Learn how to properly take advantage of recessed lighting systems to beautify your homes through this perfect consumer guide.
Recessed Lighting Buying Guide
Also known as “can lighting,” people love it for its low-profile design. Aside from a small amount of trim, the rest of the light is concealed within the wall or ceiling.
Select from a wide range of housing types, trim types, and styles for the best fit for your home.
Other decisions you must make include light bulb type, additional design options like color/finish and size, and extra features like a control panel.
Our detailed buyer’s guide makes buying recessed lighting for your home simple and straightforward.
Related: Lighting Types for Your Home
A. Recessed Lighting Housing
Type of housing is the first factor you need to look at when it comes to buying can lighting.
The housing is the piece of the light fixture that’s mounted on the wall or the ceiling. The light bulb is mounted in this fixture. Then the trim is installed on the outside of the housing.
Your main options are new construction, remodel, insulation contact (IC), non-IC, airtight, shallow ceiling, and slope ceiling housing.
1. New Construction
Source: Home Depot
New construction housing is created specifically for newly constructed homes.
This type of housing is installed before the ceiling is complete. In other words, it’s built into your home.
New construction housing is also used when adding a new room onto an existing home.
Source: Home Depot
Remodel housing is specially designed for installation in a pre-built ceiling.
If you have an existing room that’s just perfect for this type of lighting, then remodel housing is the option that’s right for you.
Remodel housing is easily installed into nearly any ceiling, including those that weren’t built with can lighting in mind.
3. Insulation Contact
Source: Home Depot
Every type of light bulb and light fixture creates a lot of heat.
Recessed lighting, in particular, is known to generate a lot of heat since the housing is set inside of a ceiling or wall.
Because of the recessed design, the housing often comes into contact with insulation. Housing not intended for contact with insulation is at high risk for causing a fire.
That’s where insulation contact housing comes into the picture. It’s designed to eliminate the transfer of heat from your housing to your insulation. Your insulation can have direct contact with your housing with no safety issues.
Insulation contact housing is available in both new construction and remodel varieties.
4. Non-Insulation Contact
Source: Home Depot
As the name implies, non-insulation contact housing isn’t designed to prevent the transfer of heat from housing to insulation.
This type of recessed lighting housing should never come into direct contact with your insulation. Instead, you must leave at least 3 three inches (if not double that) between the lighting housing and insulation.
Source: Home Depot
Unlike other types of light fixtures, recessed lighting is created by making holes in your ceiling or walls for the housing to sit inside.
Naturally, these holes can cause problems. Even when there’s a tight fit between the hole and the housing, the air still escapes.
Airtight housing fixes that problem. It ensures that no air can escape from your new lighting fixture.
Airtight housing creates the best insulation. Neither hot nor cold air can escape when this type of housing is installed.
Not only does this increase your comfort level, but it also improves the overall energy efficiency of your home (thereby lowering monthly utility costs).
6. Shallow Ceiling
Not all ceilings have enough space behind them for normal can lighting.
Shallow ceilings, such as those built with 2-inch by 6-inch joists, require special shallow ceiling housing.
For ceilings with even less space, extra low-profile housing is available.
7. Slope Ceiling
Buying and installing recessed lighting for flat ceilings and walls is simple. Things get much more difficult if your ceiling or wall is sloped.
Sloped ceiling housing helps solve this problem. It’s specifically designed for angled ceilings where space is at a premium.
Check your angles (or have a professional check them) before ordering.
B. Recessed Lighting Trim
Now that you know which type of housing is right for your home, it’s time to think about trim. Aside from the light bulb itself, trim is the only part of the fixture you’ll see from inside your house. The rest of the fixture is hidden away behind the ceiling or wall.
Some types of trim include a fixture that can be adjusted to shine directly on different areas of a room. Others have a protective outer cover.
Select your trim based on the light’s function and the overall style/décor of the room.
1. Baffle Trim
Baffle trim is the most common type of can lighting trim.
It’s notable for its ribbed interior. These ridges are specifically designed to reduce glare from the light bulb.
Thanks to the gentle light it provides, baffle trim is common in home offices where concentration is essential.
Select a dark colored baffle trim (such as black or dark brown) to further reduce glare.
2. Open Trim
Source: Home Depot
Open trim looks very similar to baffle trim. The main difference is that it doesn’t have a ribbed interior.
The lack of ridges means that open trim doesn’t prevent glare like baffle trim. The benefit to this type of trim is brighter lighting.
Open trim tends to provide much brighter lighting, to a much larger area, than other types of trim.
Select a light color open trim (such as white) to further enhance the brightness.
3. Eyeball Trim
Source: Home Depot
Eyeball trim utilizes the same exterior trim as baffle trim and open trim, but pairs it with an adjustable interior light fixture.
Adjust the interior light fixture to aim the light where you want it to shine. This type of trim is perfect for accent lighting.
Some forms of eyeball trim look tacky because so much trim is visible. Select a color that compliments the rest of the room for the utmost in style.
4. Wall Wash Trim
Wall wash trim is a mashup between baffle/open trim and eyeball trim.
Though it doesn’t utilize interior ridges, it does have the same exterior trim design as a baffle and open trim. Inside is an adjustable light fixture that’s similar to eyeball trim.
The big difference is the half shield that partially covers the opening. The shield helps evenly focus the light on a certain item or feature in your home.
For example, wall wash trim is perfect when you want accent lighting to highlight a painting.
5. Shower Trim
Shower trim is perfect for showers, bathrooms, and other areas with high humidity.
It’s a special lighting for wet and damp conditions. This type of trim utilizes a tempered glass fixture cover. Not only does the cover keep the light bulb safe, but it also keeps moisture out.
As the name implies, shower trim is an excellent way to light the interior of a walk-in shower.
C. Recessed Lighting Style
Once you’ve decided on the best type of housing and trim, it’s time to think about the overall style of the fixture.
The style of your fixture usually relates to the materials and colors uses. Any additional design elements also impact style.
Select the style that works best with the rest of your home décor and furnishings for a cohesive overall look.
1. Modern Recessed Lighting
Modern style lighting commonly utilizes a sleek and stylish trim design.
Neutral colors are another highlight of the modern style. Though round trim is common, trim with straight edges is also available. These modern designs tend to be low-profile, so it blends into a room.
2. Contemporary Recessed Lighting
Though similar to modern design, contemporary can lighting tends to be slightly smoother and more relaxed.
Straight edges and square trim are uncommon in contemporary design. One similarity this lighting style does share with modern lighting is the use of natural colors as well as high-end materials.
3. Traditional Recessed Lighting
Traditional style lighting is calming, relaxing, and welcoming.
It doesn’t try to be anything special. Instead, it utilizes the classic elements of traditional design to create an orderly and predictable atmosphere. Warm colors, as well as wood-look trim, are standard.
4. Rustic Recessed Lighting
Rustic style lighting is as straightforward and laid back as it gets.
This style looks perfect in a log cabin home. Rustic home design means that this lighting is nature-inspired and often utilizes earthy colors.
5. Victorian Recessed Lighting
Victorian style lighting is undoubtedly the most elegant option.
It’s also the most complicated and often includes ornate design elements. Expect engraved trim with soft, ambient lighting from the Victorian style of design.
D. Recessed Lighting Light Bulbs
At this point, we’ve already covered all the main options for the design of your lighting fixture itself.
Just as important as the fixture itself is the bulb used on the inside. The light bulb accounts partially for the overall look, but even more so for the type and quality of light provided.
Your main light bulb options include CFL, incandescent, LED, halogen, and R-type light bulbs.
1. CFL Light Bulbs
CFL light bulbs are a popular option for recessed lighting.
Short for compact fluorescent light, these bulbs are among the most energy efficient options available.
Another benefit of CFLs is increased lifespan. Although they cost more upfront, these bulbs last ten times longer than traditional (incandescent) bulbs.
2. Incandescent Light Bulbs
Incandescent light bulbs are what most people think of when they image lightbulbs.
This style of the light bulb was the first invented. It’s long been a popular option for lighting fixtures of all kinds.
Though incandescent bulbs are quickly becoming outshined by more energy efficient options, they’re still a good choice. Their main benefit is their low initial cost.
3. LED Light Bulbs
Source: Home Depot
LED light bulbs are perhaps the most energy efficient lighting option available.
Compared to the 75% energy that CFLs save against incandescents, LEDs save up to 90% energy and sometimes even more.
LED light bulbs are also a great choice for can lighting thanks to their durability and longevity.
4. Halogen Light Bulbs
Source: Home Depot
Halogen light bulbs have many of the same energy-saving benefits of CFL and LED light bulbs.
This style of light bulb is also one of the most commonly used for can lightings, thanks not only to their energy efficiency, but also the bright, white light they produce.
Halogen light bulbs are available in a variety of sizes (as well as floodlight and spotlight models) to suit the needs of all types of lighting fixtures.
5. R-Type Light Bulbs
R-type bulbs are quickly becoming one of the most popular types of light bulbs used when a focused light is a must.
The reason for their popularity is the reflective surface at the back of the bulb. The reflective surface helps direct even more light out of the fixture.
R-type bulbs are a perfect choice for accent lighting.
E. Other Design Options
There are a handful of additional factors you can tweak to make your can lighting fixtures your own.
These include the materials used, the color and finish, and the size and shape. All of these design options dictate the overall style of new lighting.
Source: Pegasus Lighting
Because of their proximity to the hot light bulbs inside them, the housing is almost always made of heat resistant materials.
These commonly include treated plastic and metal. Materials with the lowest fire risk are most often used.
The same goes for trim. Though there’s more leeway here as far as materials go, you can bet that any material that’s used is heat resistant.
2. Color and Finish
Source: Green Lighting Supply
Customize the look of your fixture by choosing your favorite color and finish.
Though black and white are the most common trim colors, you can request just about any color imaginable.
Wood range trim, as well as ornate Victorian-style trim, is also available.
3. Size and Shape
Source: Green Building Advisor
Fixtures are available in a variety of sizes and shapes.
The most common shape is undeniably a circle or round shape. However, square and rectangle fixtures are also available.
Sizes are likewise flexible. The most common are 4-inch, 5-inch, and 6-inch diameter fixtures.
Use a larger 6-inch fixture for larger rooms or rooms with vaulted ceilings. Smaller 4-inch fixtures are much better for accent lighting or use in small rooms.
Once again, the best size and shape light fixtures boil down to your personal preferences.
F. Additional Features/Options
There are several additional features and options that you should at least consider when buying can lighting.
Recessed lighting kits, a lighting dimmer switch, and your light controls are the most important.
1. Recessed Lighting Kits
Source: Home Depot
A kit makes installing this type of lighting that much easier. These kits come with every component you need, including the housing, trim, and electrical wiring parts.
These kits come with every component you need, including the housing, trim, and electrical wiring parts.
Some kits even come with an integrated light bulb!
2. Dimmer Switch
A dimmer switch allows you to adjust the intensity of the light.
Though they can be used on all types of lighting fixtures, dimmer switches are possibly most common for recessed lighting.
Install one on your fixture and adjust the mood no matter the occasion.
Source: JALUD Embedded
Most can lighting is controlled by a standard wall panel with a light switch.
However, wireless options are also available. Chief among your choices of these is a remote control or even a smartphone control.
Voice controlled control is another, though less popular, option.
II. More Details
Here are some other important factors to consider when buying recessed lighting.
A. Installing Recessed Lighting
You have two main options to consider when it comes to installing recessed lighting.
Depending upon the scope of your project, installing the lighting yourself is a doable DIY project for most people.
If you’re set on the DIY route, we suggest you buy a pre-made kit. The kit comes with everything you need to install the new lighting yourself.
It’s important to note that installing this form of lighting requires cutting holes (unless you’re simply swapping out old fixtures with new models).
Drilling these holes incorrectly can cause a lot of damage to your ceiling or walls if you’re not careful. If you’re uncomfortable cutting these holes yourself, you’re better off hiring a professional.
Another cause of concern is wiring. You must be able to safely work with electrical wiring to complete this project without incident. Once again, if you’re not comfortable working with electricity, it’s best to hire a professional.
Those set on installing light themselves should check out The Family Handyman’s excellent resource on how to install recessed lighting for dramatic effect.
Their thorough guide shows you how to install can lighting with minimal tear-out of your ceiling.
Those not comfortable cutting holes in their ceiling or working with electrical wiring should hire a professional.
Professional installation is also the smartest choice for those that simply don’t want to try to install this type of lighting themselves.
It also makes sense to have your contractor install your lighting from the get-go if you’re building a new home or room from scratch.
B. Room and Location
The functionality and style of your lighting depend largely on its location.
Next up is the location with the room itself. For general lighting, it’s best to locate your fixtures near the center of the room.
For task lighting, on the other hand, locate them near the area the task is taking place. For accent lighting, located them nearby the plant, painting, or another object you want the light to focus on.
Refrain from installing too many recessed lights in one room to prevent the ceiling from looking like Swiss cheese.
The fact that can lighting is usually made up of multiple lights means you’ll get unsightly shadows if installed incorrectly.
For a standard 8-foot ceiling, install each recessed light about 4 feet away from each other. The lights should also be at least 3 feet away from any wall.
The Spruce offers an excellent guide on finding the best placement and arrangement for recessed lighting.
C. Cost and Budget
The exact cost of installing recessed lighting depends on a variety of factors.
For the most accurate estimate for your project, price out the specific lighting kit you plan on buying and seek out an installation estimate from your contractor.
Factors that impact the cost of this type of lighting most are installation costs as well as the cost of the lighting components themselves.
With that said, HomeAdvisor estimates the cost of installing a single recessed light at around $150.
There’s not much fluctuation from that cost. HomeAdvisor goes on to state that the low average for installing one recessed light is $100 and the high average is $200.
Fixr.com gives a similar cost estimate. They state that it costs roughly $600 on average to install six recessed lights at once.
Like HomeAdvisor, Fixr.com recommends forking over the extra money to hire a contractor rather than attempting to install the lighting yourself.
Another factor that greatly affects the cost of installing any type of lighting is what is above the lighting.
If your home has an attic above the place you want to install the lighting, the job will be much easier and cheaper.
Installing these lighting fixtures on a ceiling with a floor above it, however, will likely add several hours to labor (and thus increase the cost of installation).
Installing recessed lighting, or any electrical project for that matter is also made more difficult in an old house. You’ll likely encounter other electrical issues while you install your recessed lights.
Remember that the type of light bulbs you use for your project also has a big impact on overall cost.
Though the upfront cost of installing high-efficiency bulbs might be slightly more expensive, doing so pays off big time in the long run.
High-efficiency CFL, LED, or halogen bulbs can save hundreds of dollars each year on energy costs.
III. Where to Buy Recessed Lighting Online
Knowing which types of lighting fixtures is right for your home is only the beginning. You must also buy all of your lighting components from a reputable provider.
Here are a few of our favorite places to buy recessed lighting online: