Types of Light Bulbs for Recessed Lighting


According to Rensselaer Polytechnic's Lighting Research Institute, there are two basic types of recessed lighting fixtures designed for residential use. One is the round, "high-hat" fixture. The other is square or rectangular. Both are downlights, meaning they are set flush with the ceiling and focus light directly below. A few high-hat fixtures can be turned and focused on nearby walls, though the angle is limited. It's important for both safety and aesthetics to choose the right type of bulb for each fixture. Placing the wrong type of bulb into the wrong fixture can cause quick bulb failure and fire hazards.

Incandescent Bulbs

  • Incandescent bulbs have a warm glow and come in a wide variety of intensities, from 20 to 150 watts. They are among the least efficient of bulbs and are gradually being phased out of manufacture in many countries. Along with their high light temperature, the bulbs themselves produce a good deal of heat. Use them in screw-based fixtures with covers.

Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs)

  • LEDs are the most efficient but least intense choice for recessed lighting. Their color temperature tends to be cool and bluish. A few models are available that come close to matching incandescent lights for color temperature, but their price is very high. Because of their construction, LEDs are best for throwing pinpoint light, which is tightly focused. They are a good choice for adjustable recessed lighting that can be turned to focus on and highlight artwork.

Compact Fluorescents (CFLs)

  • Compact fluorescent bulbs are gaining in popularity and availability. Be careful to use these bulbs only in fixtures that do not have covers, as they tend to generate enough heat to cook their electronic components if they don't have ventilation. Color temperature for CFL light temperature was once cold, greenish or yellowish, but technology is improving them to the point where they are much closer to the warmth of incandescent bulbs. Use only fixtures that are rated for CFLs even if the screw-base is the same, and do not use CFLs with dimmer switches. CFLs also contain trace amounts of mercury and must be handled and disposed of with great care.


  • Halogen bulbs have bright, white, long-lasting light at low wattage. Though they are somewhat expensive, their color is cool and clear without the yellow-green undertone of CFLs, making it an excellent choice for covered recessed lighting. They can be a bit too bright in an uncovered fixture that you're likely to look up into. Halogen bulbs can be used as a floodlight or spotlight and are best used in 4- to 6-inch diameter recessed light fixtures.

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  • Photo Credit light bulb image by Zbigniew Nowak from Fotolia.com
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