Unobtrusive illumination installed flush with the ceiling, recessed lighting can be found in virtually all types of homes, and for good reason. It beams light downwards, illuminating a whole room without invading sightlines or snagging any usable square footage. Also referred to as can lights, pot lights, or downlights, these fixtures are simply comprised of a bulb within a circular enclosure (the “trim”) that usually measures between four and six inches wide.
Whether you need task lighting above a desk or countertop or accent lighting to brighten a dark corner, recessed lighting can deliver. But it’s not quite as simple as choosing a wattage and type of bulb—a number of factors go into creating the final effect. Here’s what to consider before installing recessed lighting at home.
Recessed lighting is easiest to install during new construction but can be retrofitted into existing ceilings.
Because recessed lighting is installed in the ceiling, it’s simplest to put in before ceiling material goes up—during new construction or a major renovation. Recessed lighting designed for new construction is configured to be placed up in the ceiling between the joists with mounting brackets that get nailed into the strapping. They are then wired to the power source, and the drywall (with holes carefully cut out) goes up over them. If you don’t have complete access to the ceiling joists, you can still install recessed lighting without digging into too much drywall. Just look for recessed lights designed to fit through a small hole in the ceiling and mounted to the drywall with clips instead of the joists and strapping.
Placement is key.
You can use recessed lighting for general lighting, task lighting, or accent lighting—or some combination of the three—but unlike floor or table lamps, you only have one shot to position the lights in the perfect place. Consider the particular places you want to be well-lit, like above a reading chair or kitchen island. If you need task lighting, make sure the light is positioned above the workstation, not above where you’ll be sitting or standing, which would have you working under your own shadow. And be sure to situate recessed lights at least two feet away from the walls.
Bulb size will also help guide your placement. The typical rule is to place the lights the same number of feet apart as the bulb’s diameter, in inches. So a bulb with a four-inch diameter should be four feet away from the next light. Four-inch bulbs are good choices for normal ceiling heights; five- and six-inch bulbs, also commonly available, are good for higher ceilings as they emit a more powerful light.
Wire the lights in zones for greater flexibility.
For large rooms with areas that may need to be lit differently at times or spaces where ambiance is important, consider wiring the lights to work with each other in strategic groups. Have each zone able to be operated independently of the others. If you’ve layered general lighting, task lighting, and accent lighting, this will give you more control over the mood and function of the space. For example, you can set your general lighting on a dimmer, switch off your task lighting, and let your accent lighting highlight your artwork or fireplace.
Weigh the pros and cons of the different types of light bulbs.
When choosing a bulb for recessed lighting, you’ll probably be floored by all the options. Each type of light bulb has something to offer, from aesthetics to energy efficiency. Here’s how some of the most popular shake out.
• “A” Bulbs: A standard incandescent bulb that serves as a solid, inexpensive option, particularly for general lighting. Requires the use of a reflector trim (the housing that surrounds the bulb), to amplify the light.
• “R” Bulbs: Good for general lighting, particularly in living spaces, these are popular because of the built-in reflective surface that warms up its incandescent light and casts either a flood or spotlight pattern.
• Halogen: This type of bulb offers a white, bright light with a controlled beam, great for general lighting (particularly in kitchens and bathrooms), as well as task and accent lighting. Low voltage halogen bulbs, which require a transformer and special low-voltage housing, are a great way to go—energy efficient, excellent light quality, and longer life.
• LED: LED light bulbs can last up to 11 years at 12 hours of use a day. You can find them in a variety of color temperatures, making them versatile enough for all rooms of the house. Plus, they don’t generate heat, offer energy efficiency and appealing color quality. Be warned: you’ll pay a bit more for them up front.
Use the right tools to cut holes in the drywall.
If installing recessed lighting yourself, use a hole saw—simply an attachment for your drill—to ensure a perfect, circular hole of the proper diameter. Hole saws come in standard and adjustable sizes; check the lighting’s user manual to determine the exact size hole you’ll need. In a pinch, you can use a small handheld drywall saw; just take the time to measure and mark the hole very carefully. A compass can help ensure you’re cutting a perfect circle. Also keep a stud finder nearby to make sure you’re not drilling or cutting into a joist.
Consider hiring an electrician.
Even if you’re experienced in wiring light fixtures, installing recessed lighting comes with some challenges that may be best left to a professional. Some lights require a transformer to deliver a stepped-down flow of electricity. Others may require special IC-rated housing, which protects against electrical fire if it’s being placed in the ceiling along with insulation. In fact, local code may mandate the use of an IC rated fixture, something an electrician will be up on. Some cities even require a permit for a recessed lighting installation. Not to mention, if you’re retrofitting a light into existing drywall and aren’t sure what kind of wiring you’ll find or where your joists are located, an electrician can do some digging and determine the best course of action for your home.