Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Not Dead Yet! Saving the Pot Light

Last month I came across an article by Sean Lintow Sr. on the SLS Construction blog announcing the death of the “Can-Light”; what I would refer to as a pot light. Sean uses an comment left by Michael Anschel (of Verified-Green & Otogawa-Anschel Design) on the HRTC section of his blog as the foundation for his argument, and while Sean (and Michael) makes several excellent points, I feel he falls victim to what I call the “sky-is-falling” syndrome. We all want to “do the right thing” when it comes to going Green and being Earth-friendly. But acting without having a better place to go is foolhardy and can lead to poor decisions.

I’ll address each point as it came up in the article, and see if there is some discussion to be had.
1. 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.
Down lighting is awful, true. But this only applies when you’re dealing with proximity lighting, like at a vanity mirror. The idea behind using pot lights is to spread the light out over the entire room to provide a wash of generic or ambient light. Unless you’re using pin spots (the wrong bulb for the situation) the light beam will be wide enough to avoid the “ghoul” effect. The sun’s light comes from above, and last I checked I look pretty good at the beach.

But let’s put that aside, and address how we would eliminate down lighting altogether.

If lighting can’t come from above, it needs to come from the side or be some sort of indirect lighting; those are the only options remaining. In most kitchens, the walls are covered in cabinetry for the most part, so wall sconces are out. Using pendant lighting is a also possibility, but pendants are typically used for feature lighting. A kitchen illuminated exclusively with pendant would look something like the kitchen on the left, and nobody wants that!
2. 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.
I won’t dispute the ability of two 14W bulbs to illuminate a 9’ x 12’ kitchen (what 6 pot lights would cover with 36” spacing). What I will dispute is how my cabinets and I would look in that room with a single light source. Not only would the furthest corners be poorly lit, the shadows cast by a single fixture would be harsh. Furthermore, lighting of this sort, whether pot lights or a single surface mounted fixture, is always going to be insufficient for task lighting. Task lighting requires specific lighting where the task is being performed.

3. 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)

Based on the last couple bills I’ve received from my electrician I can tell you I’m paying about $80 of a small, 75m roll of Lumex (110 house wire) and the basic pot light I use costs around $50 for a recessed can (IC rated – more on that later) and trim. My point is that based on the entire project, how expensive is too expensive? And if the lighting provided by the less expensive option is poor, will the customer still be happy about the savings?
4. 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).
I’m still waiting to see the better options.
5. Recessing anything into an exterior plane is just a bad idea.
Provided the pot-light is installed properly (IC rated where required, vapour barrier applied, etc.) It’s no different than installing a bathroom ventilator or sky-light into a ceiling.
6. It is very difficult and expensive to insulate properly around a can light (IC rated or otherwise)
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.
In an insulated space you simply do not use any fixture that is not IC rated. Insulating around them is no different than insulating around any other obstacle. I agree with the amount of space not being directly insulated. I just don’t see the difference if insulation is installed around the IC rated fixture.
7. 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…
Using that many fixtures is just poor lighting design.  This kitchen shows how proper lighting should be done; a combination of ambient lighting (pot lights) and task specific lighting (pendants and undercabinet

Sean states later in his article, recessed lights are okay, provided they’re used “where appropriate.” I couldn’t agree more. I’m not at all opposed to addressing the energy and heat-loss issues. I just feel the pot-light is not the culprit and that these issues can be better handled using correct installation practices and better bulbs.

What do you think?  Let us know in the comments section.


Brenda Lynn said...

Arne, Thank you for writing this rebuttal. I agree 100% with you. Anyone can take a good thing and make it bad by using it improperly. There are very few places that you will not find down down lighting.

Brenda Lynn

jb @BuildingMoxie said...

if I am not mistaken, don't many IC pot lights still require 1 inch of clearance from combustible surfaces? and in terms of heat/loss this is probably still significant... That said though -- I am conflicted, I am working on acquiring guest posts from both you and Michael. ha! (Sean has already posted . . .twice.) -- It is well documented just how Michael feels about recessed lighting. And with that said -- I find that I do tend to fall on your side of this argument Arne. I am just happy that these things are being discussed... There may be no *right* answers. just strong arguments in favor of reach and I am merely a strong proponent of . . . well informed decisions -- made on a case by case. Juicy post Arne. LOVE. It! Bravo!

Arne Salvesen said...

jb, the IC cans I use have their clearances "built in". i.e. any required clearances are contained within the can.

I totally understand the issues with recessed lighting. In fact, I was dealing with that exact issue with a client yesterday. She hates them, so I have to come up with a different solution. Challenges are what keeps this business interesting!

I'd be happy to guest post! Quite the honour!

Sean @ SLS Construction said...

Very nicely written & great pictures Arne, but I don't see any pot-lights in the first two...

JB & Arne - as for IC rated fixtures & insulation, I would be careful what is placed close to them. For cellulose & Fiberglass there shouldn't be any issues - using foam boards or spray foam may cause an issue & I would leave a 1" air space / see what the manufacture recommends.

As a quick FYI - I will try getting the pointer article up on my site tonight to this one and a rebuttal up in about two weeks - who knows JB, maybe Michael will want to post his rebuttal on yours...

PS - two small corrections, it was a comment left by Michael on the "HTRC" (Homeowners & Trades Resource Center)

Arne Salvesen said...


Thanks for dropping by! You don't see any pot lights in those pictures because they're properly installed ... and out of frame. :-)

Agree 100% on the insulation gap. We are almost 100% fibreglass insulation up here, so it's never an issue. Thanks for the additional information.

Corrections have been made. Looking forward to you rebuttal.

Anonymous said...

IC lights means insulation can have direct contact with the housing. It does not mean they are air-tight (AT). There are AT IC's but you have to check many times it takes a seperate baffle/reflector to make them AT.

One of the biggest problems with can lights is that you have taken a flat unbroken surface that is air-tight expect at seams and penetrations. Now you have added these big holes. It takes alot of work to install and seal the lights to truly make then AT. Another problem is the area over light will have less insulation. Lets say that they insulate the cieling to R38. That is about 10-12 inches of insulation. The area above the canned lights will have about 4 inches of insulation - somewhere in the range of R6 to 15.

Can lights will have reduced the R value of the attic and created air leaks. I dont think anyone will take the time to seal up and insulate corrctly. Construction trades are about speed and simplicity. This wil slow them down and is not simple.

Arne Salvesen said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response! Next time, let me know who you are so I can give credit where it's due.

I don't disagree with anything you've said. Insulation is always going to be a problem any time you break any plane. My only question is what other options are there that will provide equivalent lighting?

It's an important discussion to have and hopefully on that will prompt smarter people than me to come up with some actual solutions.

Anonymous said...

Didn't see an easy way to provide name. Don't have a goggle account etc.

I am not against using can lights but I did want to highlight why those in the energy savings field are against them. Air leaks are the start of efficiency because insulation will not perform with air leaks. Air leaks are the biggest source of moisture which contributes to mold and building problem. After air sealing is accomplished then a uniform and high level of insulation is needed. A can light will break what we are trying to accomplish.

If the lights were thoroughly air sealed and insulated then it would not be a problem. But we know that it is unlikely to happen.

The minute details are the difference betweeen a hack and a professional. In air sealing it is not like there are 1 are 2 large holes that needs to be plugged. Rather it is hundreds of small holes and hundreds of feet of seams were that have to be sealed. Now for the sake of ligthing more are being added and we know, as a whole, they are not going to be sealed or insulated properly.

Robert H

Robert H

Arne Salvesen said...


Thanks for letting us know who you are! In the drop down box below the comment box, there's an option labelled "Name/URL". If you select that you can just add your name and web site address (if you have one).

Excellent points, but they still don't answer my question: "where are the better lighting options?". Most home-owners will chose better lighting over energy savings every time. I'm not picking sides here, just relating my experiences with you. If there was a lighting option that lit as well as a can light, but didn't allow for energy loss ... now THAT I could sell.

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