All You Need to Know about Recessed Lighting – The Best Buying Guide

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Trying to spot the best recessed lights? At first glance, they all look good. But it’s the technical details which make all the difference. Any home décor ideas will vanish in thin air if you don’t make the right choice. Why? Choosing pot lights with the wrong features can jeopardize your safety. And I am sure this is not your intention. With this buying guide, I aim at making things easier for first-time buyers. What’s important is for you to know which features to focus on, what to look for, and how to give the perfect lighting effect in each room. You will find the information you need in this recessed lighting buying guide. After all, understanding how to select the right products is the first step to brighter environments.

What Are Recessed Lights?

Recessed lighting aka pot lights, down lights, or can lights is a fixture, which is installed in a ceiling (and wall) cavity. As its name implies, it’s recessed. And so it doesn’t occupy space, which is important in low ceiling rooms. Such types of lights consist of a housing, trim, and bulb and come out in different finishes to accentuate the appeal of the room. You can find them in different sizes and shapes and lay them out in any configuration.

What’s the Hype about Recessed Lighting?

Pot lights have become very popular. They are used broadly by interior designers and are the number one lighting choice for home improvements. The reasons? Multiple. Let’s focus on the basics:

  • With the right layout and installation, pot lights can work wonders. They add architectural interest to the room without making it busy. You hardly notice them, but they are there to light the room and create the ideal ambiance to the indoor environment.
  • No other fixture will work better on drop ceilings. With low ceilings, lighting choices are limited unless you don’t might bagging the head to pendants. And they will work well on any ceiling – even slanted ones. With adjustable housings, you can have sufficient lighting in the room regardless of the ceiling height and texture.
  • There are also outdoor pot lights. No more dull balconies and patios. As long as the fixtures are designed for wet locations, you can bright up your nights outdoors with safety.
  • With so many choices, you can use them as accent lights to make artwork stand out or illuminate task-oriented areas.
  • They fit perfectly well under kitchen cabinets or in closets. And so no more searching for your favorite shirt or tomato soup in the dark.

Got the idea? In short, you can use them as a vital interior design element for both aesthetic and practical purposes. So, it’s a win-win. But there is more to recessed lighting if you want the best effect: technical details. Nobody likes them but they are a must.

Purpose of Recessed Lighting Installation

Before you get to know more about recessed lighting and which ones to buy, it’s best to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Remodel or New Construction? It will make a difference to the housing you get. And that’s because there are differences in the fixture when you DO have access to the ceiling and when you just simply want to install it to the existing one. I explain the difference between the housing types below.
  • IC-Rated or Non-IC-Rated? Aha, that’s the most interesting part. It has to do with your safety. You MUST choose IC-Rated housing when it will be in direct contact with insulation to avoid a fire. If there is no such necessity, you can simply get non-IC-Rated housing.
  • Line or Low Voltage? That’s too technical for you to decide unless you have expert knowledge. Otherwise, you will need the assistance of a pro. As an overall, what you should know is that line voltage operates directly on the house’s 120 volt current and is needed when you will use up to 150W lamps. Low voltage uses a 12 volt current and so it’s more energy efficient. But if you want to install dimmable recessed lighting, you will need a transformer.
  • Dry vs Wet Location? Moisture will take its toll if you don’t use the right products designed for wet locations. So if you are seeking recessed lighting for the bathroom, shower room, or outdoors, make sure it has a label saying that it’s suitable for wet locations.
  • Task, decorative or accent lighting? Decorative lighting is best for living rooms and dining rooms. That’s what we also call general or ambient lighting since we simply try to illuminate the room. With task lighting, we try to light work areas where we need intense brightness. Lastly, accent lighting helps you bring out the elegance of artwork, displays, or particular objects in the room.

The Most Important Technical Features of Recessed Lighting

How to choose the right HOUSING

That sounds tricky. Doesn’t it? So, what’s housing? It’s the part of the fixture you don’t see. It’s the pot light section, which is fitted inside the ceiling cavity and holds both the bulb and trim. Why is it important to choose the right one? Because:

  • They differ in terms of size
  • Each ceiling is different
  • There is often insulation over the ceiling
  • And you don’t always have access to the ceiling from above

Let’s see:

Which are the main housing types?

  • New construction housing is the ideal choice when the building is currently constructed or you add an extra floor. During such processes, you have access above the ceiling and this makes the installation easier. These housing types are usually nailed on adjustable brackets.
  • How about when you are simply remodeling? What happens when you don’t have access above the ceiling? In this case, you use remodeling housing. They are made to be fitted once cavities are opened in the ceiling.
  • IC-Rated housing is made to protect you from a fire. Don’t be alarmed but notice that there is insulation above top floor, attic, and basement ceilings. Lights generate heat and so if they come in contact with insulation (which is combustible), a fire might start. You don’t want that. Do you now? And that’s why these special housing types are designed for.
  • Although the trim of the pot lights covers the cavity, there is still a slight chance that there will be microscopic gaps. To keep air from entering and energy from escaping, you can use air tight housing.
  • Sloped housing is used in vaulted ceilings. As we have already explained, recessed lighting can be fitted in any ceiling, including slanted ones. But you need to get these special housing types, which are sloped to fit perfectly.
  • Low profile types are used when there is limited space over the ceiling and the housing must be smaller.

Which are the housing sizes? They range from 4” to 6” with the latter being the most popular one. The size of the housing will determine the aperture. In other words, how big the hole in the ceiling will be.

Which TRIM Options You Have

Let’s focus more on aesthetics. The trim is the visible part of the recessed light. It’s the ring, which embraces the lamp. Although round trims prevail, square designs grow in popularity lately. They come out in white, black, bronze, and more. To give you one more inspiring interior design idea, there are also glass trims. What makes these types inviting is that they create a sparkling sense and so add more elegance to the room.

Let’s go back to focus on a few more technical terms. Apart from aesthetic enhancement, trims serve a number of practical purposes and so there are different types, like:

  • Baffle trims. What’s baffle? It’s the device that can soften light, sound, and fluids. And so in our case, it reduces glare by employing ridges. These types are ideal for environments where a gentle shed of light suffices.
  • Now if you want dazzling light, you need reflector trims. They are ideal in offices, warehouses, high ceilings, kitchens etc. As you have probably figured out, their functionality is the exact opposite of baffle trims.
  • Wall wash trims are designed with a shield covering half the lamp so that the beam will focus on a particular part in the room – a painting, fireplace, armchair – you name it! This is clearly an interior design trick, which allows you to play with the surfaces and items and even give the impression that a room is larger than it actually is.
  • Adjustable trims allow you to direct the light exactly where you want it. Simply put, the fixture can rotate and revolve enabling you to light any part of the room. And if you change your mind or redecorate, you can readjust it. These types of trims are very practical compared to stationary ones since you can highlight any part in the space at any angle.
  • Pinhole trims are designed to cover lighting projects, which demand some precision. Light is concentrated and sends a precise beam on an object.
  • If you intend to replace bathroom lighting, get shower recessed lighting trims. They are approved to be used in wet locations and are moisture resistant. They have a rubber gasket and glass diffuser, which keep the fixture water proof. Since these trims are rated to resist water and moisture, you can install them in the shower, Jacuzzi, or any other wet location.

Trim sizes? The most common ones are 4”. But their size ranges from 3” to 6”. It will depend on ceiling size, how many fixtures you want to install, and your personal taste.

Which Type of BULB to Get

What you need to know is that each bulb will produce a different amount of light, emit a different color of light, and will consume a different amount of energy. But, let’s start with your choices. Although technology in lighting keeps changing, you can still find the following four types of bulbs on the market.

  • Incandescent bulbs are the traditional types and currently the cheapest ones on the market. But they consume too much energy and don’t last for long. To understand why their technology is outdated, think that only 10% of their energy is converted into light. The rest is converted into heat.
  • Halogen lamps actually belong to the incandescent bulb family. Their difference is that their filament is hosted in a small gas-capsule. Their advantage is that they emit brighter light and last a tad longer.
  • Compact Fluorescent (CFL) bulbs are either spiral or tubed. They cost a bit more than incandescent and halogen lamps but they last longer.
  • LED (Light Emitting Diode) lamps are the latest technology in lighting. They are more expensive than any other bulb but once you place them, you forget to change them. That’s how long they last.

Talking about LEDs, let’s just add that there is another option for outdoor applications. This is the RGB-LED light (Red, Green, Blue LED). To get an idea, picture a fixture which can be programmed to emit light in many color combinations at any speed you like. Time to ditch the Christmas lights? Well, these little guys can do the same job and they are also controlled by a remote and switch.

Why LEDs Prevail

No wonder why traditional lamps are at the edge of falling into oblivion. Here is a quick list of the LED benefits:

  1. The life expectancy of LEDs is 100,000 hours. That’s having the lights turned on all the time for eleven years. Awesome!!! Isn’t it?
  2. Compared to other choices, LEDs are energy efficient by 80-90%. What this means is that they convert 80-90% of their energy into light. And that brings us to another benefit.
  3. They don’t get heat up. So you can touch them without burning your hands and the room is not heated up either. (Talking about these hot summer nights when you simply refuse to turn on the lights – for a good reason too).
  4. Since they don’t contain mercury, which is not environmentally friendly, they are eco products and 100% recyclable.
  5. They are made with sturdy parts and so they are extremely durable. They operate fine in very cold and hot environments.
  6. With LEDs, there are zero UV emissions and limited infrared light. And so they can be used in environments, where the protection of goods sensitive to heat (artwork, archeological findings etc.) is essential.

Should You Use LEDs to Traditional Housings or Not?

This is one of the most frequently asked questions. Since LED lamps have become very popular, you might be wondering whether you can just swap the traditional lamp with a LED without replacing the fixture. The truth is that as long as you get the right size lamp, you can use it to the existing, traditional fixture. It’s the most cost-effective and simple way to have the benefits of LED lamps without going through the hassle of changing the fixture.

BUT… Is it safe? The problem is that new and old technologies are not always compatible. So a LED lamp in an incandescent or halogen housing might trip the circuit breaker. Since the LED won’t be hosted in the right housing, increased heat might reduce its lifespan too.

Should You Choose Dimmable Pot Lights or Not?

YES!!! At least that’s our humble opinion! The benefit of dimmable pot lights is that you can adjust the light as you wish. Let’s say you are in the kitchen preparing food. You will need 100% light emission. But when you walk out, you can use the dimmer switch to adjust the light. That’s in case you have an open plan kitchen and don’t want dark corners at home or have kids running around and you don’t want them to bump their heads in the kitchen. If your dimmable lights are also LED, you save extra energy. And so you save money. Dimmable lights are very practical.

Which Is the Ideal Color Temperature for You?

The color temperature of the light defines how cool or warm it is. This is critical to the ambiance you want to create. It’s also essential if you are looking for accent or task lighting. The color temperature is estimated in the Kevin Color Temperature Scale Chart. As an overall, the larger the number, the cooler the light.

  • Color temperatures above 5000K are bluish white and are recommended in kitchens, offices, and other environments where the light must be as close as possible to the daylight.
  • Color temperatures ranging from 3000K to 5000K are considered bright white and they go well in bathrooms, work environments and other areas where clear light is required.
  • In areas, where warm colors are more inviting, you should choose color temperatures lower than 3000K. They go well in living rooms, where you need a more friendly light tone.

Know Your Lumens, Forget Watts

Those of us who grew up with traditional lamps have learned our watts and know nothing about lumens. We have learned that the higher the watts, the brighter the light. With lumens, scratch that out! Let me start with a simple comparison: an incandescent 60-watt lamp is not equivalent to a LED 60-watt lamp. The latter will simply blind you. With energy efficient lamps, you need lower watts. And so the ratings have changed. That’s why we use lumens nowadays to estimate the brightness of lamps. Not that measuring in lumens is new, but it’s displayed in packaging since 2011. What lumens actually measure is energy and not brightness. So instead of getting a traditional 60-watt incandescent lamp, get its equivalent LED of 800 lm (that’s the abbreviation for lumens).

Extra Tips for Successful Recessed Lighting Installation

  1. Laying out the recessed lights to create the effect you want to give is essential. Anarchy is out of the equation. What’s recommended is installing 4-inch lights about 4 feet apart and 6-inch lights about 6 feet apart.
  2. Avoid installing pot lights in concrete and plastic ceilings. It will be too hard to do. Recessed lights fit better in drywall ceilings.
  3. Find out what the building codes in your area are. These regulations apply on electrical installations too.
  4. If you are looking for LED light strips, don’t just focus on the length of the strip but also on the number of LEDs. The higher the number the better. With fewer LEDs, the strip will serve as spotlights.

Which Recessed Lighting Brands to Get?

I am going to call a spade a spade, there are tens of brands. And the last thing I want is to underline the benefits of one manufacturer at the expense of another. But since it’s always helpful to have the names of some manufacturers handy, here is a short list:

  • Elco Lighting
  • Juno Lighting/Aculux
  • Iris
  • Halo
  • USAI Lighting
  • Element Lighting

Now, what’s convenient about lighting is that you can find a handful of options in many stores. Home Depot has a wide variety of recessed lighting but you can also find plenty of options in Wayfair. You can also get housings, trims, and kits.

Let’s Sum Up Real Quick

What you should focus on when buying recessed lights is their housing, trim, and bulb. It’s always best to use LEDs and prefer dimmable options. Pay attention to outdoor and shower lights. They should be designed for wet locations. Don’t forget to consider the purpose of installing the lights and accordingly choose decorative, task, or accent lighting. DO check if there is insulation above the ceiling to avoid surprises. And don’t forget that it makes a difference if you are remodeling or want recessed lighting for a new construction.

That’s all folks! I think we covered the most important points you should know before you buy recessed lights. I hope the info is helpful!


Alexia studied sociology at Essex University and did postgraduate studies at Sussex University in the media field. In Greece she worked for many years in printed and electronic media. She has written and illustrated the children's book "Little Bobby Steps Into the World", which is available on Amazon. Today she is spending endless hours with, regularly writes articles for websites in America and Europe, and is a top rated content writer on Upwork. Alexia has always been interested in interior design and has written relative content over the years.

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