A recessed light fixture, sometimes known as a can light, is a style in which most of the fixture is behind the ceiling surface—not mounted on the surface or hanging down from the ceiling. By fitting flush with the ceiling, recessed lighting lends a clean, streamlined look to a room. It can increase the amount of light in a room, highlight artwork or other special features, or open up spaces so they look and feel bigger.
Like most other light fixtures, recessed light fixtures are powered by standard 120-volt household circuits and controlled by wall switches. Usually, recessed light fixtures are fitted with small flood-lamp bulbs, but these can be of incandescent bulbs, CFL (compact fluorescent lamps) or LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs. Increasingly popular are a specialty type of recessed fixture that accepts only LED bulbs. These fixtures are smaller than older types, making them easier to install and more flexible in creating different lighting effects.
Are recessed light fixtures a good choice for you? Read on to discover for yourself.
Recessed Light Fixture Pros and Cons
Flush ceiling profile
Creates dramatic effect
Hides light source
Can look dated
Can pose fire hazard
Thermal energy loss possible
Recessed light fixtures are typically more expensive than traditional surface-mounted or basic hanging light fixtures. This is because a recessed light fixture must include a metal frame, a canister enclosure to hold the light bulb and socket, and a built-in wire connection box where the fixture is connected to circuit wiring. But recessed fixtures are generally less expensive than hanging chandeliers and other highly decorative light fixtures.
You can buy recessed light fixtures for as little as $5 to $10 each for the most basic styles, up to as much as $50 or more for low-profile fixtures designed specifically for LED light bulbs. Fixtures that accept LED lightbulbs only are generally more expensive, but when you consider the lifetime savings offered by the low-energy bulbs, they are a good investment. There are even "smart" recessed fixtures now available, which "talk" to your wireless network through bluetooth connectivity, allowing them to be operated by remote control, smartphone, or voice-activated systems. Costs for these high-tech versions start at about $40 to $50 per fixture.
Recessed light fixtures are often sold in sets of two to six fixtures, which is more economical than buying them individually.
Maintenance and Repair
Once installed, recessed lights are no more difficult to maintain than standard light fixtures—it's a simple matter of changing lightbulbs when they burn out. However, if the fixture itself goes bad, replacing it can be considerably more complicated than with standard surface-mounted or hanging fixtures.
The main benefit of recessed light fixtures is the unique decor affects you can achieve. Because recessed lights sit flush with the ceiling, they make for a low, clean profile. Recessed lights do a better job of aiming or "pushing" illumination, making them a good choice for accent lighting or countertop lighting.
Some types of recessed light fixtures have rotating turrets that allow you to aim the lighting wherever you want. This type of fixture provides the same flexibility offered by track lighting.
Recessed lights are well suited for adding supplemental illumination to a room, such as targeting architectural details like a fireplace or bookshelf wall. They are not as good for general room illumination, which is better provided by central ceiling fixtures or floor lamps.
Here are some lighting design tips that can help you use recessed lighting effectively:
- Avoid recessed lighting fixtures placed too close together or in rows down the center of the room. This type of installation can have the look of an airport runway.
- Match the size of your recessed lighting fixtures to their spacing. The common rule is that 4-inch fixtures should be placed at least 4 feet apart and 6-inch fixtures about 6 feet apart.
- Center recessed lighting fixtures on the objects you wish to light—a painting, bookshelf, or drapery panels, for example—and about 12 to 18 inches away from the front of that object.
- Recessed lights used for reading or task lighting should be carefully placed overhead so your head and shoulders will not block the light.
- When lighting a three-dimensional object, such as a fireplace, sculpture, or flower arrangement with recessed lighting, it is more effective to light it from two or three different angles.
- Use wall-washing recessed lighting fixtures around the perimeter of a small room to help "push" the walls out and make the space feel larger, or aim them at a collection of artwork or photographs to call attention to the display.
- Install a combination of recessed lighting (in the ceilings) and under-cabinet lighting (in the cabinet bottoms). The light will wash your countertop with focused light while illuminating your kitchen properly.
Recessed Light Fixture Installation
The best time to install recessed light fixtures is during initial construction or during major remodeling jobs, where you have access to ceiling joists to anchor the light fixture brackets and wiring boxes. Replacing standard ceiling fixtures with a recessed fixture on a finished ceiling can be more difficult, and it can sometimes involve removing ceiling surfaces to make framing alterations. However, many new recessed fixtures, especially those dedicated to LED light bulbs, are much smaller and easier to install within the openings for existing ceiling fixtures. Some fixtures are designed specifically for retrofit installation in an existing electrical box cutout.
The basic fixture sizes are 4-, 5-, or 6-inches for the "aperture" diameter. The 6-inch fixtures can be used in tall entryways or two-story hallways, while the smaller 4-inch sizes work better in smaller spaces since they have a sleeker, contemporary look with minimal intrusion.
Make sure the fixtures you have are rated for use near insulation (IC housing rated) whenever ceiling insulation is present. When a ceiling is not insulated, a fixture with non-IC housing may be used. Another advantage of LED-specific fixtures is that they do not create much heat and do not require framing adaptations when installed against ceiling insulation. Most LED-only fixtures are rated for use near ceiling insulation.
While installing recessed light fixtures is certainly possible for a DIYer with both basic carpentry and basic electrical wiring experience, it can be a somewhat more complicated job than simple light fixture replacement. Many people will prefer to have a licensed electrician do the installation of recessed fixtures.
Top Brands of Recessed Light Fixtures
A vast number of well-known companies manufacture recessed light fixtures, including Sylvania, Westinghouse, and Phillips, These well-known brands offer fixtures that you can rely upon. But there are also dozens of secondary off-brands, which in many cases are made by the same factories that make the major brands. These secondary brands are often proprietary to specific big-box home improvement centers or specific online retailers, and in many cases, the fixtures are virtually identical to name-brand fixtures—they just have different packaging and brand names. Provided these fixtures carry approvals from a major testing agency, such as UL (Underwriters Laboratories), there is no reason to avoid these secondary brands.
Recessed Light Fixtures vs. Track Light Fixtures
Track lighting offers many of the same benefits as recessed lighting for establishing targeted accent lighting. Design preferences for residential lighting do change over the years, and currently, track lighting is getting the nod as the more modern, trendy look, while recessed lighting is sometimes seen as rather dated. This is less true, however, for modern LED-style recessed lights, which are perfectly on-trend.
Style preferences aside, the main advantage of track light fixtures is that they are considerably easier for DIYers to install—you simply remove a ceiling fixture and replace it with a wiring track to which individual light cans can be installed and aimed wherever you want. Track lights can be moved around within the track, and re-aimed whenever you want to change the lighting scheme. The only disadvantage of track lights is that the fixtures are highly visible on the ceiling, which can be a problem if you want a clean, smooth look.
Types of Bulbs for Recessed Light Fixtures
When selecting or installing recessed lighting, several types of fixtures and bulbs are available for specific needs:
- Incandescent bulbs are inexpensive and good for general light or wall washing with the use of reflectors. These are being replaced with newer energy-efficient bulbs, such as LEDs.
- Light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs are the most energy-efficient lamps and have a very long life. They can also be installed in a smaller diameter aperture.
- Halogen bulbs offer a clean white light and are available in both flood and spot types in sizes to fit 4-, 5-, or 6-inch fixtures.
- Low voltage halogen bulbs have a long life and put out more light than incandescent bulbs, but require the use of transformers and special low voltage housings.
- Compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) are energy-efficient but they contain a small amount of toxic mercury. They are gradually phasing out in favor of LEDs.
The shape of the bulb is also a factor in the direction the light is emitted. These are the standard abbreviations:
- R (reflector) bulbs are the most common and have a reflective surface included on the back of the bulb so all of the light is emitted downward.
- BR (bulged reflector) bulbs flare near the base of the lamp to emit more light downward.
- PAR (parabolic aluminized reflector) bulbs are shaped for a tighter beam and are used for accent lighting.
- MR (multifaceted reflector) bulbs have facets on the inner reflective surface that act to produce a tight beam.
Are Recessed Light Fixtures Right for You?
When it comes to providing targeted accent or task lighting in a room, recessed light fixtures are an excellent choice. Your options will boil down to recessed light fixtures vs. track light fixtures. Choose recessed light fixtures when you want a hidden, low-profile look for your accent or task lighting. Choose track lighting if you want flexibility and easy DIY installation.
Know your home and its construction before purchasing any lighting components, since each installation will be unique. Get advice from an experienced electrical salesperson on what parts are needed for your space—including special wiring, transformers, bulbs, or IC-rated housings. In some local areas, you're required to obtain building permits to upgrade or install recessed lighting. If the project is too advanced for your skills, have your new lights installed by a qualified electrician.