Recessed light fixtures (often known as canister lights, can lights, or downlights) use a design in which the bulb and socket assembly is contained within a metal housing that fits entirely above the plane of the ceiling. Except for a thin trim piece around the bottom rim and sometimes a small portion of the inner reflector, no part of the light fixture extends below the ceiling line. This can offer a number of design advantages. Most significantly, the low profile works well for low ceilings. But individual fixtures don't cast the same broad sphere of light as standard ceiling fixtures.
Low profile ideal for low ceilings
Illumination can be "aimed"
Potential overheating risk
Poor energy efficiency
Anatomy of a Recessed Light Fixture
Recessed light fixtures operate the same way as standard light fixtures, with a screw-in Edison socket that accepts lightbulbs with matching threaded bases, but the rest of the fixture has a much different configuration, designed for installation above the ceiling line. Some styles use a shallow design for ceilings that butt directly against roof rafter rather than an attic space. The parts of a recessed light fixture include:
- Bar hangers: Most recessed light fixtures have two adjustable bar hangers that allow you to brace the fixture between ceiling joists to hold it firmly in place.
- Junction box: Some recessed lights come with their own junction boxes; with others, you will have to purchase a separate electrical box. Either way, this metal box, attached to a framing member in the ceiling, is where the circuit wires are connected.
- Wire cable: Most fixtures have a metal cable that contains the wire leads that are attached to the circuit wires. The cable runs from the light fixture to the junction box, protecting the wire leads.
- Metal housing: All recessed light fixtures have a housing made of thin-gauge metal that contains the reflector, socket, thermal sensor, and any other parts. This is the "can" or "canister" that gives the fixture its other common name. The housing can be anywhere from 3 to 9 inches in diameter.
- Thermal sensor: Attached to the inside of the canister, the thermal sensor is a safety device that senses temperature and shuts off the light fixture if heat builds up to a dangerous degree. Today, nearly all recessed light fixtures are equipped with thermal sensors, and if you have old-style lights without this feature, it's a good idea to replace them.
- Reflector: A white or shiny inner lining called the reflector helps direct light from the bulb down into the room. This reflector is sometimes a swiveling gimbal cone that allows light to be directed in whatever direction you want.
- Edison socket: Inside the fixture is a standard screw-in Edison socket that accepts standard incandescent, LED, or compact fluorescent bulbs. LEDs are now very common for recessed lights, since they generate considerably less heat than incandescent bulbs. Manufacturers offer special large bulbs for use in recessed lights, designed to fill the open mouth of the reflector, although some types use standard bulbs. There are also styles that accept only LED bulbs.
- Rim: Attached to the reflector with clips, the rim is a decorative trim piece that hides the joint between the ceiling drywall and the metal housing. The rim is sometimes integrated into the reflector; the whole unit is inserted up into the metal housing as the last step of installation.
Recessed Canister Light Cost
Like most light fixtures, recessed canister lights have a wide range of costs, depending on the quality and features. At big-box home improvement centers, costs can range from around $5 to around $30 for individual fixtures, but convenient multipacks are also available, offering four, six, or eight fixtures in a kit. There are both standard incandescent and LED recessed light fixtures available; LED fixtures tend to use smaller canisters, making them ideal for sloped ceilings that butt up against roof rafters. LED fixtures often cost a little more than standard recessed lights, but the energy cost savings makes them a good bargain over the long run.
Maintenance and Repair
Installed properly, recessed can lights rarely need maintenance, although like any light fixture, light bulb sockets can wear out or go bad, and wire connections can loosen and require reconnection. In rare instances, the thermal sensors can go bad, leading to a fixture that periodically "goes dark" until the sensor cools and resets itself. The fix here is often to replace the sensor—or more often, replace the entire fixture, which is relatively easy. But many fixtures can last for decades, and with new LED-style lightbulbs, you may never need to touch these fixtures at all.
Periodically, you may want to clean away dust and grime from the reflector compartment to improve the downward illumination.
Recessed lights do a great job of giving you a sleek, clear ceiling, and because they are so understated, recessed can lights are rarely replaced for stylistic reasons. Because the fixtures themselves aren't very visible and don't call attention to themselves, the illumination itself is what serves the design element. They work well in situations where you want to provide illumination around the edges of room, such as when lighting up a bank of kitchen cabinets.
Recessed lights can also be aimed to point the direction of the illumination. Some styles have moveable gimbal reflectors that allow the illumination to be directed toward specific features, such as artwork, a brickwork wall, cabinetry, or other features. But remember that each recessed light fixture casts a relatively small illumination area, focused in a narrow directed cone of light. This limits their ability to provide whole-room illumination, unless they are installed in groups of several lights. For a 15 x 20-room, for example, it may be necessary to install as many as 12 recessed lights to provide full illumination.
Some common applications for recessed canister lights include:
- Home movie theaters: Theaters benefit from the clear sight-lines that recessed lights provide.
- Kitchen perimeter/above counters: Since recessed lights are directional, they work well as kitchen task lights to direct light down onto countertops, or to cast light across the face of kitchen cabinets.
- Kitchen islands: Task lighting provided by recessed light fixtures can brighten a kitchen island while keeping the center of the room clear of ceiling obstructions.
- Showers stalls: When equipped with watertight lenses these lights can get splashed with water without danger.
Recessed Canister Light Installation
The wiring for recessed can lights is very similar to that for any ceiling light fixture, but there may be some simple carpentry work that goes with mounting the frame for the fixture between ceiling joists. And you need to keep in mind some safety issues.
During the first energy crisis of the 1970s, homeowners began adding thick layers of insulation to their attics to conserve energy. People sometimes found that covering recessed fixtures with insulation caused them to overheat, sometimes to a degree that caused home fires. Several solutions were quickly developed. Builders learned that enclosing the canister in a constructed plywood box to keep insulation from directly contacting the fixture. Light fixture manufacturers also began equipping recessed light fixtures with thermal sensors that automatically shut off the fixture if the heat built up to a dangerous temperature. The development of LED-only fixtures also helped, since these bulbs generate less heat than standard incandescent bulbs.
Recessed light fixtures are commonly designated as "IC" (insulation contact) or "no IC" (no insulation contact) to indicate if they can safely be installed with insulation directly touching the canister. Ideally, your fixtures should have both features: box enclosures to keep attic insulation slightly away from the fixture and recessed lights with built-in thermal sensors. But in old installations, you may find that neither feature is present. If so, it's a good idea to replace the fixtures with modern ones.
When buying recessed canister lights, you may find them designated as "old work" or "new work" fixtures, indicating whether they should be used for new construction or for retrofit installation in existing ceilings.
Wiring Recessed Canister Lights
Recessed light fixtures are wired in much the same way as standard light fixtures, with a black wire lead that connects to a black (hot) circuit wire), and a white lead that connects to a white (neutral) circuit wire. A green grounding lead is connected to the circuit's bare copper grounding wire.
These circuit wires are controlled by a standard wall switch or dimmer. If you are replacing a standard ceiling light fixture with a recessed canister light, the same wall switch can control the new fixture. The only difference is that canister lights are very often installed in groups so that additional lengths of circuit cable are looped down the line from the first fixture to subsequent fixtures. There is nothing unusual about this, and any electrician or experienced DIYer can easily complete this cable routing and these connections.
Top Brands of Recessed Canister Lights
There are dozens of brands for recessed canister light fixtures, and most of them produce excellent light fixtures. Moreover, larger manufacturers may market similar proprietary brands for different retail outlets, so there may be little to no difference between some apparently different brands. Some major manufacturers offer excellent recessed lighting fixtures:
- Amerlux offers an impressive array of recessed light fixtures, which they market at "downlights."
- Halo, owned by Cooper Industries, specializes in LED recessed fixtures.
- Con-Tech offers unique shallow-body recessed downlights using LED bulbs. Installation is remarkably easy with this design.
- Gotham offers a very large selection of recessed light fixtures, both LED and standard, for just about any application you can imagine.
- Juno, one of several lighting companies that fall under the AcuityBrands corporate umbrella, offers a good selection of high-quality recessed lighting fixtures.
Comfort and Convenience
Recessed lights have a low profile, making them the ideal choice for low ceilings, such as basements or attics, where a protruding light fixture might be unsuitable low. Recessed lights are also ideal for areas where waterproof fixtures are needed. Recessed lights are the only light fixtures that can be installed in water-intensive environments, such as shower stalls.
But recessed light fixtures are not very energy efficient. By design, many recessed lights require fairly large holes in the ceiling drywall, and these openings can allow heat to escape upward. Heat loss in winter can cause a notable increase in energy costs. And because many recessed lights are sometimes necessary to fully illuminate a room, traditional incandescent recessed lights can produce a considerable amount of heat, leading to increased cooling costs in the summer. To remedy these issues, consult EnergyStar for advice. Some states, such as California have strict regulations on this (Title 24), requiring either air-tight recessed lights or that the installer covers the light with insulation.
Are Recessed Canister Lights Right for You?
Recessed light fixtures are a good choice where you want to aim light in a particular direction—either straight down or against a wall feature—or where low ceilings make it necessary to use low-profile lighting fixtures that don't hang or protrude from the ceiling. For whole-room illumination, remember that recessed lights usually need to be installed in groups of several fixtures to provide adequate light.