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What You Should Know About Recessed Lighting

By Andrew Fraser on 01.05.2019 in Recessed Lighting, Scotlight Direct , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Recessed downlights are metal light fixtures that fit above a ceiling, rather than beneath it. When installed, light appears to emanate from a hole within the ceiling, concentrating it downwards. All that can be seen is a thin metal lining, known as the trim.

Also known as canister lights, downlights or pot lights, recessed lights are popular for their sleek and minimalistic look, often used as spotlights in homes and offices.

As they don’t have any dangling parts, recessed fixtures are also minimally invasive, making them ideal for small spaces with low ceilings.

If you’re thinking of having a recessed lighting fixture installed, there are many things to first consider. From safety to style, this article will provide all of the information you need to make the right choice.

Main parts of a Recessed Downlight
Key parts of a Recessed Lighting Fixture

The Key Components of a Recessed Lighting Fixture

Diagram Of Components In a Recessed Light Fitting

Recessed downlight fixtures are often comprised of three parts. These are:

  • Trim: The trim of the fixture is often the part that remains visible, while the rest of the unit is tucked away inside a ceiling hollow. When looking up into a recessed fixture, a thin metal lining may be visible around the edge of the light. That’s the trim.
  • Housing: The housing of the fixture is the fixture itself – the part that is concealed within the ceiling and contains the lamp holder. Its main function is to ensure that flammable materials do not come into contact with hot lighting fixtures, providing a protective barrier to separate components. Badly-housed fixtures can become a serious fire hazard, though this risk is often minimized with self-resetting thermal switches and IC-rated Lamp bulbs.
  • Lamp Bulb: Finally, the bulb fits inside of the housing to create a full recessed lighting fixture. The bulb is the light source, providing varying intensities of illumination depending upon its wattage.

These three base components can come in a range of different styles, shapes and sizes. Let’s take a closer look at the options available.

Trim Styles

Recessed Lighting Trim Styles

As said earlier, the trim of a recessed fixture is the only visible element. For that reason, manufacturers offer a range of different trim styles to suit buyers’ preferences. These styles include:

  • Baffle Trim: The most popular and commonly-used choice, baffle trims reduce glare using grooves that work to absorb excess light. Lamp Bulbs fit up and inside of baffle fixtures, rather than appearing flush against the ceiling.
  • Cone Trim: Cone style trims are round and dome-like, made to produce a low-brightness aperture. Multipliers can also be used, which aim to control and channel multi-directional light from A-style Lamp bulbs.
  • Reflector Trim: Reflector trims are similar to baffle styles, where Lamp bulbs are inset, while mirrored surfaces reflect rays to magnify illumination.
  • Open Trim: With open trims, the bulb is kept flush against the ceiling, offering unrestricted illumination and a sleek and stylish feel.
  • Lens Trim: Most commonly found in wet locations, lens trimming is designed to provide a widely-diffused light and protect the lamp from water damage.
  • Adjustable Trim: Adjustable trims allow users to alter the positioning and direction of the bulb. Whether in an eyeball style or gimbal ring, these lights offer full flexibility.
  • Wall-washer Trim: Wall-washer trims are designed, as their name suggests, to ‘wash’ walls with light. They have a special reflective trim installed inside to reflect light towards the wall, providing full and complete coverage.  

Trim Colors

Various Trim Colours Available

Recessed lighting trim typically comes in either black or white, made to absorb extra light and create a sleek, attractive architectural appearance.

There are, however, a number of other colorful variants available for choosing, such as:

Deciding on color can be tricky. You should take a look at the existing color palette of the room –  perhaps it has chrome-coated handles and silver accents – and try to match your trim coloration with other stylistic features.

Types of Housing

Housing types

In the USA, recessed lighting houses usually fall into one of the four following categories.

  • IC (Insulation Contact): IC-rated housings are fastened onto ceiling supports before the ceiling surface itself is installed, or installed from within attic spaces. In situations where insulation will come into direct contact with the housing, IC housings must be installed in order to prevent any risk of fire. The superior insulation and lower-wattage lamps required in IC-rated fixtures also increase their energy efficiency and are the most common styles found in residential installations.

Non-IC rated: Non-IC rated housings can be installed in exactly the same areas as their IC-rated counterparts. The only difference is that they require there to be no contact between the housing with at least 3-inches distance from it.

IC-rated remodel: IC-rated remodel housings are used in existing ceilings, rather than being installed before building, and can be used where insulation will come into contact with housing without presenting a fire risk.

Non-IC-rated remodel: Non-IC-rated remodel housings can also be used in existing ceilings where no insulation is present. If insulation is present, it must be kept at least 3-inches away from the housing.

Airtight: Airtight fixtures are especially important if lighting is being installed on the upper floor of a building. Air is unable to escape into the ceiling or attic and thereby reducing heating/cooling expenses.

Housings can also come in various sizes based upon the diameter of the circular opening, into which a bulb will be installed. The most common sizes are 4, 5 and 6 inches in diameter.

Recessed housing can also be air-tight, meaning that air is unable to escape into the ceiling or attic and thereby reducing heating/cooling expenses.

Some cities have additional requirements when it comes to housing, and it’s important to research these before making a choice. Chicago, for example, enforces a ‘Chicago Plenum’, whereby housing must be airtight and all wiring should be sealed off and gasketed from airspaces.

Bulb Styles

Styles of Lamp Bulbs

When selecting lamp bulb styles, you must keep in mind the fact that recessed lighting fixtures come fitted with a range of different sockets. It’s crucial, therefore, that you choose a bulb that fits your specific setup.

Some fixtures will take traditional screw-caps, while others may require a pin base. Be sure to double check the specifics of your fixture before purchasing Lamp bulbs, otherwise, they may not fit.

As for lighting styles, there are two primary categories of lamp bulb when it comes to recessed fixtures – directional and diffuse.

Directional lamps control and direct light through the use of reflectors, providing a spotlight effect, while diffuse Lamp bulbs provide a more widespread, expansive lighting style.

As well as these two factors, there are some other stylistic aspects to consider when selecting your Lamp bulbs:

  • Color temperature: Depending on the room you’re looking to install recessed lights in, you can choose between warmer and cooler bulb types. Warm tones offer a more relaxing, homely feel, while cool lighting is often better suited in modern business spaces.
  • Lamp Bulb type: There are several options to choose from when it comes to bulb types. Some of these include halogen Lamp bulbs, icandescent, CFLs, and the most energy efficient choice, LEDs – which are available in a wider variety of colors than most other Lamp bulbs.
  • Dimmable: As recessed fixtures remain fixed in a specific location after installation, it may be a good idea to use dimmable Lamp bulbs. That way, you can adjust the brightness of your lights to match the lighting requirements of each moment, using brighter lights in the morning and softer tones later in the day.
  • Lamp Bulb shape: Lastly, as recessed lighting is known for its seamless, somewhat invisible aesthetic, you’ll probably want to opt for a bulb that doesn’t poke out from your fixture – like a PAR16/GU10.

Lamp Bulb Angles

Various Angles Available For Lamp Bulbs

Any luminous object produces what is known as a ‘beam angle’. This angle simply measures the spread of illumination and light distribution from a particular light source – in this case, your Lamp bulbs.

Recessed downlights typically produce a fairly narrow beam angle of about 40 degrees, meaning that their light spreads primarily across a 40-degree angle and trails off afterwards.  

Some lights, like candles, produce a 360-degree beam angle as their spread is circular and evenly distributed, rather than directional. Other common angles include:

  • 25 degrees (spotlight)
  • 38 degrees
  • 60 degrees (floodlight)

Selecting a light with a wider beam angle doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll get more light, just that it’ll be spread further. The bulb’s intensity will lessen as its beam angle widens.

Deciding on a bulb with the right beam angle for your rooms will ensure that your lighting isn’t too bright, intense or spread out for your preferences. Rather, it’ll match the specific requirements of your setup.

The Advantages of Using Recessed Lighting

Advantages of Recessed Lighting
Advantages To Recessed Lighting


The primary advantage of using recessed lighting over other styles is their convenience. Without any hanging cords or switches, recessed fixtures make use of existing spaces without blocking your view.

Aside from a couple of outliers like side washings and flooring uplights, recessed lights are the only fixtures that remain completely invisible from sight, hiding away their cables and parts.

Ideal for Low Ceilings

Rooms that already lack space can benefit from recessed lighting. Basements, for instance, have very low ceilings and adding hanging ceiling lights would only reduce the limited space available. Recessed fixtures make the most of available room rather than reducing it or alternatively using flush ceiling lights.

Full Illumination

Standard lighting fixtures placed in the centre of a room may illuminate the middle of a room well but leave corners dimly lit. Recessed lighting, placed correctly, can provide maximum coverage to larger spaces by slotting into less-easily-accessible areas such as bay windows.


Tucked away from droplets and vapour, recessed lightings are the only fixtures which can be installed in water-sensitive environments like bathrooms and shower stalls.

An Undying Trend

Many lighting styles go in and out of fashion. Pendant lighting, for instance, is a popular choice in cafes and bars at the moment, though it is likely to phase out of popularity soon. Track lighting, on the other hand, is a trend that was abandoned in the 80s.

Recessed lighting appears to be immune to the fluctuating trends in lighting styles. It always has, and probably always will, remain a convenient, practical and popular option amongst interior designers.

When, and Why, You Should Avoid Recessed Lighting

Is there situations you should avoid using recessed lighting
Examples of when you should avoid using recessed lighting

If You’re Looking for Omni-Directional Lighting

Recessed lights are directional; they project light directly downwards. Unlike pendant lamps where Lamp bulbs are fully exposed and thus cast light in many different directions, light from recessed Lamp bulbs is projected in focused beams.

To some, this may be a disadvantage. Thankfully it  can be managed simply by adding more fixtures to areas of a room that do not receive the full benefits of central lighting.

If you’re looking for a more expansive light source with fewer Lamp bulbs, however, perhaps recessed fittings aren’t for you.

If You’re Concerned About Air Leakages

Not only are recessed lights situated on the ceiling where heat gathers, but the holes that accommodate recessed fixtures often have gaps between the wallboard and its light, allowing hot air to escape.

Some states and countries have strict regulations about keeping recessed lights completely air-tight, usually requiring users to install insulation.

This is usually an effective way to reduce air leakage, although the heat generated by lights can still become a fire hazard.

The safest solution is to purchase sealed or IC-rated lights as these allow close contact with insulation without any added risk.

How to Choose the Right Fixtures for You

Ways To Choose The Best Recessed Lighting Fixture

Once you’ve decided why and where you’d like to add your fixtures, it’s time to choose the right lights for your preferences. There are a number of factors to consider, such as:

  • What you want to illuminate
  • What size fixture and housing you’d prefer
  • Whether you’d like a diffused or directional light
  • Which trim best suits the rest of the room. Kitchen Downlights are very popular choices as are bathroom downlights.
Choosing The Right Fixture

But before weighing up these factors, your first concern should be safety. There are two crucial elements to consider in order to minimize risks when installing a recessed lighting fixture: insulation and the number of fixtures.

Insulation Compatibility In Recessed Lighting

Insulation Compatibility (IC-Rating) and Airtight Fixtures (AT)

As discussed previously, IC-rated fixtures are insulation compatible – meaning that they can come into contact with insulation without presenting a fire hazard.

It hasn’t always been this way, though. Old-school recessed lighting was notoriously inefficienti; it was unsealed and could not be covered in insulation, leading to large amounts of heat and air leakage.

So much so, in fact, that houses in a neighbourhood that made use of recessed lighting were easily noticeable as the escaped heat would cause any above snow coverage to melt.

As a way to tackle this issue, manufacturers began to develop insulation-compatible (IC) and airtight (AT) fixtures.

When assessing safety, there’s one key question you must ask yourself: will the ceiling be insulated? If it will, you’ll need to find an airtight, IC-rated fixture. And if not, you’ll be safe to use a non-IC-rated housing.

Choosing The Right Number Of Downlights

Circuits and Number of Fixtures

All recessed fixtures are hard-wired. You’ll need an experienced electrician to assist you in guiding the design of your lighting based upon the most appropriate choice for your home.

The number of fixtures that you can place in a room is largely dependent upon the maximum wattage of each individual fixture. As circuits can only carry a certain amount of wattage, you’ll need to strike a balance between the number and types of fixtures, as well as the types of Lamp bulbs you use.

Low-wattage Lamp bulbs, like LEDs, can be used in large quantities without exceeding the maximum wattage of your fixtures. These are usually the safest option for rooms that require multiple fixtures.

Style Preferences

After considering the necessary safety precautions listed above, it’s time to decide on which fixtures look best and suit your preferences. The beam angle of your Lamp bulbs will change the look of your lights and allow you to achieve the appearance you like.

  • Narrow beams provide a spotlight effect, with highly-concentrated and directional beams of light.
  • Wide beam angles offer larger, more distributed pools of light that cover larger areas.
How To Choose The Right Beam Angle
Choosing Between Recessed Lighting Kits

Recessed Lighting Kits

Purchasing different parts to install a recessed lighting fixture can be confusing, especially when there are so many things to consider.

This problem can be avoided using a recessed lighting kit. These include both housing and trim in one convenient package, available for many different types and styles of lighting.

  • LED retrofit kits allow you to convert incandescent lights into LED, and are also compatible with pre-existent housings.
  • Low-voltage kits use a transformer to reduce household wattage, helping to bring down energy costs. Some of these kits will have an inbuilt transformer, while others require you to purchase one separately. Although this method is still available to purchase we recommend using the above two options as this type of kit is now being gradually phased out.


Once you’ve taken every factor into consideration and decided on the right recessed fixtures for you, it’s time to install your lighting set up.

This can be done by seeking the help from a licensed electrician. Scotlight Direct have also made a handy guide on how to arrange and position downlights which you can view by clicking here.