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Recessed Lighting

Recessed Lighting Systems

Recessed downlights (also called can lights, high-hats, or pot lights) are fixtures that are installed above the ceiling so that only a trim piece and possibly the bulb remain visible. This allows the fixture to be nearly invisible, blending in to most interiors while providing a wide range of lighting effects. Recessed lighting can provide excellent ambient light, as well as focused task or accent lighting.

Recessed fixtures are typically sold as systems, with two main components:

  • The Housing, or frame in kit, is the main part of the fixture that is hidden above the ceiling and hold the bulb(s).
  • The Reflector Trim is the visible component that hides the ceiling cutout and directs the light in the desired way.

Recessed Housings

The housing component of a recessed lighting system mounts inside the ceiling, either to the joists or directly to the floor above. It connects to the wiring, contains the socket for the light source, and holds the reflector trim in place. The hole that light shines through is called the aperture. In most residential recessed fixtures, the aperture is round and between 3 to 7 inches in diameter.

Recessed fixtures can utilize a variety of light sources. Most commonly, housings use incandescent BR or PAR lamps. Low voltage housings include a transformer and special sockets for either MR16 or PAR36 lamps. Compact fluorescent housings include a ballast and socket for various compact fluorescent lamps.

There are many types of recessed housings designed for different installation needs:

  • IC housings must be used in insulated ceilings as they are enclosed in an outer box to manage heat. IC housings are increasingly being used in non-IC applications as they tend to be more energy-efficient.
  • Air-tight IC housings are gasketed to prevent air flow through the fixture.
  • Non-IC housings may be used where there is no insulation (between the first and second floors, for example) and in commercial installations.
  • New Construction housing, or Standard housings, install to the ceiling joists before drywall is put up. The reflector trim is then installed once the ceiling is finished.
  • Remodel housings are designed to fit through a small ceiling cutout and are used to simplify installation in existing ceilings.
  • Sloped Ceiling housings are used on pitched ceilings to position downlights properly. Special trims are typically necessary with a sloped ceiling housing.
  • Shallow housings are used for cramped plenum conditions (typically less than 6” deep).

Recessed Trims

The reflector trim, along with the bulb itself, provides the aesthetic detail for a recessed fixture, since it is the only visible component. More importantly, however the reflector trim determines how the light is shaped and directed.

There are many types of recessed trims, which allow a variety of lighting effects:

  • An open trim is the simplest type of trim and is used with a reflectorized lamp. Open trims provides no glare control.
  • A baffle trim absorbs stray upward light, restricting the beam and reducing glare from the light when viewed at a distance.
  • A reflector trim has a coating of polished aluminum (called alzak after the manufacturing process) which reflects all light downward. This makes reflector trims producer a brighter light than baffles using the bulb.
  • Accent trims are adjustable and used to highlight art and architectural details.
  • A wall washer trim is used to illuminate a large vertical surface and expands the sense of spaciousness. Instead of directing light down, a wall washer trim directs light in a wide angel to the side.
  • Enclosed trims are covered by a diffuser or lens and are primarily used in showers and spas.

Selection and Placement

Recessed lighting can provide excellent ambient light, as well as focused task or accent lighting. This allows it to serve well in many residential spaces, as well as many light commercial applications such as restaurants and boutiques. The chief benefit of recessed lighting is its ability to light a space effectively, while minimizing the appearance of the equipment itself. It combines easily with decorative fixtures to provide supplemental light without distracting from the decorative fixture.

For most applications in typical height ceilings, 5” recessed fixtures with 75W PAR30 Flood lamps work well. With taller ceilings, it is generally necessary to use narrower beam spreads, such as the Narrow Flood, to maintain the same light coverage. In smaller spaces, or where a dramatic appearance is desired, small 3” recessed fixtures and low voltage lamps often create the desired effect.

Kitchen Recessed lighting is a good choice for ambient lighting in kitchens. When placed correctly, it can even light the interiors of cabinets and countertops, supplementing under-cabinet task lighting.
Recessed fixtures in the kitchen should be about 30 inches away from the wall, and spaced 4 to 5 feet apart. If the fixture is too close to the wall, it will glare off the cabinets and create shadows on the counter. If the fixture is too far away from the wall, it will not effectively light inside the cabinets, and will also cast your shadow onto your working counter space.
Dining Room Recessed lighting can provide dramatic accent lighting over the table and soft ambient lighting to fill the room. To illuminate a centerpiece, place two adjustable accent lights over the table near the ends so the beams do not interfere with the chandelier. Wide-beam fixtures should be used to provide soft ambient lighting around the table. Avoid placing fixtures directly over the heads of diners, as it will cause unflattering shadows and uncomfortable glare and heat.
Bathroom Recessed lighting is generally not the best solution for lighting a vanity as it creates unflattering shadows under the eyes, nose and chin. It does, however, provide good ambient lighting when placed in the center of the space.
When lighting a shower, make sure to use an approved fixture, generally enclosed, gasketed, and UL Listed for damp locations.
Walls Lighting an entire wall, or wall washing, is an excellent technique to create a sense of spaciousness in a room. Use one wall washer for every 2 feet of lighted wall, about 24 to 30 inches from the wall.

Where to Buy

Lighting New York has a large selection of Recessed Lighting fixtures and components.