Subtle Glow


Recessed lighting gains popularity

It's easy to see why recessed lighting has become so popular in recent years; with the flip of a switch, nearly hidden fixtures provide a warm glow to any room. When the lights are turned off, the fixtures seem to blend into the ceiling, leaving no visible cords or lamps.

Today, there are a large number of recessed lighting styles, available in both low-voltage (small but bright halogen bulb) and line voltage (traditional reflector bulb).

Downlights consist of just a few simple parts: housing, trim and lamp, but each selection is vital to the overall look of the finished product.

Fluorescent recessed housings with fluorescent ballasts are the best choice for energy savings and extending the lamp life. These are also ideal for difficult ceiling applications. Housing aperture size determines the diameter of the opening that emits the beam of light and size of the opening in the ceiling. Recessed housing apertures are available in different sizes designed for general lighting, accent and task lighting and high ceiling lighting.

“In recessed lighting in general, the trend is to go towards small aperture recessed lighting,” said Phil Scheetz, home systems marketing manager for Lutron.

Incandescent and halogen recessed housings offer economical efficiency and versatility for recessed lighting fixtures. For further accent, there is a variety of recessed trims:

  • Baffles emit narrow light distribution by minimizing glare to reduce overall brightness.
  • Reflectors maximize light distribution for accent, task and ambient lighting.
  • Adjustable trims provide for the versatility of ceiling lighting fixtures and are uniquely designed to create added emphasis on artwork.
  • Ceiling reflector trims reduce glare.
  • Open trims create a finished look for lighting fixtures, are easy to install and are also economically efficient.

When the installation is complete, the selection of recessed lighting lamps/light bulbs is the final, but most important step.

Incandescent light bulbs are the most popular choice because of their economical cost and ready availability in different sizes for various uses.

The following lamps are most popular with recessed lighting fixture installations:

  • A—Standard bulbs for wide-beam light in reflectors and diffusers used for general lighting applications
  • MR16—A small-beam pinhole lamp for precise light control, which emits a bright white light popular for dramatic accent lighting
  • PAR—Commonly used to generate wider area lighting or for task lighting and general room lighting
  • R—These bulbs emit a smaller light beam to enable greater control in accent and display lighting.

However, there are other developments and trends taking off in recessed lighting.

“One of the things we have been seeing in some parts of the country is, in many years, compact fluorescent lighting being used in commercial lighting, especially on the West Coast,” Scheetz said. “The ability to control the fluorescence of the light and ability to create fluorescent lighting has been a breakthrough.”

“In residential installations, we didn’t see much in the way of compact fluorescent lighting,” Scheetz said. “In the future, we see lights with LEDs. We do a lot of control lighting with recessed fixtures, architectural accents and façade lighting.”

Energy efficiency has been of primary concern in recent years with the rising cost of electricity. Fluorescent bulbs have gained popularity because they last longer, and are also dimmable, so they use less energy than incandescent bulbs.

“As electrical contractors are getting into this market, they are using dimmers and offering further energy savings to the consumer,” Scheetz said.

To prevent risks

Safety, however, is a concern with this lighting type. With recessed lighting, there is a small chance of a danger. To avoid it, you must take the proper steps to ensure correct installation. Most electrical fires can be prevented if the wiring and outlets are installed correctly, function properly and are well maintained. Insulated and noninsulated housings must be installed at least three inches away from any insulation to prevent a fire hazard. If direct contact with insulation is necessary, a recessed lighting housing must have a UL-insulated ceiling rating.

If you are using low-voltage lighting, be sure to keep in mind that if the voltage is very low and the required current for a given voltage is much higher, the wire could overheat. As such, safety should always be of primary concern, especially when installing fixtures in older properties. Many residential fires have resulted from improperly installed recessed light fixtures, especially in older homes where homeowners have covered older fixtures with insulation.

To combat fire danger, today’s recessed fixtures have a built-in thermal protector that automatically turns the light off when the fixture gets too hot. To further lower the temperature and potential fire hazard, be sure to use a lower wattage bulb. As always, check the latest National Electrical Code (NEC) to implement important safety rules.

All recessed fixtures should be mounted to joists, which are generally located 16 inches apart and can be located with a stud finder. Then, saw a hole for the fixture’s correct size and location that permits the recessed light to be mounted where it can be screwed into the ceiling joist. Simply attach the electrical wiring to the fixture’s junction box, fasten it with a cable clamp and mount the light in its proper location.

Recessed applications

Installation in most cases is very simple, especially with new construction, but it can be more difficult with existing buildings. The metal housing has a bracket that gets nailed or screwed right into the joists before the ceiling is drywalled. Most manufacturers offer special retrofit units that require only a small opening. Contractors can then easily measure the unit and cut the hole into the drywall to insert the fixture. In new or existing construction, ceilings containing insulation require special heatproof fixtures.

The general rule is if recessed lighting is your only source of built-in light in a room, allow one fixture for every 25 square feet of floor space. For warm, ambient lighting, use floodlight reflector bulbs.

In new construction, generally speaking, recessed lights are installed after framing and before drywall.

If the ceiling is drywall, the installation is much simpler. It consists of cutting slots in the drywall and drilling through the joists, enabling cable to run from one fixture to another. Standard-size fixtures need about 8 inches of space between the ceiling and the floor above.

If the ceiling is plaster, installing recessed fixtures can be more difficult. Furthermore, if the area above the plaster ceiling is closed in, recessed lighting may not be an option. Track lighting may be a possibility in these situations, offering a similar lighting system that can be controlled with dimmers.

Of course, there are situations where access to above the ceiling is not possible. In these cases, install remodeling recessed housings. Specifically designed for easy installation into a finished ceiling, remodeling housings can create ceiling lighting where it was not possible before.

Recessed locations

Recessed lighting can be used throughout the home. Recessed fixtures are becoming increasingly popular in kitchens to brighten up areas where tasks, like meal preparation, are performed. Some accent fixtures, including mini pendants, are being added as decorative accents to complement another nearby light fixture. Dimmers can easily be added to recessed fixtures and further enhance the overall lighting by creating a specific mood.

For task lighting, eliminating shadows on the task area and preventing glare from spilling over into other areas requires careful consideration. Accent lighting, on the other hand, must be more precise and of higher intensity than the surrounding ambient illumination. Trims that provide directional control, such as eyeballs and adjustables, are especially effective in accent lighting applications.

Home theater installations, which necessitate recessed lighting, are becoming increasingly popular. The area lighting for home theater installations is usually arranged in two or three rows.

These installations should involve the separation into two different circuits to enable independent control over the lights closest to the front of the room, those nearest to the screen and the lights in the rear of the room over the seating. If the bulbs are recessed for the lights closest to the screen, it will help reduce the amount of light that falls on the screen, thereby minimizing distracting glare.

Today’s homeowners want their light fixtures to be as flexible as their environments. As a result, electrical contractors are tested to create an effective lighting plan that provides for a cohesive overall design.   EC

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





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