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Recessed Lighting Design

Recessed lighting 101 series

Recessed Lighting DesignGreat recessed lighting design often goes unnoticed, which is exactly what it’s supposed to do. Here are a few design principles that can help you create the perfect lighting in any room:

  • Recessed lighting should blend with the ceiling as much as possible.
  • Recessed lighting design is based on the concept of lighting layers.
  • Using zones will further enhance the design and function of the recessed lighting


Your Recessed Lights Should Disappear Into the Ceiling

One of the biggest benefits of recessed lighting is that it blends with the ceiling while providing excellent lighting in a room. While they can be beautiful to look at, they are usually not considered a focal point in a room. Their main purpose is function and appearance is secondary.

Here are the four primary factors that will cause recessed lights to stand out from the ceiling, and how to avoid them:

  1. Trim color – This one is fairly obvious. Installing a trim that is similar in color to the ceiling will blend best. It doesn’t have to be an exact match, but if the ceiling is white use white trims.
  2. Glare – Excessive glare from recessed lights can be bothersome and distracting. Choose trims that trap and shape light to minimize glare and reduce ceiling brightness.
  3. Incorrect Spacing – If the spacing between the lights is incorrect, they will seem like they don’t belong in the room. It may not be obvious at first, but it will draw attention to them (not to mention the uneven lighting they will create).
  4. Too few or too many lights – This applies to the general lighting layer (more on this in the next section). Having too few or too many recessed lights installed in a room will look unnatural.


Layers Satisfy Needs

Recessed lighting design is based on the concept of three different needs for lighting in a room. Each need is satisfied by a lighting layer, or group of lights dedicated to a specific purpose.

The three layers used in lighting design are: General Lighting, Task Lighting, and Accent Lighting.

General Lighting

Light is essential for almost every activity (except sleep), therefore every room in a home needs a form of general lighting.

Recessed lighting is ideal for general lighting. A general lighting layout should be based on the room itself, not the furniture or anything else in the room.


Task Lighting

Task lighting is in addition to (not instead of) the general lighting layer. Common areas where recessed task lighting is used are kitchens, bathrooms, home offices, craft rooms, work spaces, etc..


Accent Lighting

Using recessed lights for accent lighting is very effective because of their ability to blend with the ceiling. Highlighting artwork, pictures, fireplace mantles, plants, and drapes are just a few examples of popular uses for recessed accent lighting.

Zones Create Flexibility

The design and function of the lighting layers can be further enhanced by having the ability to control them independently from each other. A group of lights that are controlled together is referred to as a zone.

Each lighting layer should be its own zone. This creates much more flexibility by allowing the user to set the lighting according to how the room is being used at any given time.

For example; while entertaining, the general lighting layer can be dimmed slightly so that the accent lighting layer is brighter. This will draw attention to the features of the room that the accent lighting is focused on while still providing general lighting for the room.

Now that you know the basics of recessed lighting design, let’s move on to calculating how many recessed lights each room will need…

Recessed Lighting Fixtures

Recessed lighting 101 series

Recessed light fixtureRecessed lighting fixtures – aka housings, cans, high hats, or pot lights – are the part of recessed downlights that sit above the ceiling. They provide the structure to attach the wire connections, the trims, and lamps or LEDs. In this post we’ll briefly look at the basics of recessed fixtures including:

  • The basic components that make up a recessed light fixture.
  • The most common sizes.
  • The types of fixtures available including line voltage, low voltage, compact fluorescent, and LED.
  • New Construction vs. Remodel fixtures.
  • The various ratings that apply to recessed lights and what they mean.


Recessed Light Fixture Components

A recessed light fixture is made up of the following components:

  • Recessed light housing with junction boxHousing – The housing (commonly referred to as the can) is the metal container that houses all of the other components. Most are made from aluminum or galvanized steel.
  • Junction Box – The metal enclosure where the electrical connections are made to each fixture.
  • Recessed light socket and thermal protectorSocket – The socket is the connector that the lamp screws or plugs into. It can be a threaded base, pin base, or plug depending on the type of fixture being used.
  • Thermal Protector – A small safety device wired between the junction box and the socket in all UL listed fixtures designed to turn off the lamp if the fixture gets too hot (usually caused by installing a lamp that uses more power than the fixture is rated for).
  • Recessed housing ballast or LED driverBallast (fluorescent fixtures only) – Dedicated fluorescent fixtures require an electric ballast to regulate the current flowing to the lamp.
  • Driver (Dedicated LED fixtures only) – Dedicated LED fixtures require a driver to regulate the voltage/current flowing to the diode.
  • Low voltage recessed housing with transformerTransformer (Dedicated low-voltage fixtures only) – Low Voltage recessed fixtures use a step-down transformer that converts the incoming 120V line voltage down to either 12 volts or 24 volts.


New Construction vs. Remodel Fixtures

"New construction" recessed housingNew construction housings are installed prior to the drywall in new construction projects. They have adjustable arms that attach to the ceiling joists.       "Remodel" recessed light fixtureRemodel type housings are used when installing lights in a finished ceiling. Remodel housings use special clips that secure the fixture to the ceiling itself, rather than the ceiling joists. They are designed to be installed from below the ceiling.

Fixture Sizes

The most common residential fixture sizes are 4-inch, 5-inch, and 6-inch. These sizes refer to the diameter of the opening in the housings where the trim fits.

Types of Recessed Light Fixtures

Standard Line Voltage (120V) – The most common type used for general and task lighting. They do not use a transformer, ballast, or driver, which makes them inexpensive and the most trouble-free. Low Voltage (12V or 24V) – Most often used for accent lighting. Their compact lamps allow for a wide variety of adjustable trim options. 12V is the most common. Compact Fluorescent – Commonly used in kitchens and bathrooms, especially in newer homes due to energy efficiency requirements. Each fixture contains an electronic ballast and uses a pin base fluorescent lamp.   Dedicated LED recessed lightDedicated LED – Each LED fixture contains a driver which regulates the current/voltage to the diode. These should be matched with the specific LED modules that they are designed for by the manufacturer.     Retrofit LED fixture and module Retrofit LED – These are universal line voltage housings that have a LED plug connector rather than a screw base socket. They are to be used specifically with “LED Retrofit” modules which combine the LED, driver, and trim together as one unit that plugs in to the fixture.

Most Important Fixture Ratings

Ratings labels will be found on the inside of the fixture housing. The following ratings are the most important with regards to energy and safety: IC Rated – An “IC” rated fixture is rated to be installed in direct contact with insulation or other objects inside the ceiling. As a general rule, always use IC rated fixtures in an insulated ceiling. Non-IC Rated – A “Non-IC” rated fixture must have a minimum of 3″ of clearance from insulation on all sides and above. Air tight recessed lightAir Tight Rated – An “Air-Tight” rating on a recessed fixture refers to an energy code first introduced in Washington State which requires recessed fixtures to be manufactured in a way that restricts air leakage (energy loss) through them. Air-tight fixtures prevent energy waste and their overall quality will be better. UL and IC rated recessed lightUL Listed – Underwriters Laboratories (UL) is an independent, non-profit organization that tests and certifies products for safety. While there are similar organization out there, UL is globally recognized as the standard. Using fixtures that are UL listed ensures that they have been tested for safety when installed according to the manufacturer’s instructions. California Title-24 rated recessed lightCA Title 24 – California’s Title 24 is an energy code that applies to both residential and nonresidential buildings. Its purpose is to reduce energy consumption. In order for a recessed fixture to be labeled “Title-24 Compliant” it must meet the current efficiency guidelines mandated by the California Energy Commission, which are updated periodically.

Energy Codes

If you are pulling a building permit for the installation it is important to note that many states have adopted various energy codes (such as California’s Title 24) that apply in addition to the local building codes. These energy codes restrict the types of light fixtures that you install to ensure that they are energy efficient. Most cities will provide you with a list of the current requirements, but if not it would be a good idea to ask.

Kitchen Pendant Lighting

Kitchen pendant lighting exampleKitchen pendant lighting has been around for years, and is popular in modern kitchens thanks to the large variety of colors and styles that are available.

Pendants offer a nice combination of style and brightness, and can be the perfect finishing touch to your kitchen remodel.

In this post I’ll answer the most common questions I hear regarding choosing and installing pendant lighting in the kitchen.




What’s the difference between low voltage and line voltage pendant lights?

Besides style, the most common difference you will find between pendant light fixtures is whether they are low voltage or standard line voltage.

Low voltage pendants, also known as mini-pendants, use a tiny transformer to convert the standard house current of 120 volts down to 12 volts. This allows the pendants to hang from a thin cable or that is barely noticeable. They also use a more compact lamp that is usually halogen or LED. If it is small that you are looking for, then low voltage pendants may be the way to go.

Line voltage pendants use standard house current, so they don’t require a transformer. The glass usually hangs from the canopy by adjustable metal rods or by a cord that you cut to length.

Standard pendants usually cost less than low voltage, but not always.


How many pendants should I install?

Image of kitchen pendant lighting over three place settingsMany homeowners have a hard time deciding on the number of pendants to install. Although there is no right answer, three is most common.

That being said, I’ve seen many kitchens when three is too many and two is more appropriate (like over a small breakfast bar).

As a general rule, count the number of place settings that could fit on the counter, bar, or island, and place a pendant over each one.


What size pendants for my kitchen?

Picture of using balloons to visualize pendants lighting in a kitchenThe size of the pendants you decide on is a matter of personal preference, but I do have a trick that will help you better visualize how they will look in your kitchen.

Blow up a couple of balloons and tie a string on each one. Then tape them to the ceiling to hang like a pendant.

You can use any object, but balloons work great because they are light and you can easily make several sizes until you get the one that looks right for your kitchen.





How high should pendants hang above the counter top?

country style kitchen pendant lightsIf you are installing your pendants over a bar where people will be sitting, the general rule is the bottom of the pendants should be 30” to 36” above the surface.

Make sure that the bottom of the pendant fixtures will be above your line of sight while seated. The last thing you want is to be staring straight into a light fixture when sitting at the counter.

If the pendants are going above a center island without seating, I recommend hanging them no lower than 36″ from the counter.



How far from the edge of the counter should they hang?

If it is a counter where people will be seated, the fixtures should hang 12″-18″ from the edge. If the pendants are going over a counter or island without seating, try to center them over the work surface.


Should pendants be controlled by their own switch?

Yes, whenever possible (or feasible), I recommend that the pendant fixtures be controlled by their own switch.
If you’re not sure what to do, just ask yourself if you would ever want to be able to turn on the pendant lights by themselves – without having the rest of the kitchen lights on at the same time? If so, then put them on their own switch.


If you have a question that I missed here, please contact me and I’ll do my best to answer it for you.

How to Replace Old Kitchen Lights with Modern Recessed Lighting

Kitchen Lighting Example pictureIf it’s time to update your kitchen lights, you may be wondering what your options are.

Recessed lighting is ideal for kitchens, and it’s what you’ll find in most new homes.

Let’s look at a few options for replacing your old lights with modern recessed lighting.


Kitchen Ceiling Types

The first thing you need to do is identify the type of ceiling you have. Then you’ll know what your options are.
Depending on when your home was built, your kitchen ceiling is likely either flat or it has a fluorescent soffit.


Flat Ceiling Type

a flat kitchen ceiling with old lighting

If your kitchen ceiling is flat, it probably has one or more light fixtures mounted to it’s surface.





flat kitchen ceiling with led recessed lightsUpdating it to recessed lighting is fairly simple.

It involves removing the old fixtures, installing the recessed lights, and repairing any ceiling damage left over from the old light fixtures.






Fluorescent Soffit Type

old kitchen soffit lightingIf your home was built between the 1970’s and the 1990’s, you may have a soffit ceiling with a raised portion in the center. This was built to accommodate fluorescent tube lights which are covered by plastic panels.

If this is your ceiling type, you have two options:
kitchen soffit flat with recessed lights

Option #1 – Make it Flat

Frame the soffit opening and cover it with drywall. This creates a modern flat ceiling for the recessed lights.





kitchen soffit with crown moulding and recessed lights



Option #2 – Leave the Soffit Open

Remove the old lighting and install recessed lights inside the raised soffit ceiling.

Depending on the size of the soffit in relation to your kitchen, you may want to add additional task lights around the soffit above the counter tops.

Adding crown moulding inside the soffit is a great way to give it a finished look.



With either option, the ceiling will most likely need to be refinished by a drywall professional and then painted.

In the examples shown here, the ceilings have been re-textured and are ready for paint.



Number of Recessed Lights

When determining the number of recessed lights your kitchen needs, think in terms of general lighting and task lighting.

General Lighting

General lighting is what provides the overall brightness in the room.

Since kitchens require a higher level of brightness than most other rooms of a home, you may need a few more lights or brighter lights than you’d use in other rooms of the same size.

Here is a post plus a calculator that you can use to get an idea of the number of lights you’ll need.

Task Lighting

The number of task lights needed (if any) will vary based on the layout of the general lights. Depending on the shape of your kitchen, the layout of your general lights may eliminate the need for any additional task lighting.

Think of task lights as “fillers” to address any surfaces that will not be adequately lit by your general lighting.

Besides recessed lighting, under cabinet lighting and pendant lights are a few other options that are excellent for task lighting.



Whenever possible, the layout of the general lights should be an even pattern according to the shape of the room. The formula for spacing kitchen lights is the same as any other room.

If task lights are needed in addition to the general lights, place them directly over the work areas. Don’t worry about aligning task lights in a pattern. I also recommend putting them on a separate switch from your general lights whenever feasible.


Type of Recessed Lights

Depending on where you live, the type of lights you install in your kitchen may be restricted by local energy codes.

title_24For example, here in California all of the lighting we install must meet the requirements of Title-24, a set of efficiency guidelines mandated by the CEC and updated every three years.

In the past, this was very frustrating because the only type of lights that met the efficiency requirements for kitchen lights were fluorescent.

Needless to say, it was hard to get excited about installing new fluorescent lighting. Except for its efficiency, there’s nothing else appealing about it.

Thankfully, LED technology has become exceptional (and affordable), and easily meets the efficiency requirements.


Size and Brightness

When it comes to brightness, it’s not the size of the recessed light that matters.

What actually matters is the performance of the fixture or lamp it uses.

So how do you know how bright a light is?

Lighting Facts Label

It’s simple.

Take a look at the packaging of any light bulb or LED and you’ll find the Lighting Facts Label.
This universal label was introduced in 2012, and is mandatory on all packaging of luminaries sold in the US, regardless of where they are manufactured.




Giving your kitchen lighting a makeover is a great investment. It can improve the light quality and efficiency while giving your kitchen a fresh new look.


Recessed Lighting Trims

Recessed lighting 101 series

Recessed lighting trims serve three purposes:

  1. They conceal the recessed fixture behind them.
  2. They direct and shape the light downward.
  3. They provide a finished/decorative look.

This post will cover the most common trim options that are available and the differences between them. I’ve also included recommendations for which type of trims to use for various types of recessed lighting.


Trim Types

Baffle TrimBaffle Trims are the most common trims used in residential homes. The lamp sits recessed inside the trim to minimize glare, and the inside surface is ribbed to trap and shape the light.


Reflector TrimReflector Trims are similar to baffle trims except they have a smooth surface inside.


Open TrimOpen Trims are low profile and economical. They fit tight around the lamp which sits flush with the ceiling.


Eyeball TrimEyeball Trims allow you to control the direction of the light. Their range of motion is typically 30° tilt and 359° rotation.


Gimbal TrimGimbal Trims are similar to eyeballs except they pivot within the housing so they protrude less from the ceiling. Their range of motion is the same as the eyeball but at full range the trim may cut off part of the beam of a wide angle lamp.


Adjustable TrimSurface Adjustable Trims (also known as “elbow” or “scoop” trims) offer a maximum range of motion at 70° tilt and 359° rotation.


Slot ApertureSlot Aperture Trims are ideal for concealing the light source in the ceiling. Their range of motion is 35° tilt and 179° rotation.


Pinhole TrimPinhole Trims provide a tight punch of light from a concealed source. The aperture fits snug around the lamp which is recessed above the surface.


Lensed TrimLensed Trims have a plastic or glass lens that covers the lamp and are most often used in wet locations.


Wall Wash TrimWall Wash Trims have an eyelid which eliminates the “scallop” design typically created when a light is aimed directly at a wall.


Decorative TrimDecorative Trims are available in many shapes and finishes and are usually constructed from a combination of metal and glass.


Trim Colors

A trim’s color can have a big impact on its output of the light. Dark colored trims absorb light and can result in as much as a 44% loss in light output.

The term Photometric Efficiency is used to describe the loss/efficiency of a trim.

Trim Color Sample Light Absorbed by Trim Photometric Efficiency
Clear (Chrome)   0% 100%
White   1% 99%
Copper   10% 90%
Gold   10% 90%
Satin Nickel   13% 87%
Bronze   25% 75%
Black   44% 56%



Trim Finishes

There are two finishes that work very well for maximizing light reflection while minimizing unwanted glare:

Alzak FinishAlzak® Finish – Alzak is a proprietary anodizing process developed by Alcoa Aluminum. It creates a finish which is very efficient at reflecting light while virtually eliminating ceiling brightness and glare.

Specular FinishSpecular Finish – “Specular” is a term used to describe a reflective, mirror-like surface. Specular trims are available from all of the major manufacturers for reflector and baffle trim types.



Recommended Trims for Various Types of Lighting


General Lighting Task Lighting Accent Lighting
Baffle Trim Baffle Trim Eyeball
Reflector Trim Reflector Trim Gimbal
Lensed Trim (wet locations) Pinhole Surface Adjustable
Slot Aperture
Wall Wash


Here are a few tips for choosing trims:

  1. Select the type of trim needed based on function. For accent lighting, it is important to pay attention to the range of motion of the trim to be sure that it will work with the placement of your light.
  2. If you want your lights to blend with the ceiling, choose a color that is similar to the ceiling. For example, use white trims if the ceiling is white. If the ceiling is painted a color other than white, you can use a clear (chrome) trim with a specular finish which will reflect the ceiling color and blend well. You can also paint the trim ring to match the ceiling if you’d like, but don’t paint the inside surface of the trim.