How To's, Resources + FAQs

How to Choose Recessed Lighting: Proper Sizing, Spacing and Downlighting Techniques

Cans. High hats. Spotlights.

Whatever you call recessed lights, they’re some of the most versatile lighting options out there—whether you’re using them for downlighting, wall lighting or uplighting (yes, you can even recess lights into the ground).

They’re great for providing ambient light in a variety of residential and commercial spaces, as well as accent lighting to highlight furniture, artwork or the wall itself. With so many different applications and looks, it’s tough to know where to begin…

This guide will give you the rundown on what you need to know about getting the right recessed lights for your needs and incorporating them into your space.

Types of Recessed Lighting

They usually go in ceilings, but you can stick them in walls and in the ground too.

  • Ceilings: The most common use of recessed lighting, and what we’ll focus on here, is recessed downlighting from the ceiling.
  • Walls: When recessing a light into a wall, you’ll want to use an angled flange to direct your light down to illuminate a pathway or onto steps.
  • In Ground: Usually used in outdoor applications to iluminate a pathway or uplight landscaping.

The Components

A recessed light consists of two components – the housing and the trim.


The housing is what is recessed into the ceiling/wall/ground and consists of the light source, mounting and other electrical parts.

The trim is what’s visible to people in the room and gives the light its aesthetic and, depending on what you choose, can be used to direct the beam if you’re spotlighting artwork or “wall washing.” (More on that later.)

GOOD TO KNOW: Trims and housing are sized to correlate with one another, so make sure you’ve got a match when purchasing both together.

Selecting the Housing

What housing you choose starts with knowing whether it will be used in new construction or a remodel.

New Construction

New construction housings are specifically designed for locations with visible ceiling joists and without drywall–usually that’s new construction, but these can be used for remodels if you’re gutting the space.

Remodel

If joists are not exposed, or if you want to upgrade your current system to LED, a remodel housing is appropriate. These housings are installed through a small opening in the ceiling and held in place with clips.

Retrofit

Playful and retro, like a piece of pop art.

You may also consider a retrofit housing, arguably the most economical option. An existing trim is removed from its housing, and the retrofit is attached to the housing with clips.

When and Where to Use Recessed Lighting

Sometimes you want ambient or general lighting, sometimes you want to focus your light on a piece of art or create an effect like “wall washing.”

  • Ambient/General Lighting: When you want to brighten up a room that sees a lot of traffic like your kitchen or living room.
  • Accent/Spot Lighting: If you have a focal point like a piece of art or fireplace mantle that you want to spotlight. The optimal angle to reduce glare when spotlighting art is 30 degrees.
  • Wall Washing: By placing your recessed downlighting near a wall–effectively bathing it in light–you’re bouncing light into a space in a less harsh way than direct downlighting.

GOOD TO KNOW: Whenever possible, add a dimmer to your recessed lighting to gain more control of your lighting scheme.

Selecting the Trim

Choosing the right recessed lighting trim comes down to your aesthetic taste and desired effect.

  • Choose a flangeless trim to fit seamlessly with the surface, or a flanged trim for a more prominent look.
  • A square aperture for a more modern look, or a circular one for a more classic aesthetic…
  • A bevel trim for depth, or a flat trim for a minimalist finish.

In addition to aesthetic differences, there are a variety of functional differences between trims that customers should look out for in their search.

  • Wet location trims are appropriate for areas where water could come in contact with the trim, such as a shower or sauna. Damp location trims are suitable anywhere else.
  • Adjustable trims are suitable for sloped ceilings or walls that will be washed; otherwise, fixed trims are the way to go.
  • Of the adjustable trims, directional trims give the most flexibility in directing light while gimbal trims still offer plenty of flexibility, but not quite as much.
  • Open reflector trims emit the highest amount of uncontrolled light possible, while baffle and specular trims reduce glare.

Selecting the Lamp

Lamps are usually sold separately from the housing and trim. Most lamping in recessed lighting today is integrated LED—no bulb needed. But if you’re working with non-LED recessed lighting, there are plenty of different styles of lamps to fit the specifications of any configuration.

 

  • The A Lamp is the most common type of lamp, useful for a variety of applications. It has no glaring weaknesses, nor exceptional strengths.
  • Perfect as spot, flood and display lights, R Lamps contain a reflector and excellent beam control.
  • With their long beams and wide spread, PAR Lamps are excellent for task lighting, as well as general lighting.
  • MR16 are ideal for accent lighting due to their excellent beam control.

Basic Rules of Thumb for Downlighting Size and Spacing in Each Room

Kitchen
High ambient light required

3-inch or  4-inch trim size

700-1200 Lumens per light

2700-3000K color temperature

Flood or narrow beam spread

2’ to 3’ of space between each light

Baffle, adjustable, multiple or open reflector trims

Dining Room
Moderate ambient light required

2-inch4-inch trim size

600-1000 Lumens per light

2700-3000K color temperature

Flood or narrow beam spread

3’ to 4’ of space between each light

Open reflector, trimless or adjustable trims

Living Room
Low ambient light required

2-inch3-inch trim size

400-800 Lumens per light

2700-3000K color temperature (match the temperature of existing task lighting)

Flood or narrow beam spread

3’ to 4’ of space between each light

Open reflector, baffle or adjustable trims

Bathroom
High ambient light required

2-inch3.5-inch trim size.

700-1200 Lumens per light

2700-3000K color temperature

Narrow or spot beam spread

2’ to 3’ of space between each light

Wet location trims

Hallway
Low ambient light required

2-inch3.5-inch trim size.

400-800 Lumens per light

2700-3000K color temperature

Narrow or spot beam spread

3’ to 4’ of space between each light

Open reflector, gimbal or adjustable trims

Accent Lighting
Low ambient light required

2-inch trim size

200-400 Lumens per light

2700-3000K color temperature (match the temperature of existing task lighting)

Spot beam spread

No specific space; adjust as needed

Open reflector or adjustable trims

…And Now a Note on Voltage and Ratings

According to the National Electric Code (NEC), housings must be IC (insulation contact) rated if the housing is installed less than 3” from the location’s insulation. Non IC-rated housings are acceptable when they are installed 3” or more away from the insulation.

It’s important to determine the correct voltage for your housing. The most common voltage in America is 120V, though some commercial spaces use 277V, and international spots typically use 220V. Once the voltage has been determined, you can choose whether the housing will be line voltage, low voltage or integrated LED.

  • Wired in 120V, line voltage housings are easy to maintain and have a lower upfront cost, although replacing old lamps and parts will add more cost in the long run.
  • Low voltage housings offer 12V or 24V – while the voltage is lower, these housings provide greater control over the light color, quality and dimming.
  • Integrated LED housings provide the most control over the light and dimming, they have low maintenance costs, and they are the most energy efficient. The biggest downside is that once the LED bulb goes out, the entire unit will have to be replaced.

Now that you know how to choose your recessed lighting, it’s time to actually do it. Shop YLighting’s recessed lighting for the best in modern lighting.

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