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Recessed Lighting

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.

What You Should Know & Where To Begin

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.

Choose Your Method Of Lighting

There are three "types" of lighting you can use to illuminate your home and they're based on the kind of lamp (light bulb) they use. They are incandescent, fluorescent and LED where "LED" stands for Light Emitting Diode.

Publisher's Comments

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.

Choosing The Right Housings & Trims

Recessed lights are made up of a variety of parts but there are two main components or groups of parts you should be aware of from a homeowner's perspective: they are the housing and the trim.

Recessed Lighting Trim

In non-technical terms the trim refers to the visible parts of the fixture and includes such things as the trim ring, a reflector or baffle and any other parts that serve to focus or direct the light source. They're usually referred to as "baffle trims", "reflector trims", "eyeball trims" and "wall wash trims" among others.

recessed light trimWhite 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.

white eyeball lighting trim

brass eyeball recessed light trim

Two Versions Of Eyeball Trim


The housing is the primary structure of a recessed light fixture. It houses the electrical components including the lamp and provides the means for attaching the fixture to the ceiling structure. It also provides the platform for mounting the various trim components.

There are two basic categories of recessed fixtures and they're classified by the type of housing and the application.
  • New Construction Housings - This fixture is used in new construction and remodels where there is open access to the ceiling structure. These light cans are affixed to the ceiling joists by arms that extend out from the can.
  • Remodel Housings - These types of fixtures are used when there is already an existing ceiling and there is little or no access to the ceiling joists. These fixtures have clips that attached directly to the ceiling drywall.

The second important factor in choosing the right light fixture involves whether it will contact insulation or not.

  • IC-Rated Housings - These fixtures are used in ceilings or other areas where there will be contact with insulation. "IC" stands for "insulation contact".
  • Non-IC Housings - Non-IC fixtures are used for applications where there is no contact with insulation. A typical scenario is ceiling fixtures in a first-floor room where there is no insulation between the ceiling and the floor above it.

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.

new construction light housingNew-Construction Housing

IC rated lighting housingIC-Rated Housing

There are several additional characteristics that define recessed light housings:

  • Non-Perforated Housings - Non-perforated housings have no holes in them which is preferable since they won't allow your heating and air-conditioning to escape up through the light fixture into the ceiling or attic. Housings with perforations (for heat dissipation or simply by design) aren't as energy efficient and aren't desirable, particularly in moist and humid rooms like bathrooms. Steam and humid air can infiltrate into the attic or ceiling causing moisture-related problems.
  • Damp Location Rated - Housings that can be installed in moist environments like bathrooms and exterior locations are rated as such and should carry certification for these applications like UL or ULC (Underwriters Laboratories / Canada).
  • Standard & Shallow Housings - Recessed housings are built to fit in ceilings that use standard joist sizes. However shallow 6-inch housings are also made to accommodate shallower ceiling depths.

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Things To Consider Before Choosing

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.

  • Too Much Of A Good Thing
    Recessed lights provide efficient and effective light. But be careful about relying exclusively on just this type of fixture alone. With no other types of lighting ('layers' of light) a room can look bland or stark with just recessed downlights alone.
  • Optimize Downlight Locations In The Bathroom
    Recessed downlights naturally focus their beam of light downward and that can cause unappealing facial shadows when they're located above the bathroom sink and mirror. That's particularly true if they're the only lighting in the space. Bathroom lighting that emanates from the side of the mirror and complements the recessed downlights will balance the light and minimize those shadows. You'll look much better in the morning.
  • Don't Locate Them Too Far From Walls
    Getting some wall-wash effect from recessed cans tends to brighten the room by lighting the wall space. If the lights are located too far from the wall and the beam angle doesn't meet the wall it can make a room appear darker and cave-like because of the darker walls.

  • lighting wall wash effectNote Scalloped Wall-Wash Effect

  • Shallow Recessed Lights Can Increase Glare
    Shallow-depth fixtures bring the light source closer to the plane of the ceiling meaning that the lamp is more visible. This risks the potential for more glare since the lamp isn't tucked further into the light fixture. Consult with someone knowledgeable about these kinds of fixtures to understand the effect that location and different lamp choices will have on this characteristic.
  • Verify The Lighting Plan On Your Actual Ceiling
    A blueprint or drawing that shows the proposed layout of recessed fixtures is important to visualize their proper location. However when it comes time to actually cut holes in the ceiling (particularly for a remodel) it helps to actually mark the fixture locations on your ceiling based on the drawing dimensions. "Seeing" where they'll go in 3D helps identify whether adjustments are needed based on things that aren't "seen" on a 2D drawing plan.
  • Don't Confuse Fixture Size And Brightness
    Just because one fixture is bigger than another (for example, a 6-inch can vs. a 5-inch can) doesn't mean it gives off more light. The amount of light is governed by the lamp (light source) and a given type of lamp will accommodate different fixture sizes.
  • Lamps (Bulbs) Are Important Too
    The lamp that's used in these kinds of lights plays in integral role in the brightness, light quality, beam angle, distribution and efficiency of the fixture. Choosing the lighting fixture is only part of the process -- choosing the correct lamp that will meet your lighting needs is the other half of the equation. Consult with a lighting designer if you need some help choosing the right lamp and fixture combination.
  • Watch The Proximity Between Ceiling Fans & Light Fixtures
    Ceiling fans that are hung too low or too close to the beam angle of can lights might cause a strobe effect as the rotating blades cause an on/off shadow. Checking with a lighting professional on the proper orientation between the two fixtures might help eliminate the risk of turning your family room into the neighborhood disco.

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Styles, Innovations & Features To Consider

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.

  • Square Lights
    Downlights aren't all round and don't have to be either. Lighting manufacturers make square light fixtures that compliment the linear characteristics of a straight wall. Australian-based Crompton Lighting even makes rectangular fixtures that house several lamps. The COMBOLIGHT® from RSA Lighting is also a rectangular light comprising several individual lamps.
  • Trims Available In Colors Other Than Black & White
    You don't have to settle for white or black trim kits either. Companies like Halo make trims in decorative metals like Tuscan bronze, nickel and copper. Both the reflectors and the trim rings can be purchased in these materials for an interesting and different look.
  • Wide Variety Of Trim Styles Available
    Trims have functional purposes but they're also the decorative part of the light fixture too. Thankfully, there are many different styles and types of trims that are available to choose from. Browse through the catalogs of any number of manufacturers like Halo, Juno, Gull Lighting and Lightolier to familiarize yourself with what's available.
  • Flush Trims
    Think about going with a flush trim instead of the more conventional trims that sit below the ceiling plane. RSA Lighting's Quiet Ceiling® offers fixtures whereby the trim is finished flush with the ceiling during the sheetrock mudding process. There's no trim to clutter the ceiling line - just the clean look of the round or square light fixture hole flush with the the plane of the ceiling.
  • LED Lighting
    At the cutting edge of lighting technology is the LED light and they're available in recessed light fixtures. LEDs are the new wave of lighting, providing the most efficient and long-lasting light available. Costs are still higher than other forms of conventional lighting but their longer life and low energy consumption will ultimately pay back the initial investment.

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Finding Additional Resources To Help

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.

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Publisher's Comments - Recessed Lighting Spacing

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.

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Here's More Related Info That Might Be Helpful...

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.

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