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What is Recessed Lighting?

By S. Mithra
Updated May 16, 2024
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Recessed lighting can provide dramatic, low-profile illumination for every room of the house. These fixtures are embedded into the ceiling, so there are no dangling cords, switches, lampshades, or bulbs to interrupt your view. Different varieties of recessed lighting can provide ambient, accent, task, and flood lighting depending on their bulbs, housing, and trim.

Designers and homeowners choose recessed lighting when they want something sleek, functional, and affordable that doesn't call too much attention to itself. This option is all but invisible since the fixture, light bulb, and wiring are all secreted away inside the ceiling, and it turns on via a wall switch. All a person sees are glowing discs of light directed at a countertop, painting, table, or shelving.

There are several parts to a complete mechanism. In different combinations, they will produce a light that is focused and bright, diffuse and calming, or somewhere between the extremes. The first important part is the housing, or can. This is the electrical fixture that positions the light and gets power to the bulb. Housings will vary based on whether your ceiling is insulated and how much access you have to the space.

The particular housing for your recessed lighting will determine whether you'd prefer fluorescent, halogen, or incandescent bulbs. Fluorescent lights are extremely energy efficient so they benefit your budget and halogens can be acquired in low voltage varieties. Traditional incandescent bulbs give a warm, familiar glow, and can easily be hooked to a dimmer switch so their brightness varies.

Reflectors, inside the housing, are domes that bounce light downward into the room where it is most needed. Diffusers are discs of glass or plastic that change the light in some way. Recessed lighting may be filtered so it appears softer, or so that outdoor applications are protected from insects. Usually, people install an array of fixtures to fulfill all the different needs of separate areas of a room.

Another part of recessed lighting is the trim. As the most visible piece of material, this ring lays flat against the ceiling. A decorative element, trim can be white plastic to blend in with the ceiling, or tinted for a splash of color. Trims may also be incorporated into baffles, slight extensions that direct the beam of light into one area, such as toward a sink or desk.

Directionals are one specialized type of recessed lighting. These are like track lighting in that they can be rotated to align with different areas of your home. Rather than spread their light across an even field, they can point at a print or painting hanging on the wall, or illuminate the first step on a staircase.

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Discussion Comments
By Sporkasia — On Aug 05, 2014

I can see a big negative side to recessed lighting. For one thing, once you have the lighting in place there is no simple way to move it when you decide you want a new look. With lamps this is not a problem.

Also, overhead lighting can be unflattering. That's my way of saying that the light tends to show all of the skin's imperfections, so you won't look as good as you do with less direct lighting.

By Drentel — On Aug 04, 2014

I think the most difficult part of putting in the recessed lighting fixtures would be connecting the wiring. This would not be the same as connecting a light where are the wires are marked and capped, simply waiting for you to connect the appropriate wires from the fixtures to the wiring already in place. My guess is the average person would need help with the wiring.

The next biggest test would be cutting the holes for the recessed lighting. This should not be too difficult with a power saw made for cutting holes. Without a power saw, getting the hole right could be a lot more of a pain.

By Laotionne — On Aug 04, 2014

How difficult would the job of adding recessed lighting as a do it yourself project be?

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