Recessed lighting is a versatile means of providing both ambient and task lighting to just about any area in your home. Also known as pot lighting and can lighting, these lights are mounted in the ceiling or wall (most often in a ceiling) rather than surface mounted on the wall or ceiling.
Besides functional differences there are aesthetic ones too. If you don't like the look of a round, white light fixture, there are other choices available. You can find recessed lights with trim rings in different colors or metallic finishes. You can even get square lights, if the round-style is too plain or conventional for you.
This article aims to ground you in the basics of what you should know when you're considering and choosing this type of lighting. It'll also point you to other resources should you want to drill down even further.
It might be helpful to learn more about home lighting in general too. You can read more about that subject at our home lighting design page.
The true place to begin is with a lighting plan, either from a lighting designer, your contractor or you yourself if you feel qualified. It's helpful if you understand the various "layers" of lighting (ambient, task, accent and decorative) and how recessed lights can be used effectively.
You should also understand where the lights are going to be installed, if there are enough of them in the plan, and the appropriate bulb, fixture and trim to use for a given situation.
Even if someone else ultimately designs the plan and installs the lights for you, it'll help to have a basic understanding on the subject so that you'll feel confident you're house will be appropriately lighted.
In the lighting world "light bulbs" are referred to as "lamps" and I'll use that same naming convention in this article. So when you see the term "lamp", remember that we're talking about what you and I normally refer to as "bulbs".
Can lighting is available with all three types of lamps so you should choose which type you prefer. The type of light source you choose will dictate the type of fixture to use.
Incandescent lamps and fixtures are typically the least expensive followed by fluorescent lighting. LED lighting fixtures and lamps are generally the most expensive of the three. Keep in mind however that while incandescent lamps are cheaper, their shorter lifespan compared with CFL (compact fluorescents) and LED lamps will actually increase your long term costs because you'll need to replace them more often.
Incandescent is also the least efficient form of lighting while LED lighting is the most efficient. Fluorescent lighting falls in between the two.
If you buy recessed fixtures for incandescent lamps that doesn't mean you will never be able to use CFLs or LED lamps. You can use CFL lamps in incandescent fixtures and there are even dimmable CFLs on the market now. Going one step further, there are also LED lamps and dimmable LED lamps that are available but you'll pay somewhere in the range of $40 to $50 for one lamp. However if you're installing new light fixtures it probably makes sense to install the correct fixture based on the type of lamp you plan on using long term.
White Baffle Trim
Trims serve both functional and decorative roles and since the trim is a large part of a recessed fixture that you see, it's an important feature from an aesthetic point of view.
The reflector is a cone-shaped part that surrounds the lamp and helps direct and focus the light. Reflectors come in a variety of finishes and colors that include black, white and polished metallic treatments.
Baffles are similar to reflectors except they're ribbed instead of smooth. These ribs help to diffuse the light and reduce glare.
The trim ring is part of the trim kit that's most noticeable because it sits on the surface of the ceiling. Whether it's a circular or square fixture, the trim ring provides the finishing piece that covers the rough cutout in the ceiling.
Other trims like eyeball, eyelid and wall-wash trims serve to position the lamp at various angles and/or restrict the direction of the lighting to accent features in the room or other architectural items.
Two Versions Of Eyeball Trim
The second important factor in choosing the right light fixture involves whether it will contact insulation or not.
So for example, if you're choosing a light fixture for a new addition where you'll have access to the ceiling structure and the ceiling will be insulated, you'd choose a new construction, IC-rated housing.
There are several additional characteristics that define recessed light housings:
Recessed downlights afford an easy and unobtrusive way to get both ambient and accent lighting in your home. But keep in mind the following points to make sure they're right in your particular case.
Note Scalloped Wall-Wash Effect
One look at a lighting catalog or online store and you might conclude that all recessed light fixtures are the same. There are a lot of similarities but if you pay attention, there are differences and features that make your choices a bit more interesting.
The subject of home lighting is broad and recessed lighting is only one facet. There are other resources you can check out if you want to learn more about them or just about lighting in general.
The American Lighting Association is the the trade association representing the lighting industry. Their website has a consumer section that offers a lot of information about lighting design and the various forms of lighting fixtures.
It also helps to shop the web simply to get ideas on various types of recessed fixtures and in particular, the various styles of trims that are available. Online lighting stores offer an excellent way to quickly get familiar with various trim styles and how they can be applied in your home.
Manufacturers also offer good information on their website along with downloadable product catalogs. Manufacturers include Halo (part of Cooper Lighting - www.haloltg.com), Juno (www.junolightinggroup.com), Lightolier (a division of Phillips - www.lightolier.com) and Pure Lighting (www.purelighting.com) to name several. Browsing some of these websites can give you a good feel for the types of fixtures that are available and where you can purchase them.
The spacing of recessed can lights is dependent on a number of variables, not to mention the physical features lurking in your ceiling. Is it an exact science? Some lighting designers might argue with me but in my opinion the answer is no.
Guidelines do exist and in technical terms it's referred to as "spacing criteria". Manufacturers include the spacing criteria on the specification sheets for their fixtures, usually in the photometric data section.
Spacing criteria is a number that defines how far apart the lights should be in relation to their height above a work surface (like a countertop) or the floor in order to achieve balanced lighting with overlapping beams. So for example, if a light fixture's spacing criteria is 1.3 then you would space the lights 1.3 x the mounting height. For an 8-foot ceiling, that would be 8x1.3 or 10.4 feet apart. Again, this is to achieve an even light distribution.
If you're building new, whether it's an addition or a new house, you have the luxury of planning your lighting layout to fit with whatever other infrastructure will be in the ceiling. If you're remodeling an existing space, particularly one that has plumbing and/or electrical cables in the ceiling, recessed fixture placement gets a bit more tricky. And that's where the 'exact science' goes out the window.
Some years ago I renovated part of our basement into a home office. It was our first foray into the world of can lighting and it was also before I knew much about the subject. As I look back on how that experiment turned out and what I know today, I'd say it was generally a success. I can see what I'm doing and I'm not in the dark.
Did I make any mistakes? Yes I did. The space is really "over-lit". I used too many recessed cans for the amount of space I wanted to light. I also used 6-inch cans and I'd say they're a bit large for the ceiling size of 8'x11'. The lights are dimmed the majority of the time; I only crank them up to full power when I want to see all the dust that needs to be cleaned up around the office. So far, no one has ever come into the office and been horrified by my apparent lighting faux-pas. It looks fine and it works for me.
The moral of the story is this: there are guidelines for effective light placement and it makes sense to pay attention to these guidelines whenever possible. But if you don't (or you can't because of physical limitations in your ceilings) it's not the end of the world. My office lighting adventure proved that to me. It was proven again in my own kitchen remodel when we couldn't locate the lights in the "exact" location we wanted over the countertop due to overhead plumbing that was in the way.
So don't fret. As long as the lights are spaced uniformly and not like some random ink-blot test, you'll have enough lighting and an attractive layout.
Choosing Pendant Lights - Pendant lighting takes off where recessed lighting ends -- it's still functional, but can be much more stylish and decorative as well. Discover more about pendant lighting in this article.