Recessed Housing Basics

By Kellie K. Speed | Mar 15, 2014




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Recessed housings have come a long way since their initial introduction into the marketplace. Today, more electrical contractors are using low voltage housings to provide task lighting and are including further accents with a full range of trims.

When installing fixtures with standard voltage, low voltage halogen, or fluorescent fixtures, the typical sizes of these units are 4 to 6 inches in diameter. The larger size fixtures can be used in heightened entryways or cathedral ceilings, while the smaller units offer a sleeker, more modern design and look.

It is important to ask the client exactly which areas they would like to have highlighted. For example, determine if there is a space that needs bright light for reading or soft dimmed light for watching television.

Fluorescent recessed housings with fluorescent ballasts offer a great design and use for energy savings while offering an extended lamp life, but light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are making in-roads and have changed the game in some cases. If the units are being installed in hard-to-reach places—i.e. large and open entryways where access is limited—most contractors are looking to these efficient and long-lasting housing installations.

These new LED housings may actually be way more than just a housing in a traditional sense. Recessed LEDs include the fixutre, driver, lamp, heat sink in one single item. You can put in the new fixture, connect it to a power source, and go. 

Finish trims add the final touch to recessed housings. A variety of adjustable or directional trims are available to enhance and direct light to a specific area. Other housings are designed for a specific type of lamp, as diameters are used specifically for general lighting while others are designed for accent lighting. Some recessed housings are designed specifically for sloped ceilings or high vaulted ceilings.

Recessed housings are designed to create a smooth and trimless look. These installations are looking to these fixtures to maximize the ever-popular minimalist environment while increasing the architectural detail for not only residential, but also commercial projects. The housings apertures are available in sizes designed for general lighting, accent and task lighting and high ceiling lighting.

Since labor is always an important consideration, many lighting manufacturers have introduced products that have helped contractors provide a smoother, easier installation. Some companies offers housings that have preinstalled nails and even include an automatic leveling flange that enables you to align the housing and hold it in place while securing to the joists. Other innovations to solve labor considerations are available.

When installing these units, be sure to keep in mind housing aperture size, which determines the diameter of the opening that will emit not only the light beam, but also the size of the ceiling opening.

In the residential marketplace, recessed downlights are the most popular selections for residential lighting fixtures. While some downlights use standard incandescent lamps, many are designed to use reflector lamps such as P (Parabolic), R (Reflector) and MR lamps. These products are fairly simple to install, offer a classically appealing look and offer ample task light when located over a work area.

The recessed housings are typically available in the following types:

  • Standard thermally protected (type T)
  • Insulated ceiling (IC)
  • Airtight insulated ceiling (AIC or ICAT)
  • Remodeler (RT)
  • Insulated ceiling remodeler (ICR)

The increasingly popular IC-rated housings are affixed to the ceiling supports before the ceiling surface is installed. Code requirements ensure these units do not overheat when they come in contact with insulation because they could cause a fire hazard. These 75-watt (W) maximum housings must be installed where insulation comes in direct contact with the housing.

Non-IC rated housings, which are typically rated up to a maximum 150W, can still be used in similar installations as the IC-rated new construction housings but require no insulation come in contact with the fixture, and they must be placed at least four inches away from all insulation. Sloped-ceiling housings are available for both insulated and non-insulated, vaulted ceilings.

When installing recessed housings, another point to consider is proximity to power. For example, if there is a ceiling box where the light will be installed, it is easy enough to just disconnect the wires from the box and reattach them to the cut-in can.

Be sure to take careful note of the rating of each housing before installation as the National Electrical Code requires an IC-rated housing be installed if insulation is present. The Code generally requires airtight IC housings be installed to minimize airflow between conditioned living space and non-conditioned attic or plenum.

IC housings are designed to ensure no flammable materials come into contact with the lighting fixture when it reaches an elevated temperature. If they are not installed properly or if a housing is used that is designed to shut off when a temperature reaches a certain point, these poorly installed downlights could potentially put a home or building at risk of a fire hazard.

Today, nearly all of the newer housings contain a thermal reset switch designed to shut off for safety purposes. Smaller installations can be accomplished between ceiling joists of newer constructed buildings. When completing a major renovation, other recessed fixtures, which are placed into an existing ceiling space through holes made to accommodate wiring, are designed specifically for retrofit applications.

Low voltage halogen lamps offer a much longer life and distribute more illumination than incandescent lamps, although they require the use of transformers and special low voltage housings. Dimming controls can easily be installed and are available to accommodate halogen housings.

The low voltage recessed housings allow precise recessed accent lighting from low voltage housings. Remodeling recessed housings can be used with installations where there is no access above the ceiling. These housings are designed specifically for easy installation into a finished ceiling, offering lighting that could not have been possible before the install.

Some housing manufacturers recently brought to the marketplace a range of recessed plaster housings, which are side-mounted and can be installed during the initial stage of construction.

For safety, the unit includes a thermal protector that deactivates the fixture if it overheats. Available with a variety of trim options, you no longer have to guess which housing belongs with which trim. The can and trim come packaged together. This combined packaging greatly simplifies the often confusing process of selecting recessed lighting.

Installing recessed fixtures isn't difficult. If you have dropped ceilings or access from above—e.g., from the attic—that's easiest of all. The job is a bit trickier when you don't have access, but fortunately, most manufacturers offer special remodeling fixtures for this kind of job.

Whatever the challenge in recessed lighting, manufacturers have found many innovative ways to solve almost any application. Work with your local distributor to learn more and find these solutions to provide safe, efficient lighting while saving labor costs in installation time.

About The Author

Kellie Speed is a freelance writer based in Weymouth, Mass. She can be reached at 617.529.2676 or [email protected].





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