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RIP: The Recessed Light

Last month we started a new series where we figuratively get to place certain myths, misconceptions, or products to rest.  Within the last month with a spate of ice dams, problems trying to insulate around older ones, the costs to replace, and many locals trying to come to terms with the new Energy Code, many people are starting to rethink the use of recessed lights altogether.

RIP: The Recessed Light (aka Can, Pot, or Down-Lights)

The Can-light; 1940’s – 2011 was found early this morning in another can & appears to have been tossed due to complications brought on by Leaky House Syndrome. With the recent spate of ice-dams in the northern climates, it was quickly identified by many as a key suspect in costing homeowners hundreds of dollars in lost energy & heat.

It was often touted for its sleek modern appearance, its ability to blend into the ceiling and its penchant for one being able to change its appearance with a simple change of the trim kit or lamp types. These benefits helped to make the recessed light, one of the most common lighting fixtures found in many homes.

Unfortunately, all those benefits were the cause of its actual undoing. Mr. Michael Anschel was one of those that pointed out that its beauty was only skin-deep and that there were massive problems hidden below the surface. While many scoffed, Mr. Anschel was quick to point out seven key issues including; down lighting makes people look bad, it is inefficient, expensive, and there are better ways to light a space. While many still believe in their use, it is best to consult a lighting designer that understands all these issues before trying to resuscitate it.

In many ways, I actually do have Michael Anschel to thank, for figuratively shining the light on this subject awhile ago. Back in our 2009 article on “Going Green during your Kitchen Remodel” Michael brought up 7 points on why they should be put to rest for good. Unfortunately, this comment and many of the older ones did not roll over properly when we switched to our new layout, so I will have to pull the good ole quote trick.

Looks & Aesthetics:

  • Down lighting makes people look bad. Go stand under a can light and have someone take a photo of you. Looks like you have not slept in a week. Yuck.
  • Recessed lighting is inefficient. At 8’ your recessed light will give you a paltry 4-5 square feet of light. Moreover, the light will be relatively low; ‘navigation light’ not ‘task light’. What will take you 6-8 can lights to achieve could have been accomplished with two 14-watt bulbs in a semi-flush fixture.
  • It is expensive. How many recessed lights does it take to light a room? If you design the wiring for efficiency, you will be placing each 25% segment of the lights on a single switch. (Clustered or spread)
  • There are so many better ways to illuminate a space (naturally and artificially) that it seems like a crime to resort to something with such poor function (and aesthetic).

The other three issues:

While many may point out that this is a great reason for bringing in a lighting designer, or that there are newer bulbs available that can virtually eliminate those arguments – he puts the nail into the coffin with the next three points which I am simply going to paraphrase below.

  • Recessing anything into an exterior plane is just a bad idea.
  • It is very difficult and expensive to insulate properly around a can light (IC rated or otherwise)
  • I have seen far too many basements that are loaded up with 30, 40, 50, 60 recessed lights, all incandescent bulbs, on three or four switches. Consider the wisdom behind installing a series of metal boxes with a heating element inside in a joist-bay, especially in old houses…

Issues with the attic:

Points #5 & 6 are two of the biggest issues that apply in most traditional attics. The first main issue is insulating around them, followed up by the loss of insulation where the can is. Each can-light results in at least .35 SF of space that is not insulated as well as the other areas. As we have pointed out in other articles, that loss of insulation quickly adds up and can cut down the whole attics overall insulative qualities by 25% or more. In the case of a non-IC rated fixture, you lose 1.5 SF worth of insulation (boxing in the light per codes and insulating around it) & to top it off you have to basically cover it with nothing thicker than a piece of thin cardboard, so it ends up acting like a big chimney dumping all that heat into an attic.

Issues between floors:

While Michael concentrated on the basement for his 7th reason, I have seen cases where the subfloor & joists around them have actually been scorched from homeowners using too high of a wattage & / or the incorrect fixture has been used. Another issue that pops up is the heat from the light causing a convective current inside the bay that pulls in more of the humid outside air in our climate.

The Weatherization / Retrofitting Dilemma:

Whew, this one has been picking up some steam on numerous weatherization and energy auditing boards on what should one do with a non-IC rated light. While many like the idea of boxing them in – as I pointed out above you have a 1.5 SF chimney dumping the hot indoor air directly into the attic during the winter & giving that nice 140° attic air a nice place to enter the house during the summer. Swapping out the lights with an IC rated one is deemed to expensive by some but even that causes issues as shown above and as mentioned by Michael in his full comment, would require almost 2’ feet of insulation to be blown over & tapered out above each light.

Now some like to go with the option of just swapping out the bulbs with a CFL, or even a screw in SSL retrofit kit and insulating around them – but that is not legal or safe. The only way you can get away with that per some codes (like Title 24), is to rewire it so that only those types of bulbs can be used in the future to prevent a fire hazard. The best option is to simply rip them all out, patch the holes, fix the wiring and add a surface mount light.

Being smart & using them where appropriate:

While many of you may aptly point out that, I used recessed lights in the “Looking Back” series as shown in the pictures here, that was based on sound design principles. First, this attic is part of the conditioned space, and by placing them here, it does not interfere with the thermal boundary. Secondly, the placement was utilized to take advantage of the “task-lighting” aspects that would have been hard to pull off with lamps due to the small size of the spaces. Third, as it is meant for task lighting, the ceiling fan was used for the primary lighting; and to top that off, it has an option where you can choose between two or four bulbs being utilized based on need. Finally, we also utilized CFL bulbs to help cut down on the heat issue for when they are actually used.

But Wait, There’s More:

UPDATE: It appears we must have struck a cord with this article: Arne Salvesen CKD decided he needed to do a Guest Rebuttal. We soon thereafter followed up with another RIP Part Deuce article. Then we even had James “JP” Bedell jump into the conversation on his site with a Long Live article… Me thinks they might have missed the last paragraph above. For more on the challenges with sealing around them: Sealing them pesky penetrations, and Insulating the Attic Floor

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  • Brenda Lynn

    Thanks for a new perspective on recessed lighting, Sean. As always, it was informative and well written.

    Brenda Lynn

  • Apgar Construction

    For kitchens, with conditioned spaces above, there aren’t many other options. Pendants are ok for island and other areas, but for task lighting in a kitchen, it’s hard to beat the recessed light. For other rooms, I don’t see much of a need for them. I wouldn’t say they are dead though, most new houses are two stories and so any of them placed on the first floor would be fine as long as they fit the design needs. Attic ones can be boxed over without a huge deal of labor/material involved.

    • SLS Construction

      Thanks Dan for the comments, and I fully agree with you on the proper design. A few items to consider for kitchens & other area’s requiring task lighting is the use of LED light strips for under the cabinets, puck lights, pendant’s as you mentioned, etc…

      While slightly off topic, one trick I like using for ambient / decorative light is using LED rope behind the crown on the top of cabinets (No not the ones that go all the way to the ceiling)

      As for boxing over ones located in the attic, while it maybe easy – it sure doesn’t do the customer or the house any good for the Non-IC rated ones. With that said, for an IC Rated one, boxing around them with foam & capping it with 4″ to 7″ foam would eliminate the mounding problem mentioned by Michael. I would suggest you still leave an appropriate amount of air space around & above the fixture to help allow for any future work and in case of overheating, not melting or causing a fire.