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Tips for installing recessed lighting

Some common mistakes are not installing enough recessed lights to adequately light the room and using the wrong switch to operate the lights. (Stacy Zarin Goldberg)
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While more homes are now being designed to accommodate more natural light, you may find that daylight and lamps are not enough to make it easy to read or work in some rooms.

Layering light sources can improve your ability to see and your mood. Recessed lighting can be one important element of your lighting plan. Recessed lighting can be an included feature or an option in new homes, but for owners of existing homes it can be a big project to install recessed lights in rooms that lack them.

We asked Jason Arce, an architectural designer with Anthony Wilder Design/Build in Cabin John, Md.; Chuck Khiel, a senior vice president with Fred Home Improvement in Bethesda; and Megan Bell and Danielle Steele, designers with Marks-Woods Construction Services in Alexandria, Va., for their advice on installing recessed lighting in an existing home. Each responded via email.

Can you add recessed lighting to any ceiling in any room? Or are there some circumstances where you shouldn’t?

Arce: In general, recessed lights are sufficiently simple and minimal in design to place just about anywhere without bringing a lot of attention to them. In areas that require more lighting, such as laundry rooms, walk-in closets and storage spaces, you may consider going with a surface mounted light for better light vs. two to four recessed cans.

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Khiel: Not always. In most residential homes, I would say yes. Condos are a very different animal. The ceilings could be solid concrete, in which case the answer is no.

Bell: For closets, we generally install flushmount or semi-flushmount fixtures. Otherwise, recessed lighting works just about everywhere else. There are products that can be retrofitted, if placing them between ceiling joists isn’t an option.

How do you decide how many lights you need and where to place them? Is there a rule of thumb? Any specific tips about placement?

Arce: Yes, quantity and placement can certainly become a problem. You want to avoid placing too many recessed lights and making your home feel like a warehouse. More does not necessarily mean better. The general rule of thumb is to match the size of your lighting can to your space. They typically come in four-inch, five-inch and six-inch diameters. If you have a four-inch recessed light fixture, place the lights at least four feet apart and so on. Of course, this rule can be broken. In areas that require better lighting, such as a kitchen, feel free to shorten the spacing. You can add more space between lights in areas that don’t require as much light, such as a bedroom.

Khiel: Most recessed lights are LED. The “rule of thumb” is that a six-inch LED recessed light will produce a ring of light on the floor that is about eight feet in diameter. Simply overlap the circles to figure out how many you would need for a room.

Do you have any recommendations about how to choose a style of trim for the recessed lights?

Arce: Lighting trim is something that is always more of a personal preference. When in doubt, refer to the aesthetics and feel of your home. If your home is more ornate with crown molding and wall paneling, a more decorative trim may apply. Personally, I feel the simpler and cleaner the trim, the better.

Steele: The key here is to match the ceiling paint as much as possible so that the lights are imperceptible with a smooth baffle in white rather than metal.

What size light works in different locations?

Arce: At one time the thought was larger lights for taller ceilings, smaller lights for shorter ceilings. It’s now more common to see four-inch recessed lighting throughout the house especially now that LED bulbs have evened the playing field. At our design studio, six-inch lights are more of a thing of the past. In fact, lately we’ve been seeing a trend to go even smaller, such as two-inch cans; they are now the new wave with their minimalist aesthetic.

Khiel: Six-inch lights are pretty standard; however, four-inch recessed lights are pretty popular as well. The four-inch are high output and produce roughly a seven-foot ring of light. If you are adding recessed lights in a small ceiling area, using the four-inch would be less noticeable.

How do you choose the right lighting color and temperature?

Arce: Selecting the right color temperature can be a daunting task for a homeowner and a bit overwhelming when selecting lightbulbs. In general, cooler temperatures range from 3500 to 4000K and will produce brighter, crisper lighting for certain areas, such as kitchens. The warmer temperatures between 2700 to 3000K create a cozier ambiance for spaces, such as living rooms. If you need something in between, go with a neutral bulb.

Khiel: This is a personal preference and usually depends on where the lights will be installed. In an office, it might need to be brighter than a bedroom. The use of the space tends to dictate the color and temperature.

What are common mistakes people make when installing recessed lighting?

Arce: A common mistake we see are clients thinking that the larger the light fixture, the better the light output will be. Again, LED bulbs have come a long way and have changed this mentality. As noted, more recessed lighting is not always better.

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Khiel: The common mistakes that we see are not installing enough recessed lights to adequately light the room and using the wrong switch to operate the lights. If LED recessed lights are installed, the switch needs to be an LED-rated switch.

Bell: Having dark corners or a “Swiss cheese” effect — meaning the lights are casting down too harshly onto the floor and not allowing for enough light spread on the floor. Also, random placement will draw unwanted attention to the ceiling.

Any other tips for homeowners about recessed lighting?

Arce: Yes, I will almost always suggest putting your recessed lighting on dimmers. This helps you adjust the lighting to the correct atmosphere and situation. Also, when you have sloped ceilings, make sure to have adjustable recessed lights or ones that are specifically designed for angled ceilings. Lastly, keep in mind that when installing in small closets, you will want to use an LED lightbulb and refer to your local building codes due to required clearances.

Khiel: Recessed light, if done properly, really can accent the space. One tip: Consider placement of artwork or knickknacks carefully. Then consider a “wall-washer” or eyeball to highlight that piece. And always make sure that enough lights are being installed so that no shadowed area exists when the lights are on.

Steele: We suggest using recessed lights for general lighting throughout the home, but not as your only source of lighting. It’s meant to be supplemented by other fixtures, such as task and ambient lighting.

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