How Big and how Bright Should Recessed Lighting be?

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Recessed lighting, also known as can lights, offers an aesthetically pleasing and versatile lighting option for both residential and commercial spaces. With recessed lighting, the fixture is mounted into the ceiling or wall, creating an unobtrusive look that can provide general ambient lighting, accent lighting to highlight architectural details or artwork, or task lighting for specific activities.

When selecting recessed lighting, there are several factors to consider including the location, lighting needs, trim and housing options, lamp types, and brightness. This comprehensive guide will walk you through the key considerations to choose the ideal recessed lighting for your space.

Types of Recessed Lighting Applications


Recessed lighting offers flexibility to provide different lighting effects through placement and direction. Common applications include:

  • Ceiling Downlighting: The most popular use, downlighting from the ceiling provides ambient illumination. Lights are typically placed 3-5 feet apart.
  • Wall Washing: Placing lights near walls to graze the surface provides soft, indirect illumination, reducing glare and shadows.
  • Accent Lighting: Adjustable trims allow recessed lights to spotlight architectural details, art, or focal points.
  • Task Lighting: Direct the beam over work areas, like kitchen countertops or workbenches.
  • Pathway Illumination: Lights recessed into walls or the ground outdoors can light walkways.
  • Wet Locations: Fixtures with wet-rated trims can be used in humid environments like bathrooms.

Recessed Lighting Components

A recessed fixture consists of two main parts: the housing and the trim.

Housing: The housing is the part that gets mounted into the ceiling or wall. It contains the mounting gear, lamp socket, and electrical components. Housings are available in 3-7 inch diameters.

Trim: The trim is the visible part below the ceiling. Trims come in different shapes, sizes, and finishes to match your décor. They control light distribution and some offer adjustability.

It’s crucial to match compatible housing and trims. Even if they are the same size, trims and housings from different manufacturers may not work together due to differences in mounting methods. Consult an expert if unsure.

Recessed Lighting Housings

The housing type depends on whether it’s new construction or a remodel:

  • New Construction Housings: Designed for unfinished ceilings before drywall. The housing gets mounted directly to the joists.
  • Remodel Housings: For finished ceilings, a hole is cut to fit the housing which has retention clips to hold it in place.
  • Retrofit Housings: For upgrading existing recessed lights, the retrofit kit attaches to the interior of the existing housing.

Ensure the housing is Insulation Contact (IC) rated if insulation will be within 3 inches. IC housings are thermally protected and air sealed to prevent overheating and attic insulation fires.

Determine the correct voltage—most residential lighting is 120V, while commercial is often 277V. Housings are available for line voltage (120V), low voltage (12V or 24V), or integrated LED.

Recessed Lighting Trims

Recessed lighting trims offer diverse options to match your lighting needs and décor:

  • Flanged vs Flangeless: Flanged trims have a decorative edge that fits flush to the ceiling. Flangeless trims have no edge for a streamlined look.
  • Shape: Square, round, or rectangular apertures provide different aesthetic effects.
  • Look: Trims come in finished like white, black, bronze, or chrome. Some have a reflective inside to maximize light.
  • Baffle Trims: Have louvers or grids to reduce glare. Available in different baffle configurations.
  • Gimbal Trims: Pivoting built-in reflectors angle the light. Offer the most flexibility to direct light.
  • Adjustable Trims: Rotate horizontally and vertically to aim the beam. Fixed trims only point straight down.

Choosing Lamps for Recessed Fixtures

Many recessed fixtures now use integrated LEDs with the lights built-in. For fixtures with replaceable bulbs, common lamp types include:

  • PAR Lamps: The PAR shape helps direct light. Available with different beam spreads from spot to flood. Good for ambient lighting.
  • MR16: A halogen mini-reflector bulb often used for accent lighting. Provides a narrow, focused beam.
  • LED Retrofit Kits: For upgrading recessed cans to LED without replacing the entire fixture. Screw-in lamp retrofits into existing housings.

Consider light color, lumens, and beam angle when selecting lamps. Let the lighting application guide your choice.

Recessed Lighting Size and Spacing Recommendations by Room

Determining the right recessed lighting spacing and brightness for each room depends on the purpose. Follow these general guidelines:

Living Room

  • 4-6 inch diameter housings
  • 400-800 lumens per light
  • 2700-3000K color temperature
  • Flood distribution
  • Space lights 3-4 feet apart


  • 4-5 inch housings
  • 700-1200 lumens
  • 4000-5000K color temperature
  • Flood distribution
  • Space 2-3 feet apart


  • 3-5 inch housings
  • Wet location-rated trims
  • 700-1200 lumens
  • 2700-3000K color temperature
  • Narrow beam spread
  • Space 2-3 feet apart


  • 4-6 inch housings
  • 1000-2000 lumens
  • 2200-3000K color temperature
  • Flood distribution
  • Space 3-4 feet apart

Dining Room

  • 4-5 inch housings
  • 3000-4000 lumens
  • 2700-3000K color temperature
  • Flood distribution
  • Space lights 3-4 feet apart

Adjust as needed depending on ceiling height, room size, and lighting goals. Use lighting calculators or the room dimensions to determine the exact number of fixtures needed. Mix 4 and 6-inch lights to balance sufficient brightness with aesthetics.

Choosing Between 4” vs. 6” Recessed Lights

Beyond appearance, consider these factors when deciding on 4” or 6” housings:

  • 4 inch lights are more compact and modern looking. They offer more trim options like gimbals for task lighting.
  • 6 inch lights allow fewer fixtures to achieve the same light levels. They have higher lumen output potential.
  • For rooms with 8-9 foot ceilings, 4-inch lights may not provide sufficient illumination. Go with 6 inch or use more 4 inch fixtures.
  • Sloped ceilings are better suited to low profile 4 inch lights over the more visible 6 inch size. Use adjustable gimbal trims.
  • Foyers, dining rooms, and rooms with intricate architectural details are not ideal for recessed lighting which can create shadows. Consider pendant or chandelier fixtures instead.
  • Use wall washing adjustable trims to spotlight artwork or architectural elements.

Get the benefits of both sizes by combining 4 and 6-inch recessed lighting in the same rooms as needed. Let lighting needs and aesthetics guide your fixture size selection.

Energy Efficient Options for Recessed Lighting

There are many energy-efficient recessed lighting solutions that will also save on electricity costs:

  • LED Recessed Lighting: Choose fixtures with integrated LEDs which draw much less power than the older incandescent bulbs. LEDs also last longer.
  • LED Retrofits: For existing recessed cans, retrofit kits allow the swapping of outdated incandescent or halogen lamps for LEDs.
  • Dimmable Fixtures: Pairing fixtures with dimmers gives you better control over light levels, using only the illumination needed.
  • Occupancy Sensors: Sensors automatically turn lights on when motion is detected in the room and off after a period of inactivity.
  • Daylight Sensors: Photocells dim artificial light when sufficient natural light is available, conserving energy.

Smart Options for Recessed Lighting

Smart recessed lighting offers modern convenience and customization:

  • Smart Recessed Lights: Control connected LED fixtures remotely using mobile apps and voice assistants like Alexa. Change color, and dimness, create groups and scenes for an automated whole-home experience.
  • Tunable White: Shift the light color from warm to cool or anywhere in between to suit the moment. Stimulate productivity or relaxation.
  • Full Color: RGBW LEDs allow adjusting to any color for extraordinary effects. Make each room unique.

While more expensive upfront, smart and tunable recessed lighting delivers value through customizable ambiance and the potential for energy savings optimized to your life. An emerging and exciting category as costs decrease.

Choosing the perfect recessed lighting requires balancing aesthetics, lighting needs, energy efficiency, and costs. Keep this guide handy when selecting fixtures and bulbs to ensure your lighting achieves the style and illumination you desire. Pairing ambient lighting with accent and task recessed fixtures lets you effectively brighten any residential or commercial space.

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