Whether you like to refer to them as can lights, pot lights, spotlights, or recessed lights, these fixtures are some of the most versatile lighting options available. Adding recessed lighting to your home can be both functional and stylish – whether they’re used for wall lighting, downlighting, or even uplighting.
When used on the ceiling, recessed lights are installed flush which makes them ideal for rooms that have low ceilings. They can be used to create ambient lighting in a variety of residential and commercial applications, in addition to accent lighting for spotlighting artwork, architectural features, pieces of furniture, and more. With such a wide array of applications and displays, it can be hard to know where to begin with recessed lighting.
That’s where we come in! A recessed light can be broken down into three main components: the housing, the trim, and the lamp or type of bulb. From eyeball trim and pinhole trim to new construction housing and retrofit housing, and everything in between, we’ll explore all of the different types of recessed lighting you have to choose from.
Table of Contents
- Recessed Lighting Uses
- Components of Recessed Lighting
- Recessed Lighting Housing
- Recessed Lighting Trims
- Recessed Lighting Lamps
- Recessed Lighting Color Temperature
- Recessed Lighting Kits
- Recessed Lighting Sizes
- Recessed Lighting Finishes
Recessed Lighting Uses
Generally speaking, recessed lighting is installed in ceilings. However, you can also place them in walls or even in the ground. With that said, here are the three main uses for recessed lighting:
- Ceilings: Mounting recessed lighting in the ceiling is the most common use. This will be the main focus of the article, referred to recessed downlighting that comes from the ceiling.
- Walls: You can also recess lighting into a wall. However, for best results, you’ll want to use an angled flange for directing the light downward to illuminate steps or a specific pathway. This type of application is commonly seen on the steps of movie theaters.
- In the ground: In some cases, you’ll see recessed lighting used in outdoor applications for illuminating landscaping or a pathway.
Components of Recessed Lighting
Recessed lighting fixtures are often comprised of three main components: the housing, the trim, and the lamp.
- Housing: The housing refers to the physical component that is recessed, or hidden, into the ceiling, wall, or ground. It houses the light source and all of the necessary electrical parts of the fixture.
- Trim: The trim is the part of a recessed light that is visible to the naked eye. Put simply, it’s a decorative molding that shields the opening of the recessed light. It is what gives the fixture its overall look and, depending on which type you choose, can be used to direct the beam of light or provide more of a “wall washing” function.
- Lamp: The lamp, or bulb, can vary based on the type of recessed light you have – from a tightly focused halogen bulb to a wider, flood-style lamp. When it comes to LED retrofit trims, the “lamp” is integrated into the trim. Therefore, there is no need for a physical bulb.
Recessed Lighting Housing
When it comes to purchasing the right type of recessed lighting, the first component you’ll want to consider is the housing. As previously mentioned, the recessed lighting housing is the part of the fixture that is mounted into the ceiling (or wall). The light bulb is then installed into the housing and the trim surrounds it, concealing the inner workings.
The main options you have for recessed lighting housing to suit your individual needs are: new construction, remodel, retrofit, insulation contact-rated (IC), non-IC, airtight, shallow ceiling, and sloped ceiling housing.
1. New Construction Housing
New construction housing is, as the name suggests, meant for newly constructed homes or when additions are being made to an existing house. More specifically, it’s designed for locations that have visible ceiling joists and no drywall. Though most often used on new constructions, you can also use them for remodels when you’re completely gutting a space.
2. Remodel Housing
Remodel recessed lighting housing is designed to be installed into an existing ceiling. More specifically, if you have a ceiling where joists are not exposed or you simply want to upgrade your current lighting system to LED, a remodel housing is the ideal choice.
To install these housings, they are inserted into a small hole in the ceiling and then secured using clips. They can be easily installed into nearly any ceiling, even those that were originally constructed without recessed lighting in mind.
3. Retrofit Housing
When remodeling, you may also consider a retrofit style of housing. They are designed to be very retro, modern, and lively – similar to a piece of pop art. Retrofit housings also tend to be the most economical option. To install, the existing trim is removed from the current housing, and the retrofit is installed using clips. They are usually purchased as a kit and are primarily used for converting traditional incandescent recessed lights to LED.
4. Insulation Contact (IC)-Rated Housing
Regardless of the type of bulb or fixture, they tend to generate a lot of heat. Recessed lighting, especially, is known for creating a lot of heat since the housing is installed inside of a ceiling, wall, or in the ground. With a recessed design, the housing will typically come into contact with insulation. If the housing isn’t rated for contact with insulation, your home is at a high risk of fire.
This is where insulation contact-rated housing came about. They are made with additional heat shielding, which is designed to reduce the transfer of heat from the housing to the insulation. Therefore, it is perfectly okay for your recessed lighting housing to come into direct contact with your insulation, without any safety concerns.
You can find insulation contact-rated housing in both new construction and remodel types.
5. Non-IC Housing
Unlike Insulation contact housing, non-IC rated housing does not offer as much heat protection. It is not designed to reduce the transfer of heat from the housing to the insulation. As a result, these housings are generally not recommended for use in ceilings. To use this type of housing, there must be at least three inches of clearance from the non-IC housing to the insulation above.
6. Airtight Housing
Unlike many other types of lighting fixtures, recessed lights are installed by creating a hole in your ceiling or wall to allow the housing to sit flush. However, these holes can cause issues. Even if the housing is tightly installed into the hole, air can still escape. That’s where airtight housing comes into play.
This type of recessed lighting housing is designed to ensure that no air escapes from the fixture. It does this by reducing the airflow between the unconditioned area above (usually an attic) and the conditioned space underneath. Airtight housing also offers the best insulation, meaning neither color nor hot air can leak out when you use an airtight housing.
The major benefit of using this type of housing is that it enhances your comfort level, while also improving the energy efficiency of your home. As a result, you can expect to enjoy lower monthly utility costs when you use an airtight housing for your recessed lighting fixtures.
7. Shallow Ceiling Housing
Shallow ceiling housings are, as you might have already assumed, designed for use in shallow ceilings. Unfortunately, not all ceilings simply have enough space behind them for installing conventional recessed lighting. This type of housing allows recessed lighting to be installed in shallow ceilings, or those that are constructed with 2-inch by 6-inch joists.
These types of ceilings require specially designed housing. For ceilings that have even less space, there are additional low-profile housing that can be purchased.
8. Sloped Ceiling Housing
Although purchasing and installing recessed lights on flat ceilings and walls is relatively simple, it can get more challenging when the ceiling is positioned at an angle. To install recessed lighting into a sloped ceiling, you must use a type of housing that is specially designed for these types of ceilings. Sloped ceiling housing is meant for sloped ceilings, where space is limited.
However, before you purchase your sloped ceiling housing, make sure that you verify your ceiling’s angles. Alternatively, you can have a professional check them prior to ordering.
Recessed Lighting Trims
Now that you have a better understanding of how to select the best type of recessed lighting housing for your installation, let’s dive into the trim. Aside from the light source, the trim is the only component that you’re going to see with the naked eye. The rest of the recessed lighting fixture – the housing – is concealed behind your ceiling.
The trim rests inside of the housing and juts out to form the outer ring, or molding, of the lighting fixture. When it comes to selected the right trim, make sure that you choose one that is the same size, brand, and product family in your housing. Also, choose based on the function the light is going to serve and the overall décor you’re trying to achieve.
With that said, there are a number of different types of recessed lighting trims to choose from, each with its own benefits. Let’s take a look.
1. Baffle Trim
Baffle trims are, arguably, the most common type of trim available for recessed lighting. They are the ideal choice for kitchen and home movie theaters, as the light is directional. This type of trim is most known for its ribbed interior, designed to help reduce the glare from the lamp.
Due to the soft, gentle light it produces, baffle trim is also popular in home office settings. Baffle trim is also recommended for foyers, living rooms, and entryways. To further prevent glare, you can opt for a dark-colored baffle trim, such as dark brown or black.
2. Reflector Trim
Reflector trims consist of a mirror interior, which enhances the reflection of light and allows for optimal illumination. Like baffle trims, these types of trims are also inset. It’s important to keep in mind that with these types of recessed lighting trims, the interior is visible. This is especially true with reflector trims, as the mirrored surface will be very noticeable.
Because of this, you may want to purchase a recessed light that has a tinted-mirror interior. This option is readily available.
3. Open Trim
Recessed lights with an open trim look relatively similar to the baffle trim variety, with the major difference being the lack of ribbed interior. Without this feature, open trims do not reduce glare. The main advantage to this type of recessed light is that they provide brighter lighting.
The lamp rests flush, or almost flush, with the ceiling. Open trim lights are ideal for illuminating larger areas. To further enhance brightness, opt for an open trim recessed light that is light-colored, such as white.
4. Eyeball Trim
Eyeball trims consist of the same exterior as both open trims and baffle trims, with the added feature of being adjustable. Sometimes referred to as adjustable trim, eyeball trim allows you to adjust the interior light fixture to customize lighting in your living spaces. By simply rotating the fixture, you can aim the light exactly where you want it to illuminate.
This type of trim is the ideal choice for accent lighting, rather than ambient lighting. Some eyeball trim models may be seen as unsightly, as so much trim is visible. When choosing recessed lighting with eyeball trim, opt for a color that compliments the overall décor and style of the room.
5. Wall Wash Trim
Wall wash trim is a combination of baffle trim and eyeball styles. The exterior is the same as baffle, with the additional featuring of allowing you to adjust the light fixture to your liking. There is also a half shield that partially conceals the opening of the light. This shield helps to evenly focus the beam of light on particular features in your living spaces.
The shield appears like a “scoop” to direct the light to a specific spot. These types of trims are ideal for accent lighting and spotlighting artwork, architectural features, or pieces of furniture.
6. Gimbal Trim
Gimbal trim functions almost exactly the same as the eyeball trim type. However, the major difference between the two is that the lamp in recessed lighting with gimbal trim remains mostly flush with the ceiling. As a result, when the fixture is pivoted, the housing will get in the way of some of the light.
They are designed to be pivoted to provide directional light. More specifically, gimbal trim recessed lights direct downlight exactly where it’s needed. This type of trim is ideal for sloped ceilings and for highlighting accent walls in a home.
7. Pinhole Trim
The design of pinhole trim recessed lighting is characterized by a thick trim. This results in a narrow, concentrated light beam. Pinhole trims are ideal for accent lighting. More specifically, they are best when you want to highlight an architectural feature or specific design element.
8. Slotted Trim
Slotted trims are relatively similar to pinhole trims in that they provide narrow light beams. They are the most concealed option when it comes to recessed lighting. Slotted trims hide almost the entire lamp, except for a small slot, with a flat trim. They are also well-known for their 35-degree tilt and adjustable rotation.
9. Decorative Trim
Put simply, decorative trims offer a very ornate touch to traditional recessed lighting. They come in a wide array of options, designs, and styles to fit the décor in your space.
10. Shower Trim
Shower trims are best for bathrooms or any other areas that experience levels of high humidity. They consist of a tempered glass covering that helps to keep the lamp safe from moisture and also prevents dew buildup inside of the fixture. Shower trim recessed lighting is ideal for either wet or damp conditions.
As the name indicates, shower trim is a great way to light the interior of your shower.
Recessed Lighting Lamps
When it comes to choosing the right lamp, or light bulb, for your recessed lights, you want to pay close attention to both the type and size of bulb your particular fixture uses. While some recessed lights work with pin-base bulbs, others use screw-in light bulbs. A number of factors will affect the quality of light in a space including lumens, color temperature, and wattage.
In most cases, the lamps are sold separately from the housing and trim. The most common types of lamps for recessed lighting are halogen or LED bulbs. Although most of the modern recessed lights are integrated LED, meaning no lamp is needed, there are a number of styles to choose from for non-LED recessed lighting.
- The A Lamp is often the most common type of light bulb. It’s used for a number of lighting applications and has no apparent weaknesses, but also no major advantages.
- R Lamps are the best choice for flood, spot, or display lighting. They contain a reflector that allows for optimal light beam control.
- PAR Lamps consist of long beams and a widespread, meaning they are the ideal choice for both task lighting and ambient lighting.
- MR16 bulbs are best used for accent lighting, due to their optimal beam control.
Let’s examine some of the most common light bulbs used for recessed lighting in further detail below:
1. LED Light Bulbs
Of all the lighting options available, LED bulbs are arguably the most energy-efficient. While CFLs save 75% energy when compared to traditional incandescent bulbs, LED lamps can save up to 90% energy. Due to their durability and longevity, LED light bulbs are a great choice for recessed lights.
2. CFL Light Bulbs
CFL, or compact fluorescent light, bulbs are another popular option for recessed lighting. Like LED lights, they are also a great energy-efficient choice. In fact, are a bit of a twist on conventional fluorescent technology that was originally developed as an energy-efficient alternative to traditional incandescent bulbs.
Another major benefit of these types of bulbs is that they offer an increased lifespan. Although they will cost you more upfront than an incandescent bulb, they’ll sometimes last more than ten times longer. One of the main downsides to CFLs is that they contain a small amount of mercury in each bulb.
However, no mercury is released when the light bulbs are in use or still intact. While the mercury will eventually end up in the environment, the amount is far less than the amount evaded as a result of energy savings.
3. Incandescent Light Bulbs
When you think of a light bulb, an image of an incandescent bulb is often what first comes to mind. In fact, this type of bulb was the very first to ever have been invented, meaning it is the original form of electric lighting. They have been used for over 100 years.
Incandescent bulbs operate by an electric current passing through the tungsten filament inside. This causes the filament to heat up to a temperature that results in the production of light. Though these types of bulbs are quickly being outshined by more modern, energy-efficient options, they can still work for recessed lights.
The main advantage of opting for a traditional incandescent bulb is the low price tag.
4. Halogen Light Bulbs
Like LED lights, halogen bulbs are also an incredibly popular type of bulb used for recessed lighting situations. While this is mostly due to their energy efficiency, it also has to do with the fact that halogen bulbs are known for producing a very bright, white light.
They are essentially a type of incandescent bulb, offering similar diffusion and features. However, they are roughly 30% more efficient than traditional incandescent lamps and much longer-lasting. Halogen bulbs work by producing more light, while also using far less electricity.
These types of light bulbs are available in a range of sizes, including both spotlight and floodlight varieties, to best fit the requirements of various lighting fixtures.
5. R-Type Light Bulbs
R-type light bulbs, or R lamps, are considered one of the most popular options for achieving very focused or concentrated lighting. The main reason for their popularity is the reflector that is positioned at the back of the bulb. This design allows for optimal lighting, directing it evenly out of the fixture. As a result, R lamps are a great choice when you’re trying to achieve accent lighting in a space.
Recessed Lighting Color Temperature
As far as color temperature goes, opt for a warm white hue for bedrooms and living rooms. Whereas, a bright white color temperature is ideal for kitchens and workspaces, while daylight color temperatures work best for reading nooks. Generally speaking, recessed lighting fixtures come in three types of color temperatures:
- Soft: comfortable light that exudes a warm glow
- Bright: uplifting light with a cool glow
- Daylight: meant to mimic natural lighting
For custom installations, you can use tunable lighting. This allows you to alter the color or temperature of the fixture as desired. You can even adjust the lights from your phone or other smart devices. Whereas, selectable lighting allows you to preset multiple temperatures prior to installation.
Recessed Lighting Kits
To obtain both the housing and trim in a complete packing, consider purchasing a recessed lighting kit. These kits come in a variety of sizes and many different types of recessed lighting to suit your individual needs:
- Line-voltage kits are the standard when it comes to recessed lighting kits. They operate on your household 110 to 120-volt current, like any other type of ceiling light does.
- Low-voltage kits, instead, use a transformer to convert your home’s regular current to a much lower voltage – often 12 volts. This often helps with energy costs but can be more expensive to purchase upfront. Low-voltage systems generally offer a much more controlled beam of light. While some of these kits have a built-in transformer, others require that you buy one separately.
- LED retrofit kits allow you to easily and efficiently convert your traditional incandescent recessed lighting fixtures into LED, without having to switch out the existing housing.
Recessed Lighting Sizes
In most cases, recessed lighting fixtures come in sizes that range from three to six inches in diameter, however, some reach as high as seven or nine inches. The size that you choose depends entirely on how to plan to use the fixture and where it’s going to be installed.
Small recessed lights are the ideal choice for modern décor. They can also work well for both task lighting and accent lighting, such as providing overhead countertop lighting in a kitchen. Recessed lights that sit close to the 6-inch range tend to be most common for general, or ambient lighting purposes. Whereas, larger fixtures work well with more traditional décor and are ideal for providing sufficient light to an entire room.
To determine the size of a fixture, you want to measure the diameter of the area that will be going in to the opening of your ceiling in inches, not including the trim. Then, choose a recessed lighting size that will fit with the height of your ceiling, or the size of your wall.
Quick Tip: When choosing the right size recessed light, make sure that you keep the height of your ceiling in mind. Lights that are mounted into a higher ceiling will cast a much wider, more diffused light beam, than those installed in a low ceiling.
Recessed Lighting Finishes
Another consideration you’ll need to make when sifting through the various types of recessed lighting is what type of finish you want. Generally speaking, it’s best to make your decision by looking at the existing finishes throughout your home. If the hardware and door handles throughout the space are all brushed nickel, then opt for a trim that has a more contemporary finish.
However, if you want your recessed lights to blend into the surface of your ceiling, white is often the best option. Some of the most popular trim finishes for recessed lighting include:
Fortunately, when you want to upgrade your space or switch up your decor, you can easily swap out the trim with a different finish without having to change the housing underneath it. The most widely available trim size is six inches; however, 3-inch and 4-inch trims can also be found in a number of finishes.
Depending on your individual needs, recessed lighting can either provide subtle, functional light that blends seamlessly into your décor, or it can produce striking points of visual interest in your home. With a greater understanding of all the various types of recessed lighting, you can now go forth with all the knowledge you need to achieve your desired look.