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For many of us, the “shop” also holds cars — at least when projects don’t eat all the space and leave us parking outside. The bad news, though, is that most homebuilders think that if a single crappy bare bulb offers enough light to get from your car door to house door at night, that’s plenty of garage lighting. We, of course, disagree. A dark work area makes working on anything at all pretty much suck. At best, the place feels dingy and depressing. At worst, you can’t see well enough to do the job and you might hurt yourself. The good news: It’s easy to fix. Just add some real lighting. Read on for three ways to brighten your day, night, and garage.

1. Replace the bulb with fluorescents.

Your local big box offers lots of cheap fluorescent light fixtures, any of which will offer far more light than you’ll get from a single incandescent. A quick troll of Home Depot, for example, shows this light for $20. It holds two T8 bulbs, so you’ve got a lot of choice as to what kind of light you want and how much. We find T8s locally running anywhere from 10 to around 30 watts, so even if you load up that bad boy with two of the big bulbs, you’re still only looking at around 60 watts — about the same as the bulb you’re replacing. Look around online or in stores for information on how to wire the lights, but other than screwing the damn thing to the wall the job isn’t any different from replacing a standard fixture.

2. Replace the bulb with a LOT of fluorescents.

This was my solution. My three-car garage included two bulbs, so with a little math I discovered the circuit could support six fluorescent fixtures. I replaced the old single fixtures with electrical boxes, then cut and ran some conduit to wire up two fluorescents over the single bay and four (in an H pattern) over the two-car bay. It lights the place up brightly, and doesn’t use much more energy than the original fluorescents. Bonus: Six years later, I have yet to replace a single fluorescent bulb despite the fact that I’ve forgotten to turn them off on more than a few occasions. The total cost of the job ran me somewhere around $250 (wire, boxes, fixtures, bulbs, etc.). Totally worth it.

3. Buy cheap mobile light stands.

This is for those of you who don’t have control of your garage environment. I lived in an apartment with an attached garage for a number of years, and though I’d have loved to add bigger fixtures, it just wasn’t allowed. In this case, just pick up two, three, or even four halogen light stands. You can find a stand light like this one for around $50 (or ) and they make a ton of light. It never hurts to have a couple of the little ones as well. They come on stands and with clamps as well as other formats. Scatter a few around the shop and fire ’em up to give yourself plenty of work light.

These are just a few ideas, and we’d love to hear yours. How do you light your shop?


20 Responses to Three Ways to Light Up a Garage Shop

  1. Barks says:

    “…fire ’em up…” is particularly appropriate with halogen lamps around combustible materials in the workshop.

  2. Jerry says:

    My garage suffered from the single bulb problem. I installed eight 4′ fluorescent fixtures. Yes, had to add a circuit to do this. However, I bought Lithonia fixtures. Never again! They buzz and hum forever before lighting in cold weather even though they are listed on the packaging as cold start. In addition, these bulbs lasted about a year. I use the lighting for about 3 hours a day 3 or 4 days a week. Getting ready to replace all of these fixtures now since I see that failure to keep really fresh tubes in these things causes the ballast to fry and cease operations. Halogen? I have a couple of them but rarely use them because of all the flammables and flammable dust in the shop. They are great for those times I need to see way down into a dark engine compartment though!

  3. Dave A. says:

    DO NOT GET THE LOWE’s $10 dual 4ft flourescent fixtures. Spend the $$ and get the $20 fixtures. They’re ballasts are better. The cheap ones go out at the drop of a hat. I plug a circular saw in and I don’t have light for the first couple seconds of cutting.

  4. I agree: avoid the cheapest fixtures! I recently added some T5 fixtures, and I like them more than the T8s.

    Two more points: 1) fluorescent bulbs dim over time. You may not notice it, but your old bulbs could be giving off much less light. 2) fluorescent bulbs should not go into the trash!

  5. gillsans says:

    I have to bag on the cheap lights too.

    When I moved into my house, the florescent lights in my newer (less than 5 years old) detached garage/shop weren’t working. Since all of them were on a circuit, I figured the wiring or switch was messed up. Nope. Every single light had gone bad.

    So what did I do? Replaced them with more cheap lights. They’re still running. We’ll see for how long.

  6. Ruckus says:

    the solution for me a while back was a sub-50$ tri to walmart. 2 double florescent housings which came with T8 bulbs already, 2 15 foot extension cords and one of those double sided sockets that you screw into a light bulb socket. hung he chains on exposed rafters at the front and rear bumpers of the car. kept the rear one higher so the garage door opener would still clear. and the whole setup took an afternoon and its all on one lightswitch by the door

  7. Jason says:

    I’m adding a shop in my basement. My ceilings are only about 6’6″ high. I’m going to put in acoustic tile, as close to the above floor joists as I can, but it doesn’t leave me any room for fixtures below the ceiling. I would like to consider recessed LED fixtures, but I think the price is still too high. What I’ll probably do is get 2-bulb fluorescents and place them between the joists, then put a 2×4 plastic lens in the grid (maybe cut to 1×4). I could also go with regular recessed fixtures & CFL bulbs. Any other suggestions?

  8. Jim says:

    Make sure with fluorescent that the bulb is protected with either a lens or metal grid or what do what I did and buy the plastic sleeves that encase each bulb. I have low ceilings in my basement shop and had visions of swinging a board up into a bulb with unspectacular results. With the plastic sleeve (with endcaps) most of the shattered bulb should be contained. I’m trying not to field test my theory. I went with plug in fixtures with some on switched outlets. If I’m moving around a lot I turn them all on otherwise just the ones I need and if I realize I bought a bad fixture it’s less of a pain to replace. I went with daylight bulbs and like ’em. Be aware though if you’re doing something requiring good color rendering, like matching a finish be sure to bring in a light the same as in the room where the project will end up.

  9. Ray says:

    I bought some new 2×4 fluorescent troffers designed for drop ceilings cheap from a guy that was clearing out a warehouse. Some of them had been damaged in storage and slightly squished, but they were complete with ballasts and wiring, and he threw in a box of new tubes. I also received a new 2×4 fixture, a bundle of plastic diffusers and a used Makita metal chop saw for $175.

    I picked out about eight of them and spent a weekend hammering some of them straight and salvaging peices. I ended up with 6 good fixtures. I installed five and have a spare, and some spare ballasts. I made up some plywood fixtures to hang them across the 24″ spaced joists in my new detached garage, and installed 5 of them. My garage is not drywalled or insulated, so that part of the job was pretty straightforward.

    It was a lot of work, but new lights would have cost a lot more for what I got. The lighting is very good. It pays to check the local classifieds, I think.

    In the winter, fluorescents have poor performance in my unheated garage (unless I give it some heat). For short jobs in the winter, when I don’t want fire up the diesel heater, I have a couple of those 500W halogen cheapies. They double as butt-warmers!

  10. Mrten says:

    Do go with the above advice about cheap ballasts, or, better, get fixtures with electronic ballasts. Saves even more on the energy used.

    Another big plus for electronic ballasts is that the bulb will not visibly flicker as a normal ballast will: electronics turn the bulb on and off many thousand times per second, with conventional ballasts the bulb goes on-and-off at 60Hz.

    A fun (and I hope a known) problem with a 60Hz flickering fluorescent tube is that a lathe or circular saw lit by it that spins at a multiple of that 60 Hz looks as if it’s *stationary*. So, for your fingers’ sake too, go with the electronic ballasts.

    PROTIP: For wintertime (low temperature) there are special tubes from Osram that light quicker.

  11. Gary Z says:

    I popped for the 2 tube 8 foot fixtures in my shop. Since it gets cold I also went with the HO or High Output ballasts. These fixtures cost more but are made for outdoor including cold use. They light up no matter the temp. I put in two fixtures for about a hundred bucks and they give me plenty of light. While I was installing those I went ahead an ran 3 more circuits in pipe surface mounted. Each outlet box has two outlets on different circuits. No more breaker issues.

  12. Great article! Garage lighting is a big problem just about everywhere. If it isn’t the “cheap fixture” problem it is the temperature problem with fluorescents. Most ceiling heights are too low for metal halide fixtures as they have a heat problem. Expensive fluorescents seems to be the only solution I have seen for the average garage.

    Fredrick Getzschman II, Editor

  13. Phil says:

    Rather than the halogen portable worklights, I prefer the fluorescent equivalents. 65 watts each they throw about the same amount of light with very little heat. No burns, long lamp life and a fraction of the energy cost.

  14. Bob A. says:

    Former lighting contractor here – the real test of good lighting is what the big retail stores use. Most common are 4-foot 30W T8 tubes with electronic ballasts and high color temp lamps (cool white). With good ballasts the lamps are rated to run 3 years continuously before they are all replaced at once on a regular rotation and recycled (mercury etc. recovered). With any fluorescent lamp they last much longer if you limit the on/off cycles. The latest fad is switching to T5 lamps which give off more Lumens per Watt but have a higher upfront expense.

    Like Ray above I acquired some old fixtures from a retail liquidation for pennies and set them up in a grid in my basement. When you have .5A per 2-lamp fixture you can have a lot of light even on a 15A circuit. I recently noticed LED tubes in the newest grocery coolers so give them a few years and who knows, we might light our houses for $20/year.

    • Ray says:

      Yes, a few people told me it was going to cost me a lot in electricity to run my lights, and that I should buy more efficient — and more expensive — fixtures.

      Some people seem very eager to save me money, no matter how much it costs.

  15. For all of t8 guys check out the new Philips tube LEDs. I just received some samples this week for our flood fixtures to get them UL listed. 22w 1500 lumens with all of it being pushed downward since the heat sink is on the black side which allows you to purchase cheaper housings with high quality reflectors. 120-277v operation with a build in driver.

  16. Wayne Holsopple says:

    Not sure I’m gonna get a reply to this but thought I’d give it a shot………..This question may have been already answered….
    Question..Six four foot double light units in my small shop;Only 1 light burns on 3;The bulbs look good but still no light;and yes they are cheap Lowes units.Are ballasts shot and is there a fix aside from replacing the whole unit?……….Regards,….Wayne

  17. Gary Jay says:

    My old shop was 18’X 24’deep, 10’ tall with two rows of 2-4′ fluorescent fixtures. One side has the old style bulbs the other has the new small tube lamps with electronic ballast. I’m a Amateur radio operator and my radio room is upstairs. When the old style lights are on I do not get interference on my radio but when I have the new style on the noise is very bad especially around 28MhZ.

    So now I built a new shop 30’X 30’ with 12′ ceiling a single and a double garage doors 9′ tall. I am going to have a lift for the cars and a lift for the motorcycles and I am able to have two switches one for each side of the garage. Shop is heated and air conditioned.

    I guess the fluorescent is the way to go again but I do not want to deal with the noise from the lights like I did before. Cooper Lighting said they have filters for my new style lights in the old shop however the cost for them is more than the light fixtures.

    The question is what kind of light fixtures will work without the noise?
    Is there a better option than using the fluorescent?

  18. Big GC says:

    I know this thread is old but, it’s worth looking into led lighting. A bright light can look no more than a dot 2mm square but bang a few of these together and you’ll burn out your corneas. With no heat I might add. Have a crack at em you’ll be stoked.

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