Recessed Lights: Sleek Looks, Easy To Install, But Far From Perfect

Modern apartment
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Recessed lights are metal light housings that install above the ceiling line.  Except for thin trim and part of the inner baffle, no part of the light is visible.  

Also known as can lights or downlights, they require extensive ceiling wiring.  However, the junction boxes allow for light-to-light connections.  This means that you are running only one cable, not several.

Recessed lights on the consumer market generally vary in diameter from 3" to 6".

 

Trim and Baffles

Trim and baffles make the light.  Everything else is formed sheet metal--no moving parts, no electronics, nothing complex.  Trim and baffles are the visible sections.

  • Baffles:  This inner bugle-shaped insert helps to direct or reflect the light.  For example, ridged, black-colored baffles are all about directing the light downward in a tight circle, preventing side reflection.  By contrast, reflective chrome baffles would extend that circle's diameter.
  • Trim:  Trim is the metal or plastic circle that fits flat onto the ceiling and which snaps into the housing.
  • Combined:  Some lights have a combined baffle and trim. 

Buy From Amazon - Lithonia 3" Matte White Recessed Baffle LED Light

Best Places To Use Them

  1. Home Movie Theaters:  Theaters benefit from the clear sight-lines that recessed lights provide.
  2. Kitchen Perimeter/Above Counters:  Because recessed lights are directional, they work well as kitchen task lights.
  1. Kitchen Islands:  Task lighting brightens the kitchen island but keeps the center of the room clear of ceiling obstructions.
  2. Shower Stalls:  Watertight lenses mean that these lights can get splashed with water and will keep on working.

Top 5 Reasons You Want Them

Recessed lights' positives tend to cluster more around looks than performance.

1. Illumination Only, No Fixtures Visible

Recessed lights' ability to recess--or hide or shrink into--the ceiling is its strongest point.  Except for a few oddball lights, like side washes or flooring uplights, ceiling recessed lights are the only ones that hide away and quietly go about their business of illuminating the room.  All other lights--tracks, ceiling fixtures, floor and table lamps, monorail and cables--are visible along with the light that they cast.

2. Indispensable For Low Ceilings

Rooms with low ceilings, such as basements, are practically begging for recessed lights.  Ceiling fixtures in such rooms will either graze occupants' heads or simply stick out too much, visually.  Recessed lights give you your ceiling back.

3. Total Room Coverage

Typical ceiling lights located in the center of the room illuminate the middle well, but as you progress to the perimeter, light fades.  But recessed lights, arrayed correctly (and there is a caveat to this, mentioned below), will cover the entire room.

4. Sealed Units Are Waterproof

Recessed lights are the only light that can be installed in the water-intensive environment of shower stalls.  

5. Perennial Style

Unlike track lighting, which shouts "1980s!"or monorail lighting ("2000s!"), recessed lighting is more or less trend-proof.

 The reason it won't go out of style is because it has never really been in style.

Top 4 Reasons You Do NOT Want Them

While recessed lights do a great job of giving you a sleek, clear ceiling, functionally they leave something to be desired.

1. Being Directional, They Cast Light In a Small Area

A ceiling fixture will cast a wider area of light than a recessed light because it has an entire half-sphere of illumination.  Recessed lights only have a circle.  Except for gimbals, this light shines directly on the ground below and does not extend very far.

2. Which Means:  You Need Many of Them To Cover a Room

Earlier, I noted that recessed lights can light up all areas of a room.  The reason is because recessed lights tend to get installed in large groups that cover much of the ceiling.  

For a 15' by 20' room, it would not be unusual to find up to 12 recessed lights in that ceiling.

 In the photo accompanying this article, there are at least 10 recessed lights.

3. They Leak Air

For one reason, they are located on the ceiling (where heat congregates); for another, these are sizable holes in the ceiling that often have gaps between the wallboard and the light. To fix these gaps, consult EnergyStar (see link on this page) for a free guide on plugging those gaps.  Some states, such as California (Title 24) has strict regulations on this, requiring either air-tight recessed lights or that the installer cover the light with insulation.  Except that...

4. Some Cannot Be Covered With Insulation

With the heat generated by can lights, they might start a fire. Even though fiberglass does not burn, the covering paper does. Or, the heat build-up caused by the covering insulation will hamper the efficiency of the can light. Either way, the fix for this is to get a sealed or IC-rated light that does allow for close contact with insulation.