Recessed lights are one of the most popular modern lighting options for homes and for many office settings. Also called downlights and can lights (short for “canister lights”), they provide general (ambient) lighting, task lighting, or accent lighting while remaining unobtrusive because the lights are recessed into the ceiling (or in some cases into a wall).

By hiding the lights to a degree, recessed fixtures help to open up a space and more prominently feature what’s in a room rather than the lights themselves.

This article will give you a general overview of recessed lighting including its three main components, applications, and things to consider when buying housing, trim, or bulbs for recessed lighting. If you need additional guidance when making a purchase, please call our friendly experts at 877-231-2852.

Recessed Lighting Housing
In this section, we’ll discuss housing for lights recessed into a ceiling, although the same general concepts apply to lights recessed into a wall. The housing (also called a “recessed canister”) is the part installed above the ceiling. This housing connects to the electrical wiring and provides the can or the recess that the trim and then the bulb will fit into, tucking them up into the ceiling. (The housing includes the actual socket for the bulb.)

There are three things you should know about recessed housing:

1) Information on the inside of the can will tell you what bulbs, wattages, and trims it can safely operate.

2) “New construction” housings or cans are used when there is access to the ceiling joists from above the ceiling, normally in new construction or attic access locations. It gets attached to those joists. “Remodel” housings are used when there is no attic access and are installed from below the housing. Allowing for easy install, these attach directly to the drywall of the ceiling.

3) An IC housing rating means that the housing can be used near insulation. Even if you’re installing at a time when no insulation is present, this housing will still be needed if insulation will be added in the future. Non-IC housing can only be used when a ceiling is not insulated. Otherwise you’ll create a fire hazard. This rating information is also found inside the can.

Depending on your use of the downlight, you may need to be aware of other ratings, including things like air tight or energy efficient; fire rated; and damp rated for lights in damp areas won’t be directly exposed to water.

Recessed Lighting Trim
With the housing in place, trim is then added for the recessed light. (Remember, it needs to be compatible with the housing.) Along with the bulb itself, this is the part of the light that people will actually see. These range from small 2-4" trims for accent lighting or task lighting; 5-6" trims for most home and office settings for general lighting; and 7-8" trims for some business settings.

Recessed trims not only help to define the aesthetic look of the light fixture itself, but they also help to control the lighting. For instance, reflective trim pushes more of the light out into the room when using traditional A19 bulbs, which send their light in all directions. (You don’t need the light going “up,” since no one’s trying to look at the housing, so these trims reflect the light back down.) Trims can also minimize glare with baffles; steer the light with “eyeballs,” wall washers, or other adjustable styles; and even diffuse the light and protect the bulb with lenses.

Because some trims reflect light and heat back toward the bulb, or come close to the bulb, some trims will require the use of bulbs with lower wattage, as indicated inside the housing.

Recessed Light Bulbs
Recessed lighting doesn’t use just one kind of light bulb, although each housing style is designed for certain bulbs, and you have to make sure that you’ve chosen housings, trims, and bulbs that work together. As long as they do so, even the time-honored A19 shape bulb (the kind that shows up in cartoons when a character has an idea) or a CFL (compact fluorescent light bulb) can be used with a reflector trim in recessed lighting. The A19 bulb can include new LED bulbs for tremendous cost savings over time.

Some bulbs, however, have reflectors built in and are called, appropriately, “reflector bulbs.” These include “R” (for “Reflector”), BR (for “Bulged Reflector”) and PAR (for “Parabolic Aluminized Reflector”). In recessed lighting, R and BR lights are popular for general indoor settings while PAR bulbs are useful when sharper light is desired. Because they’re a bit more precise, PAR bulbs also cast shadows more easily, while R and BR bulbs cast a more even spread of lighting. Both are useful depending on the needs of the user.

Here are some things to also consider about recessed light bulbs:

1) Spread: spot lights are generally designed to highlight something particular in a room (i.e., “accent lighting”) while flood lights are designed for general or “ambient” lighting. More specifically, though, you can look for the beam spread, as some floods are wider than others. The wider the spread, the more general the lighting.

2) Type: You can choose from incandescent, compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs, and LED bulbs of various shapes. Incandescent PAR bulbs will always be “halogen” bulbs, which are basically a more energy efficient type of incandescent light. CFLs and LEDs, however, are the most energy efficient … but you have to be careful if replacing incandescent bulbs with CFL or LED bulbs if the downlights are connected to a dimmer switch. Many CFL bulbs don't dim, while most LEDs do; check the package of either type to verify if they're dimmable. Also, some dimmers don’t work well with these modern bulbs, and you could get flickering and/or minimal dimming from the bulbs as a result of a mismatched dimmer switch and bulb. However, updating the switch is fairly easy and will provide the full benefits of these efficient bulbs.

3) Color: measured in Kelvin, bulbs range from a warm yellow (2700K) to a more stark white (5000K) -- the latter can be useful when you want to render colors well, but it's usually very cold and unwelcoming in a household setting. Most office settings are 3000 to 4100K.

Finally, a note on LED downlights:Besides the option of using LED bulbs inside traditional cans with trims, you can also choose LED downlights that fit into existing cans. These retrofit kits include the trim and a seamless transition to the LED light for a clean look. These may especially be useful when retrofitting cans surrounded with insulation, as these cans could create heat problems for some LED bulbs, which can shorten the bulb life. Using a retrofit LED kit eliminates this potential heat problem.

We hope this introduction to recessed lighting helps you with your lighting plans, and we look forward to assisting if you’d like to purchase recessed housing or bulbs for your home or office setting.