RECESSED LIGHTING: Making Sense of all the Options

Recessed lighting combines gorgeous aesthetics and practical features in a way that no other lighting system can match. But to enjoy these benefits without nasty surprises, you need to understand some pretty obscure technical details as well as an astonishingly wide range of bulb, fixture and switch choices. Success with recessed lighting demands more thinking than other fixture systems, but the results are worth it.

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This angle-adjustable recessed light fixture delivers the kind of look that more and more people want. As recessed light technology changes this kind of fixture has become simpler and more affordable.

Recessed lights (also called “pot lights”) have come along way from the large, plain, ceiling-mounted floodlights that appeared in the 1960s and 70s. And the biggest difference between now and then is choice. There’s a lot more, and the first step towards working through all the options is identifying what you want to accomplish.

Are you after ambient lighting in an attic loft that’s not tall enough to handle hanging fixtures? Or how about spotlighting of art or collectibles? Perhaps you need to angle some light along a sloped ceiling of a second-story bedroom? All of these challenges and more can be easily met with the right kind of recessed fixtures and bulbs. The trick is to choose well. When it comes to recessed lights, most people think of aesthetics first. The part of a recessed light that you see is called the “trim ring”, and while choosing this component is important, hold on for a minute. Your first priority must be assessing your intended ceiling situation.

Right Light for the Job

The simplest way to come to a decision about recessed lighting is to ask yourself two questions:

  1. Low-voltage or high-voltage?
  2. Insulated or non-insulated ceiling space?

If your room needs a wide beam of light for general illumination, then consider a fixture that uses a 120-volt, flood-style light bulb. This is the so-called high voltage option and is also the simplest. The hardware is inexpensive, dimmer switches are cheap and replacement bulbs have the usual screw-type Edison base of the sort found on light bulbs everywhere.

On the downside, traditional, high-voltage recessed fixtures are often large and visually obvious. That’s why designers created small, low-voltage light systems that operate on 12 volts. The most popular of these use what’s called an MR16 bulb. With a face diameter of just 2 inches, these small, 12-volt bulbs are surprisingly bright and versatile. You’ll find them at most hardware stores, too.

Low-voltage, 12 volt fixtures are complicated by the need for a transformer to step down 120-volt household current, but what you get in return is greater visual options, especially in the MR16 category. That said, things have gotten simpler and cheaper lately. That’s a low-voltage fixture below. The transformer is in the metal box.

This non-IC recessed light fixture has holes and perforations through the white-coloured main body. It’s only suitable for use where the space above the fixture is heated.
Photo credit: Steve Maxwell

Break-Through Fixtures

Things have become more interesting in the last 10 years with simple, economical high-voltage recessed light fixtures that have small, stylish lenses. The last few batches of recessed fixtures I’ve installed are of this type and I like them a lot. Click  here for a model that I like a lot and that has worked well for more than 5 years. You can see them installed in the loft bedroom below.

120 volt, recessed fixtures in the center of this loft not only looks good, but provides light where other fixtures couldn’t fit.

What’s Above the Fixture?

The most important technical issue you need to deal with is the nature of the space above your recessed lights. Is it a heated, fully indoor space, such as an insulation-free joist cavity between two levels in a house? In this case, any kind of recessed fixture will do just fine, as long as it’s installed according to manufacturer’s directions, with nothing touching the fixture.

The holes in this curved ceiling are for recessed light fixtures. Could anything else look as good in this situation.

But if your recessed fixtures are to be surrounded by insulation — in a cold attic for instance — then you absolutely must use a fixture that bears the ‘IC’ designation. These letters stand for the words “insulation contact”. This means they’re safe even when completely shrouded in insulation, though there’s something else important about IC fixtures, too.

Besides being rated for safe insulation contact, IC fixtures are also designed to prevent warm, moist indoor air from leaking up through the fixture and condensing in the attic space during winter. This is key. IC fixtures are sealed, and if it weren’t for this key feature, frost and water would develop above them during cold weather, damaging the fixture and your home.

Dimming Low-Voltage Lights

Installing a dimmer control for a standard, 120-volt incandescent light bulb is a cheap and easy proposition. Just buy a $10 dimmer switch and wire it into the switch box. That’s it. But when it comes to low-voltage fixtures involving the popular MR16 bulbs, you need something more. Regular dimmers won’t work well here. They can cause buzzing sounds to come from internal transformers and also lead to overheating. The fact is, you need different dimmer controls for low-voltage applications, and this fact has some bearing on the recessed light fixtures you choose.

There are two types of transformers that reduce 120-volt household current to the 12 volts used by low voltage bulbs: magnetic or electronic. Most low-voltage systems use magnetic transformers, and the dimmer required to control them costs about $40. Not cheap, but not outrageous. These dimmers are designed to control “inductive” loads and are commonly available in hardware stores.

Other types of low-voltage fixtures have electronic transformers and most require a completely different and more expensive type of dimmer control. Expect to pay more than $100 for the kind of electronic dimmer hardware required here. So, if you have your heart set on dimmable recessed lights, ask before you commit to buying any particular feature.

Trim Rings

This is a trim ring for a recessed light fixture and it allows light to be directed down sloped ceiling. This is the part of you see on the finished ceiling. Dozens of different trim rings are available for a given kind of recessed light fixture

These are those parts of a recessed fixture that you see on the ceiling, and the choices here are easy. What do you like? Some trim rings hold the bulbs fixed, while others allow the bulb to be aimed at an angle. Not all trim rings fit onto all fixtures, so ask before you buy. There are thousands of recessed lights and trim rings on the market, and all of them offer a sleek elegance that you can’t quite get in any other way. Choose the right fixtures and trim rings for your space and taste, then enjoy what only modern lighting can do for your home.

I hope this article helps you choose better recessed light fixtures. Please consider helping me cover the cost of creating and publishing content like this. Click the “buy me a coffee” button below and it’ll take you to a fast, simple and safe page to make a contribution. Thank you very much.