number you need to know to choose your garage lighting is the “CRI,” or Color Rendering Index. CRI is not always on the lightbulb package.  This is how true-to-life the light makes colors appear. The standard that is used to determine CRI is natural daylight, which has a CRI of 100. It is important to note that CRI comparison is always made to daylight of that same color temperature.

To understand CRI, I think of my mother when she went fabric shopping. She would take fabric she was considering for purchase to the shop window to see the color in daylight.

The opposite of the “daylight” CRI of 100 is black lights, which were a thing when I was a teen. Blacklight posters looked entirely different under black light than under normal lighting. Often street lights can have the effect of making things look like a different color. Both of these have a CRI of less than zero.

For our purposes in a garage, anything over 80 CRI is perfectly fine.

What Kind of Lighting Is There?

There are a few different kinds of light bulbs and lights out in the world now. Here are some of the basics. Here’s the takeaway if you don’t want the details: For garages, the best solution is LED lighting. LED lights are the longest lasting, most energy-efficient and brightest lights you can get.

All new bulbs are more energy-efficient than old incandescent bulbs. They are more expensive, but they last considerably longer for the price. Old standard bulbs lasted about 1 year. Here are the kinds of lights that you can buy. 

  • Halogen/Incandescent: These are the bulbs that most closely resemble the old incandescent bulbs. They are often referred to as “incandescent,” but they’re different than the incandescent bulbs of years ago. Halogen/incandescent bulbs offer about a 25-28% savings in electricity. The benefit is that they offer the same quality of light as older incandescent lighting, which is why they are popular for interior home lighting. They also have a CRI approaching 100. They last about 1-3 years on average.
  • CFL (Compact Fluorescent Light): CFL bulbs originally appealed to people wanted to saving on energy costs. They sort of resemble a soft-service ice cream cone. CFL bulbs have become far less popular since the price of LED lighting has gone down. There are tiny amounts of toxic chemicals in the bulbs themselves and the cheaper ones can have that tiny yet perceptible flicker. They do use considerably less energy, about 75% less than older incandescent bulbs, and about 65% less than halogen. They can last 6-10 years.
  • LED: These are the lights to get for your garage. LED technology has improved greatly in the last decade. The cost has come down and LED has proven itself to be amazingly adaptable. It can produce thousands if not millions of colors and achieve very bright and energy-efficient lighting. LED bulbs are even more energy-efficient than the CFL, using about 80% less energy than old incandescent bulbs. LED’s last 15-25 years. 


Will I Save Money Adding LED Lighting to My Garage?

Maybe. It will partly depend on how much time you spend in your garage. If all you do is go in and out of your car, and maybe rummage around for things on occasion, you probably don’t use the garage lights very much. But if that describes you, then you’re probably not going to read this far into an article about how to buy garage lighting, too.

If you are spending money on garage lighting to save money on your electric bill, you really need to already be using a lot of light in your garage for it to matter. But if you are upgrading your lighting to improve the quality of your garage and to make it nicer, then getting good, energy-efficient LED lighting is the way to go. It doesn’t have to be that expensive up front, and it will save you money and hassle in the long term. You won’t need to deal with burned out bulbs much,  and you will have great lighting, with a very low impact to your electric bill.

How Much Light Do I Need in My Garage?

Believe it or not but there are actual interior design recommendations for the amount of light that a given room should have. This puts some numbers to the intuitive sense we have about what is the appropriate amount of light in any given situation.

Using this guide, I would suggest that 30-40 lumens per square foot would be the minimum in a garage.  This is about the lumens you would provide to create a well-lit kitchen.

Bedrooms and living rooms seem more inviting if they are less bright. I mean who wants to sit in a living room, where you are chatting with company over cocktails, that is as brightly lit as their bathroom. And unless it is bubble bath time, you want some good light for shaving and other grooming needs.

Using this guide, I would suggest that 30-40 lumens per square foot would be the minimum in a garage.  This is about the lumens you would provide to create a well-lit kitchen.

If you spend a lot of time in the garage, working on the car or a hobby, you might want to go a bit higher to 50-60 lumens.  Also, keep in mind that things like cars and shelves create shadows, so you might need to go higher so that you have an even amount of illumination and not just one bright light in the middle.

How Do I Calculate the Number of Lumens Per Square Foot?

The following table is the standard lumens guide for interior decorators.

Recommended Number of Lumens Per Square Foot

  • Hallways: 5-10 lumens
  • Bedrooms: 10-20 lumens
  • Living rooms: 10-20 lumens
  • Dining rooms: 30-40 lumens
  • Kitchens: 30-40 lumens
  • Bathrooms: 70-80 lumens
  • Task Lighting: 70-80 lumens

The calculation is simple enough. All you need is a tape measure. Measure the length and width of the garage. Multiply these to get the garage square footage.  Then multiply that by the number of lumens you think you will need. Again, I would urge you to err on the side of brighter rather than dimmer.

A 26 x 26 ft. garage with 60 lumens per square foot requires 40,560 total lumens. Three 16,000 lumen lamps will give you 48,000, which is a good overshoot of the goal.

Say your garage is 26 ft. wide by 26 ft. long. That’s a 676 square feet. And say you want a nice, bright lighting setup providing 60 lumens per square foot. Multiply 676 x 60, and you find that you’ll need 40,560 total lumens to get 60 lumens per square foot.

Next, look at a garage LED lamp you like. We’ll use this set of four Sunco LED shop lights. Each Sunco lamp is produces 4,000 lumens. There are four to the package, so the package produces 16,000 lumens.

Our goal is 40,560 lumens or higher. 40,560 divided by the 16,000 lumens in the package is 2.5. So we need two and a half packages of the Sunco lamps to reach our lighting goal. So we’ll buy three packages, which will provide 16,000 x 3, or 48,000 lumens.

What Kinds of Light Should I Get?

Sunco 4000 Lumen Garage Lights, Pack of 4
Sunco 4000 Lumen Garage Lights, Pack of 4

If you are illuminating the general area, then you want to maximize the spill on either side to avoid weird shadows and dark spots. To this end, avoid placing the lights too close to the walls  Generally the long rectangular LEDs that hang from the ceiling work best. They can usually be mounted flush to the ceiling or hung from a small chain provided by the manufacturer. 

If you have a workbench you should get yourself a good task light like this one. This will provide shadow-free illumination at your bench, where you need it. It will allow you to light up your work area, without necessarily turning on all the lights in the garage. It also gives you the chance to use an incandescent (halogen incandescent) bulb if you are doing work where exacting color specifics are a must. The 80-90 CRI provided by most LEDs are fine for general work but if you are a painter or designer you may need to have a higher degree of color rendering for your work.