Recessed lights are a stylish, unobtrusive, and flexible method of meeting a host
of lighting needs. They are excellent in task and accent lighting roles and, when
used properly, in general lighting applications. They can be utilized alone or in
combination with other types of lights to provide functional light layering. Simply
using different sizes and wattages of recessed lights can create interesting effects.
With the rapidly expanding acceptance of low voltage recessed lighting, there is a
size, strength and style for almost any lighting need today.
Recessed lighting basics
Recessed lighting fixtures have two separate parts; housings and trims.
Recessed lighting housings hold the fixture in place and accept the electric connection hardware. There are several types of housings designed for specific applications and environments. Housings may be IC or Non-IC meaning they are to be used in insulation contact applications. The IC / non-IC designation is important to meet local codes as well as prevent fixtures from becoming too hot when mounted in contact with insulation (which can cause the fixtures to trip on and off when they become too hot.)
Housings are also commonly divided into new construction (aka ‘rough in’ housings) which may be quickly and easily nailed in between studs and remodel housings. Remodel housings are typically small enough to be inserted through the trim hole cut in the ceiling allowing them to be installed as replacements for many existing ceiling fixtures without access behind walls.
In a more recent trend, recessed lighting housings are available in low voltage options as well as the more traditional line voltage alternatives. Low voltage housings include transformers which allow them to make use of significantly smaller low voltage halogen bulbs. These low voltage halogen recessed lighting fixtures are available in three and four inch aperture trims for a compact look.
Recessed lighting trims attach to the housing from the bottom (the other side of the mounting surface) to provide a clean installation along the ceiling. Trims also may include a reflective or specular reflective surface for some lamps to optimize downlight. Finally, trims are commonly available in fixed or adjustable versions.
Adjustable trims have been around for some time in the form of protruding ‘eyeball’
styles. Contemporary styles allow for truly recessed mounting while maintaining the
adjustable angle by using compact low voltage bulbs within the housings.
Sloped ceiling trims, a variation on adjustable trims, allow recessed lighting fixtures to produce direct downlight even when mounted in vaulted ceilings.
Wet location trims are sealed for use above showers and as outdoor lighting. Though typically rated for sixty watts, new trends are now available that provide increased brightness and beam control.
Wall wash trims have a reflector inside that forces the light up onto a wall for an even “wash” effect. Use these trims to give a feeling of space to a smaller room, or to illuminate groupings of photographs. Wall wash trims are typically spaced from 20–30 inches from the wall and 20–30 inches apart.
Recessed lighting as task lighting and accent lighting
Task lighting provides sufficient lighting for a specific function. Recessed lighting excels in task lighting applications when used in tight groupings over common functional areas such as kitchen counter tops and ranges. Smaller recessed lighting is also ideal over bathroom vanities. Choosing a recessed fixture for task lighting is typically a matter of determining how much lighting is needed. Small, low voltage fixtures may be aesthetically preferable for smaller task surfaces while larger areas may require higher wattage line voltage fixtures.
Accent lighting is used to highlight focal points or create ambience. The painting on the wall may be highlighted specifically, or a soft light may be cast on dining room walls to create the desired ambience. To use recessed lighting for accent lighting, find recessed fixtures with adjustable trims rather than fixed trims. This will allow light to be cast at an angle to shine on walls etc. Accent fixtures are frequently low voltage. They are often used to illuminate art, which makes the excellent color rendering and precise beam spread characteristics available in low voltage halogen bulbs an ideal choice.
Recessed lighting as general lighting
General lighting refers to illumination spread equally over an entire space. Defined this way, recessed lighting is not technically capable of providing general illumination as certain areas will always be brighter than others. Used in sufficient number and patterned placement, recessed fixtures will typically provide sufficient light via reflection to serve as general lighting.
Many people prefer large numbers of task and accent lights over less focused ambient fixtures since repetitive spot lights create a sense of depth in a space. The effect may be fine-tuned by varying the beam spread of the bulbs in the fixtures as well as the installation separation of the recessed lighting fixtures themselves.
Recessed lighting tips
For the typical 8 foot high ceiling, space 6 inch recessed lights no more than 7 feet apart for general lighting.
When accenting art work, use one 4 inch low voltage recessed light per piece of art work. Larger objects such as sculptures or oversized paintings may require more than one recessed light.
For highlighting statuary or indoor plants, add depth and drama by using two lights aimed from different angles.
For reading or task lighting applications, the light source should be placed slightly behind and off to one side of the reading chair or work space to minimize glare from books or task objects.
Use wall wash recessed lighting in smaller rooms to give the appearance of a larger space. Wall washed recessed lights are also great for lighting large groups of smaller photos.
Recessed lighting is a flexible, functional, and creative way to decorate any room, space, or surface in the home.