How to Buy Recessed Lights

Buying recessed lights for your home can seem daunting, but with a bit of knowledge it can be a smooth and easy process. Recessed lighting, also known as can or high-hat lighting, refers to lights that are installed into the ceiling as opposed to hanging down from it. Recessed lights create an elegant, unobtrusive way to illuminate a room. Here is a comprehensive guide on everything you need to know about how to buy recessed lights.

Choosing the Right Type of Recessed Lighting

There are a few main options when it comes to the type of recessed lighting you can buy. Consider the size of the room, what you will mainly use the lighting for, and your aesthetic preferences. The main types of recessed lighting are:

LED Recessed Lighting

LED recessed lights are the most energy efficient option. They use up to 90% less energy than incandescent bulbs and last 25 times longer. They come in a wide variety of lumen outputs, from very bright at 5000+ lumens for kitchens, to softer lights as low as 450 lumens for bedrooms. LED recessed lights are ideal for any room where you want bright, energy saving lighting.

Halogen Recessed Lighting

Halogen recessed lighting gives off a bright, white light that brings out warm tones. These lights work well in kitchens, over counters, and in artwork displays. Halogens use about 30% less energy than traditional incandescents. They also generate more heat, which is something to consider.

Incandescent Recessed Lighting

Incandescent is the traditional recessed lighting type. They give off a warm glow, but are the least energy efficient option. Consider them for rooms where lighting will be minimal. Dimmable versions are available to control the ambiance.

Smart Recessed Lighting

Smart recessed lighting can be controlled through your smartphone or voice control. With smart recessed lights, you can set timers, schedules, and change the color and brightness. This makes them perfect for rooms where you want to control ambiance.

Consider Lighting Needs Based on Room

The needs of a room should dictate the type of recessed lighting you buy. Here are some typical lighting needs for popular rooms:

Kitchen Recessed Lighting

Kitchens require very bright, full spectrum lighting. Look for LED or halogen recessed lights with at least 3000 lumens centered over counters and work stations. Opt for adjustable lights over the sink and stove to direct light where needed.

Bathroom Recessed Lighting

Bathrooms need adequate task lighting. Dimmer LED recessed lights around the vanity with at least 1100 lumens works best. Include a humidity-resistant recessed light over the shower as well.

Bedroom Recessed Lighting

Bedrooms need soft, warm lighting. Low lumen LED recessed lights, around 700-900 lumens, work well centered over the bed or seating areas. Dimmer switches allow you to control the ambiance.

Office Recessed Lighting

Offices require bright, focused task lighting. LED recessed lights with 2000+ lumen output placed over work and reading areas are ideal. Include separate switched circuits over work stations and common areas.

Living Room Recessed Lighting

Living rooms need flexible ambient lighting. Include dimmable LED recessed lights, around 1500 lumens each, placed throughout the space to highlight seating areas and create overall illumination.

Choose the Right Housing and Trim Style

Recessed lighting comes with housing around the bulb and a visible trim plate. The housing ensures an air tight IC rating for insulation contact, while the trim sets the decorative look. Considerations for housing and trim include:

  • Housing Types: Standard housings have solid sides. Aperture housings have openings on the sides to distribute light. Adjustable housings allow you to move the light. Box housings take standard bulb types.
  • Trim Styles: Flush mount trims sit tight against the ceiling. Baffled trims have a decorative lip. There are also sloped, orbital, and wall-wash trims for directing light.
  • Trim Materials: Common materials include white steel, brushed nickel, oil-rubbed bronze, satin chrome, and glossy white. Pick a finish that matches your fixtures.
  • Trim Shapes and Sizes: Consider round, square, or rectangle trims, depending on the look you want. Sizes range from 3-6 inches for flexible spacing.

Take ceiling height and proportions into account when selecting housings and trims. Also check that choices are compatible with your selected bulb and fixture type.

Determine the Correct Wattage and Lumens

Recessed lighting varies greatly in brightness. To pick the right wattage and lumens for each room:

  • Measure the square footage of the room to determine general lighting needs. Large rooms need more lumens.
  • Identify the tasks that will be performed and look for recommended lumens. Kitchens often need 50-100 lumens per square foot.
  • Choose wattage based on the lumens needed. A 10-watt LED can produce 800 lumens, while a 15-watt may produce 1300 lumens.
  • Look at beam angle too. Wider beams like 120° spread light broader, while 60° beams focus light intensely.
  • For rooms with varying needs like living rooms, install lights with different wattages and beam angles.
  • Follow minimum recommended lumens for common tasks like reading (700 lumens) and grooming (1100 lumens).

Use a recessed lighting calculator to determine the ideal number of lights and luminance for each room if unsure. More is better for adequate coverage.

Pick the Right Color Temperature

The color temperature, measured in Kelvin (K), impacts the tone of light. Options for recessed lighting include:

  • Soft White: 2700K-3000K, gives off a warm, yellowish-white glow. Best for living rooms and bedrooms.
  • Bright White: 3500K-4100K, gives off crisp, bright white light. Good for kitchens, bathrooms, and work spaces.
  • Daylight: 5000K-6500K, gives off a cool blue-toned light. Ideal for intense tasks requiring high visibility.
  • Tunable: Adjustable from warm to cool through dimming and controls. Allows you to customize the color.

Consider what colors you want to accentuate and the mood you want for the space. Warm white is relaxing, while daylight white is energizing.

Include Needed Specialty Lighting

Besides general illumination, recessed lighting also offers specialty options:

  • Adjustable Trim: Allows you to aim the light in different directions even after installing. Great for highlighting art or directing task lighting.
  • Wall Washing: Distributes light up the wall to accentuate the architecture and decor through indirect lighting.
  • Colored: Available with LEDs that allow you to change the colored glow at the touch of a button for accent lighting.
  • Night Lights: Designed to provide a soft glow after turning off the main overhead light. Installed in hallways or bathrooms mainly.
  • Emergency: With built-in batteries that provide illumination for 30 minutes to several hours during power outages for safe exit lighting.

Factor in where you may want accent, decorative, or emergency lighting when choosing specialty recessed fixtures.

Calculate How Many Recessed Lights You Need

Determining how many recessed lights you need for a room depends on several factors:

  • Room Size: As a general rule of thumb, allot 50-100 lumens per square foot. Larger rooms need more fixtures.
  • Ceiling Height: Tall ceilings generally require more recessed lights to project light down sufficiently.
  • Fixtures Spacing: Overlap lighting 2-3 feet between fixtures for consistent illumination in all areas.
  • Lumens per Fixture: Divide the total lumens needed by the lumens of each light for number of fixtures.
  • Room Use: Task lighting, like for kitchen counters, needs more focused lights than ambient lighting for living rooms.
  • Personal Preference: Factor in desired brightness and if you want accent lighting.

Use recessed lighting calculators and layout graphs to experiment with spacing and determine how many lights you need for the room.

Pick Dimmers, Controls, and Circuits

Recessed lighting offers abundant options for dimming, smart controls, and wiring:

  • Dimmers: Allow you to adjust brightness to set the perfect ambiance. Use slide, rotary, or touch dimmers.
  • Smart Lighting: Control lights remotely through your smartphone, voice assistant, and home automation systems.
  • Occupancy Sensors: Turn lights on when motion is detected and off after a set time of no movement to save energy.
  • Timers: Set schedules for lights to turn on/off automatically at set times each day. Helpful for security and energy savings.
  • Circuited Wiring: Run lights in kitchens, bathrooms, etc on separate circuits for greater control over usage.
  • Switches: Place lights in common areas like living rooms on separate switches to control sections independently.

Factor in how you want to control ambiance, conserve energy, and accommodate room use when selecting controls and wiring recessed lighting.

Understand Codes for Required IC and Airtight Ratings

Recessed lighting installed in insulated ceilings must be rated for insulation contact (IC). IC fixtures are thermally protected and airtight to deal with insulation:

  • IC Air Tight Rating: Prevents air exchange between the insulated ceiling and room. Required for energy efficiency.
  • IC Fire Rating: Protects combustible insulation from catching fire from heat generated by older recessed lights.

Look for IC rated LED or CFL recessed lighting compliant with UL safety standards. Check with local building codes for required IC and airtight ratings to meet safety regulations.

Prepare the Ceiling Correctly

Proper ceiling preparation is key to a smooth recessed lighting installation:

  • Turn Power Off: Shut off electricity to the installation area at the breaker before starting work.
  • Cut Ceiling Holes: Use the housing size as a template. Cut holes 1/8″ larger so housing can fit over insulation.
  • Drill Wiring Holes: Make holes between joists to run electrical wires to each recessed light location if needed.
  • Install Blocking: Nail wood blocking between joists where lights will be installed for added support.
  • Attach Wires: Run 14/2 or 12/2 electrical wires between switch, lights, and power source. Leave 6″ wire tails.
  • Insulate Properly: Tuck insulation batts around housing without compressing or covering the recessed fixtures.

Correct hole size, blocking, wiring, and insulation will ensure recessed lights are sturdy, compliant, and provide expected illumination.

Install Recessed Lights Safely and Properly

Follow these steps to safely install recessed lighting fixtures:

  • Read Instructions: Thoroughly read the installation guide so you understand all steps first.
  • Turn Off Power: Shut off electricity to the installation area at the circuit breaker.
  • Open Ceiling Hole: Carefully cut drywall for housings so openings are snug around them.
  • Attach Mounting Brackets: Secure mounting bars to the side of each housing with the screws.
  • Insert Housing: Angle housing through hole and attach to ceiling joists with mounting bars.
  • Secure Housing: Hammer long screws through inner holes in mounting bars into wooden blocking.
  • Connect Wires: Attach fixture wires to the home’s wires with supplied wire nuts. Check grounding.
  • Install Trim: Push trim flush with ceiling over each secured and wired housing.
  • Seal Housings: Caulk around trim edge with acoustical or plumber’s caulk for maximum air tightness.
  • Restore Power: Turn electricity back on at the circuit breaker. Test lights to ensure proper operation.

Follow safety procedures and enlist help to reduce risks and make installation fast and hassle-free.

Troubleshoot Common Recessed Lighting Problems

If your new recessed lighting is not operating properly, check for these common issues:

Lights Not Turning On:

  • Check circuit breaker and reset if tripped.
  • Ensure wires are connected properly with good wire nuts contact.
  • Test voltage to detect any wiring issues and correct connections.

Lights Flickering:

  • Loose wire connections can cause flickering. Check and tighten wiring.
  • Some dimmers and smart switches can also lead to flickering. Use compatible dimmer switches.
  • LEDs are sensitive to voltage drops. Ensure wire size is sufficient for fixture wattage.

Buzzing Sound:

  • Electrical vibrations from metal housing contacting joists can lead to buzzing. Insulate contact points.
  • Some transformers and LED drivers can vibrate and buzz. Make sure they are securely installed.
  • Check for wiring issues or loose connections that may be causing disruptive buzzing.

Lights Too Dim:

  • Dirt or dust buildup on bulbs reduces brightness over time. Clean fixtures regularly.
  • Inadequate wattage and lumens for a space can lead to dimness. Increase wattage or add fixtures.
  • Make sure dimmers are turned to full brightness if lights are dimmer than expected.

Burned Out Bulbs:

  • LEDs last years, but incandescent and halogen bulbs burn out faster. Replace per manufacturer.
  • Some LED fixtures have non-replaceable integrated LED modules. Replace entire unit when needed.
  • Use compatible wattage and shapes bulbs to avoid premature burn outs.

Frequently Asked Questions About Recessed Lighting

How much does it cost to install recessed lighting?

The average cost to install recessed lighting is $300 to $500 depending on the number of fixtures. The main costs include electrician fees, materials like housings and LED bulbs, required permits, and ceiling patching. Pre-existing attic access lowers costs.

Do I need a professional electrician to install recessed lights?

If adding new wiring and circuits, it’s best to hire a licensed electrician for safety and compliance with codes. However, you can DIY simple replacements by matching wires of old fixtures. Know when to call a pro.

Where should recessed lighting be placed in a room?

Recessed lighting works best spaced evenly for overall ambient lighting and concentrated above task areas like kitchen counters. Arrange in geometric patterns or rows for a clean look. Follow general lighting recommendations.

How deep are recessed lights?

Regular recessed lights are 4-6 inches deep. For shallow ceilings, look for fixtures 2-3 inches deep called low-profile or shallow recessed lighting. Make sure housings don’t extend beyond ceiling joists into the attic space.

Can you put recessed lighting anywhere?

Recessed lighting must be installed into finished ceilings and requires attic access above. It also needs adequate ceiling joist depth. Consult an electrician about special cases like concrete ceilings or obstructions. Make sure locations meet safety codes.

What problems can recessed lights cause?

Improperly installed recessed lights can overheat and ignite insulation or wood. Excessive ceiling holes can reduce structural integrity. Outdated fixtures lose energy efficiency. Follow all codes and safety practices to avoid issues like leaks or dropping debris/insulation into the room.


Installing recessed lighting involves choosing fixture types, calculating how many you need, proper placement, safe installation, and troubleshooting issues. Follow lighting recommendations for each room, look for energy efficient IC-rated fixtures, allow for ample lighting, and use dimmers for brightness control. With good planning and electrical safety, you can add recessed lighting to beautifully illuminate your home.