Recessed Canister Lights Review: Pros and Cons

Recessed canister lights, also known as can lights or downlights, are a popular lighting option for many homes. As with any lighting choice, there are several pros and cons to consider when deciding whether recessed canister lights are the right fit for your space. Getting familiar with the key benefits and potential drawbacks of can lights can help inform your decision.

What are Recessed Canister Lights?

Recessed canister lights are cylindrical light fixtures that are installed into the ceiling. The trim and bulb housing are concealed above the ceiling, with just the bottom visible below. This creates a clean, unobtrusive look focused entirely on the illumination. Recessed cans come in a range of sizes, beam spreads, bulb types, and trim finishes to suit different aesthetic tastes and functional lighting needs.

Pros of Recessed Canister Lights

Clean, Unobtrusive Appearance

One of the biggest advantages of recessed can lights is their discreet, seamless look. With no visible housing or hardware, the focus is entirely on the light itself. This makes canister lights ideal for creating a streamlined, contemporary aesthetic. They can be used to spotlight art and architectural details without distracting trim pieces getting in the way. The subtle look also works well in kitchens, hallways, and other functional spaces where you want illumination without bold fixtures.

Directed Lighting

Unlike pendant lights or flush mount fixtures that cast ambient light in all directions, recessed cans emit a directed beam of illumination. This makes them excellent for providing task lighting or accent lighting. The beam spread and intensity can be customized with different bulb types and reflector styles to achieve the desired lighting effect. Narrow spot lights highlight focal points, while wide flood lights thoroughly illuminate activity areas.

Adjustable Positioning

One benefit of the recessed design is that can lights can be strategically positioned to direct light exactly where it’s needed. Fixtures can be clustered over workstations or staggered throughout a room on tracks or multiple switching zones to create customizable lighting scenes for different activities. The lighting can be adjusted as needs change.

Energy Efficient Options

Recessed cans are available with energy efficient LED and fluorescents bulbs that use a fraction of the energy of traditional incandescent bulbs with comparable light output. LED options also have exceptional longevity compared to other lighting. This makes recessed cans a smart long-term investment, even if the initial fixture price is higher. Dimmable LED cans allow you to precisely control the light level and energy use.

Good Ambient Lighting

Though directed task lighting is the primary function, recessed cans also throw off some ambient bounce light. This helps avoid a cave-like effect that can occur with only directional spotlights. The ambient fill from recessed cans is gentle enough that they can be combined with pendant lights, sconces, and other fixtures without overpowering those elements.

Cons of Recessed Canister Lights

Ceiling Penetrations

Installing recessed cans involves cutting holes in the ceiling to embed the fixture housing. Anytime you penetrate a surface, it compromises insulation and introduces potential for leaks or moisture issues. Special insulation contact (IC) housings must be used in direct contact with insulation to reduce fire hazards. Cans also limit the ability to make future ceiling modifications.

Glare Potential

If not properly positioned with appropriate beam spread and intensity, recessed cans can create uncomfortable glare. To avoid this, install lights at sufficient height over task areas and use warm color temperature (3000K or less) bulbs to reduce eye strain. Diffusers can also help soften glare.

Higher Upfront Cost

The installation labor makes recessed cans a more expensive upfront lighting option than surface mounts. There is also added cost for housings and trim pieces if you want a customizable look. Quality LED cans have a higher initial fixture price point as well. The long-term energy savings can offset part of the initial expense.

Accessibility for Maintenance

With the fixture housing concealed above the ceiling, recessed canister lights can be challenging to access when bulb replacement or repairs are needed. It often requires a ladder or lift rented. DIY maintenance is difficult, so you may incur costs for an electrician’s service call for routine maintenance.

Heat Buildup

The enclosed canister can trap heat from bulb operation. While less of an issue with LEDs, inefficient incandescent cans contribute to energy loss from cooling loads. Proper insulation and venting help, but heat buildup is an inherent issue with any recessed light.

Key Considerations for Recessed Canister Lights

  • Beam spread/lighting effect – Narrow spot or wide flood?
  • Bulb type – Incandescent, LED, halogen? Color temperature?
  • Trim finish – Matte, shiny, or colored?
  • Placement – Task lighting or accent lighting?
  • Ceiling type – Insulation contact housing needed?
  • Ambient fill – Combine with other lighting types?
  • Accessibility for maintenance
  • IC and air tight housings if needed


Recessed can lights offer an attractive lighting option with the versatility to handle both accent and task lighting needs. Their directed beam and sleek look make them ideal for highlighting architecture and artwork without competing visually within a space. While the installation process and maintenance requirements do take more initial investment, quality LED recessed cans will pay dividends for years through energy efficient operation. As with any lighting decision, carefully evaluating your priorities for form and function will determine whether recessed canister lights are the best choice to illuminate your space. With the right placement and bulb choices, they can be an effective lighting solution.

Frequently Asked Questions About Recessed Canister Lights

What are the most common types of recessed canister lights?

The most common types are LED, halogen, and incandescent. LED lights are the most energy efficient and long-lasting option. Halogen lights also have good longevity and light quality. Older incandescent cans are inefficient but inexpensive.

How many recessed lights do I need?

As a general rule, plan one recessed light for every 10-15 square feet of space to be illuminated. More lights may be needed to direct adequate task lighting to work areas.

What size recessed lights should I use?

4-6 inch diameter cans are common for residential lighting. Smaller 3-4 inch lights work well closets and tight areas. Larger 8-10 inch cans provide ample lighting for kitchen islands and commercial spaces.

How do I choose the right beam spread?

Narrow spotlights of 25 degrees or less are best for accent lighting focal points. Wider flood lights (45-90 degrees) provide even illumination across general areas. Aim for 30-40 degrees for overall task lighting.

How do I avoid glare with recessed lighting?

Position lights at least 18 inches from walls for reduced glare. Use warm white light bulbs (3000K or lower) and add diffusers if needed. Space cans 2-3 feet apart to prevent intense overlap.

Can recessed lights be dimmed?

Yes, many types of dimmable LED and halogen recessed lights are available. Make sure to pair them with a compatible dimmer switch system for full functionality.

How long do recessed light bulbs last?

LEDs can last 50,000 hours or more. Halogen bulbs average 2,000-4,000 hours. Standard incandescents may last only 1,000 hours before burning out.

Should recessed lights be on a separate circuit?

Yes, lighting circuits should be dedicated. But multiple recessed lights can share a 15-20 amp home lighting circuit. Check electrical load requirements.

Are recessed cans safe for insulation contact?

Standard housings should not touch insulation. Special IC rated cans are insulated and air-tight to allow direct insulation contact safely.