Out of Sight, Out of Mind

When installing recessed fixtures, carefully consider the location of the units. The presence of combustible materials surrounding the luminaire is very important, and recessed lights can act as chimneys for heat loss and moisture transfer into attic spaces. Many residential fires have resulted from improperly installed or modified recessed light fixtures, but they can be easily avoided.

In older homes that may have existing recessed lighting fixtures, homeowners sometimes cover these fixtures with insulation. As a result, the insulation traps the heat created by the bulb and either melts the insulation on the electrical wiring or ignites combustible materials, which is, of course, a fire hazard.

It is vital to ensure the area surrounding the recessed fixture is insulated properly. In addition to fire, the interior of a property could be compromised if air leakage occurs, resulting in moisture, condensation and mold. Sealing the building properly reduces air movement in and out of the building. Uncontrolled air movement will negatively impact the heating and cooling systems, resulting in higher initial and ongoing maintenance costs.

There certainly is a lot to consider when installing recessed lighting. For help, consult the National Electrical Code (NEC). Article 410 Parts M and N offer special provisions for recessed luminaires installed in walls or ceilings. Most of these Code requirements are designed to protect combustible building materials from temperatures greater than 90°C (194°F).

Today’s code requirements ensure recessed lighting fixtures installed in the building envelope are “Type IC” (insulation cover rated). These fixtures should be used wherever ceiling insulation is present, as they are favored for their safety, energy efficiency and utility. Unlike their predecessors, IC fixtures can be covered with insulation and are designed to reduce energy loss. As a result, the insulation can be placed in direct contact with the fixture housing without fire hazard concern.

From unfeasible to a booming market

When they first were being installed nearly 20 years ago, recessed lights initially were installed in roof rafter spaces where insulation was required. Problems were encountered when code makers and lighting manufacturers advised against placing insulation within several inches of the fixtures. As a result, heat leaked out of the fixtures, and cold air came into the house. Until there was a better solution, many homeowners lost interest in having recessed fixtures installed in their homes.

“Fire rated downlighting applications require continuous ceiling barriers,” said Ron Newbold, Prescolite, Director of Product Development. “Constructing a field-fabricated fire barrier uses additional tools, supplies and labor and often times results in inadequate protection of the structure. This process not only leads to several inspector visits, but also causes many challenges for owners, contractors and authorities.”

The Underwriters’ Laboratory (UL) stepped in and developed guidelines that permitted manufacturers to build recessed lighting fixtures, which could be completely covered with insulation. Today, these fixtures carry the IC designation to guarantee safety.

UL also mandated recessed lights be equipped with a safety override switch within the fixture to prevent fire hazards. As a result, the switch was equipped with a sensor that would caution when the light fixture trapped too much heat. The safety switch would automatically turn off the light, and once the fixture had cooled, the light would turn itself back on.

To address the insulation problem, some states have revised their code requirements, so all recessed ceiling fixtures meet strict air tightness requirements to reduce energy and limit moisture through building cavities. Airtight recessed cans have proven to isolate the can from the living space. These are designed to save the customer money by reducing heating and air-conditioning costs and will meet all airtight requirements.

Some codes address the heat problem by allowing the user to space the insulation no closer than 3 inches away, while other state codes do not permit use of non-IC housings if insulation is present. These non-IC housings still are used today because they usually allow for higher wattages. With the introduction of the new IC airtight housings that can handle the same higher wattages, these non-IC housings are being slowly phased out of the industry, and more codes are being satisfied across the board.

Most IC-rated fixtures are double-can fixtures with one can installed inside another. The outer can, which can come in direct contact with insulation, is tested to remain cool enough during use and is not combustible. Be sure to keep note of all products when doing an installation. If a fixture does not have an IC rating noted on it, it cannot be installed in a location intended to be insulated.

As a result of these added features, the demand for recessed lighting from consumers and homeowners has increased dramatically. They now are actually feasible, and consumers find the idea of a hidden fixture attractive.

Companies have realized the demand for these new installations. Over the past decade, many lighting manufacturers have designed different housing and trim packages, and they are all over the lighting market, almost creating a market of their own.

In your hands

To comply with the NEC and to make it easier for electrical contractors, luminaire product standards now are in place to contain testing, construction and marking requirements for recessed applications. The products are rated for specific required installation clearance between luminaire parts and combustible materials. Manufacturers provide recessed luminaries with a thermal protector or determine them to be protected before they leave the manufacturer.

That puts the responsibility in your hands. Proper installation of a recessed fixture will result in reduced moisture condensation, minimizing drafts and will also prevent issues affiliated with insulation coming in direct contact with non-IC fixtures. Prior to installing each fixture, it is important to gain a fuller understanding of these ratings to ensure proper installation of the recessed luminaires while complying with the Code requirements.

One of the biggest factors you must consider in installation is where the recessed fixture will go. In a living room, place fixtures approximately 8 feet apart to provide general unobtrusive light that will not clash with room furnishings. An added dimmer allows adjustable light levels for any activity or occasion. These fixtures should be about 18 to 24 inches from the wall, spaced one to one-and-a-half times the distance from the wall.

Luminaires located in bathtub and shower zones must be listed for the location. When subject to shower spray, they must be specifically listed for wet locations. If installing the luminaire in the ceiling above the shower space, it will not be subject to shower spray. As such, it only needs to be listed for a damp location.

Additional support

To ensure your customers get the most reliable recessed luminaries, there are other codes and standards in place past the NEC. The majority of building energy codes now require recessed cans installed in the building shell to be airtight. The International Building Code Section 711.4.2 states, “Where floor/ceiling assemblies are required to have a minimum 1-hour fire resistance rating, recessed fixtures shall be installed such that the required fire resistance of the ceiling will not be reduced.”

In addition, the Uniform Building Code states, “When materials are incorporated into an otherwise fire-resistive assembly that may change the capacity for heat dissipation, fire test results or other substantiating data shall be made available to the building official to show that the required fire-resistive time period is not reduced.”

The Department of Energy has instituted a program that tests several new, energy-efficient recessed downlights for performance in insulated ceilings. These test requirements are used to determine compliance of the luminaire. The thermal protector must function properly when a luminaire is operated in an abnormal condition.

Regardless, all recessed fixtures are to be installed in accordance with the NEC in order to comply with all local regulations instituted by the building and electrical inspectors. Since recessed luminaires entered the market, there have been many developments to ensure their safety and efficiency. It is likely you have installed many to date, but it is important to realize how dangerous they can be. Be sure to use IC-rated fixtures installed correctly with proper consideration given to location and use.

SPEED is a freelance writer based in Weymouth, Mass. She can be reached at 617.529.2676 or kkspeed@aol.com.

About the Author

Kellie K. Speed

Freelance Writer
Kellie Speed is a freelance writer based in Weymouth, Mass. She can be reached at 617.529.2676 or kkspeed@aol.com .

Stay Informed Join our Newsletter

Having trouble finding time to sit down with the latest issue of
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR? Don't worry, we'll come to you.