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Pot Lighting Buyer’s Guide

For a clean look and ample illumination, recessed pot lights are what you want for nearly every room in your house. Knowing how to choose the right lights is the first step to a lighter, brighter space.

Recessed lighting can be one of the quickest ways to update and illuminate a house. But if done wrong, it can result in uncomfortable lighting or a dated appearance. It can be a daunting project to take on in your home, but not to worry: Here, we’ve answered the most common questions from our customers.

So…what exactly are recessed lights?

Also known as down lights, pot lights or high hats, depending on where you’re from, recessed lighting is a type of light fixture that is just that: Recessed.

Usually, recessed lighting is made up of two pieces: The trim and the housing. The trim is the part of the fixture that you can see from the space below and comes in a wide range of finishes, sizes, and shapes. The housing is the part of the light that you don’t see—it sits above your ceiling. If you’re working with incandescent lighting, there’s a third component as well—the light bulb. These pieces are designed to work together, so it is important to pick a trim and housing that are compatible with each other.

Pro tip: A trim and housing being the same size don’t mean that they work together. Even trims and housings from the same manufacturer might not be compatible. Always make sure that the components you decide on work together. Because there are so many factors that determine whether components work together, the best thing you can do is contact a lighting expert (like us!).

Why do I need recessed lighting?

Plain and simple: For lighting! Pot lights are a very practical and elegant way to illuminate your spaces that might not have been designed or built with sufficient lighting.

Recessed lighting can:

  • Provide an ambient layer of light over a whole room;
  • Spotlight or highlight specific architectural details or features;
  • Wash a wall with light to create a stunning dramatic effect.

Can I use recessed pot lighting?

While the recessed lighting systems of yesterday were thought to be somewhat clunky and complicated, options available today meet almost every need. Newer systems are not only performing to better standards, they’re easier than ever before to plan and install.

You’ll need the help someone who is familiar with residential lighting, like a contractor or electrician. They can help you with a lighting plan, make sure your lights are meeting any codes and, of course, install the light fixtures for you.

Pro tip: Tight on space? Newer designs are getting smaller without sacrificing light output, therefore pushing the boundaries of where recessed lighting can be installed. Even spaces with just a few inches of clearance can now accommodate a recessed light.

What size recessed lights should I use?

There is a wide range of sizes available on the market, and the size of your trim will depend on your application.

When you’re looking at trim sizes, you are generally looking at the aperture measurement. The aperture is the opening where the light shines through. Remember that this dimension is not the overall dimension of the trim.

Historically, the “standard” size used in most residential applications was a 6-inch aperture. Because of the popularity and widespread use by contractors and builders, this size can look a bit dated. Newer trends show that a 3- to 4-inch aperture is the new standard.

Current design trends are leaning towards smaller and smaller aperture sizes. While they tend to look cleaner on a ceiling, smaller doesn’t necessarily equal better. You’ll need to keep the size-to-function ratio in mind—smaller sizes (2- and even 1-inch trims) can be an excellent addition for detailing or highlighting a space, but wouldn’t be the best choice for lighting up a whole room.

Recessed lighting is, at its core, an architectural lighting solution. This means that it is very dependent on the space it is going into. The same lights that work perfectly well on an 8-foot ceiling will seem dim on a 15-foot ceiling. Working with your contractor, designer, or an electrician with lighting experience will help you ensure that you’ll get the right lighting for your space.

What type of recessed housing do I need?

There are two main types of housings: Remodel housings and new construction housings. What you need to get is dependent on how they are being installed.

As the names indicate, new construction housings are meant for spaces where the ceiling line, i.e. sheetrock/drywall, has not yet been installed or has been removed. These housings are designed to be installed in between the ceiling joists.

Remodel housings are used for installations with an existing ceiling. They enter the ceiling through a hole cut in the drywall or sheetrock and are held in place using clips.

Another rating to remember is the IC Rating. IC stands for Insulation Contact. IC Rated housings can be installed with the insulation running up to or even over the housing. This is particularly important for spaces where the housing is going up into an attic. Non-IC Rated housings will require a buffer or clear zone around the housing to work safely.

Pro tip: Know the codes and requirements in your area when you are building or remodeling. If you’re the one buying lights for your project, make sure to check in with your contractor or electrician to make sure that your choice will pass local inspection in your area.

What type of recessed trim do I want?

The trim you pick should be determined by the application and design aesthetic you’re trying to achieve. Round trims have been dominant for some time, but square designs are becoming popular. Some options even include a decorative flange or lens that can be glass, metal, or crystal.

Trims are also defined by function:

  • If you’re trying to light up a specific object or feature in a room, go for an adjustable or gimbal trim. These are designed to provide more control in aiming the light.
  • If you need a pot light for a shower or outdoor space, make sure that you look for a wet-rated or shower trim. These are designed to keep the light fixture safe and functioning in a wet space.
  • If you’re using recessed lights for general lighting, even with downlight, you should keep in mind the color and shape of the baffle, which helps diffuse light better than an open trim.

There is a multitude of options for recessed pot lighting. While that can be overwhelming, it also means there is a trim out there to meet your needs.

Should my recessed lighting be LED?

There isn’t a clear yes-or-no answer here, but in our expert opinion, not considering LED when shopping for recessed lights would not be a recommended move.

But, it depends on your project. It’s important to know that some states and municipalities require LED or high-efficiency lighting for projects that need a permit—so always check your local code before any purchases.

In cases where it is not needed, it’s simply a matter of choice. Generally, LEDs have a higher initial price point due to the technology involved. But keep in mind that while they are more expensive to buy, they also require much less energy to run and far less maintenance since they have very long lifespans.

RECESSED LIGHTING: WORDS TO KNOW

APERTURE: An opening or hole, specifically referring to the slot on a recessed lighting trim where light is visible.

HOUSING: The protective covering around the recessed downlight.

IC RATED: IC stands for “Insulated Contact.” An IC rating is needed for light fixtures that are installed in direct contact with a building’s insulation material in the wall or ceiling.

TRIM: The decorative molding around the opening of a recessed light.

BAFFLE TRIM: A style of trim that has large grooves that absorb excess light and reduce glare. Baffles are usually available in black (which reduces the most glare) and white (which reduces the appearance of holes in your ceiling).

GIMBAL TRIM: A style of trim that gives you control of the direction of light with a pivot inside of the housing.

REFLECTOR TRIM: A trim style that uses a smooth, polished interior to maximize the amount of light output.