Expert Tips for Choosing Recessed Lighting & Track Lighting

You may not have given much thought to recessed lighting or track lighting. After all, they’re designed to be discrete and blend in naturally with your home. If you look closer, though, you’ll see that those ceiling lights come in all shapes, sizes and colors. And depending on which type and how many fixtures you choose, you can create a lot of light or very little. This guide to recessed lighting and track lighting will help you make any room stand out.  

Before you start narrowing down the selection, though, there are a few fundamentals that are worth covering.  

Lighting Vocabulary You Need to Know

First, it’s important to learn the lingo. These are common terms used when talking about recessed lighting and track lighting.

Aperture – This refers to the center hole in the trim that lets light shine into your room. Depending on the shape of the trim, the aperture may be round or square.

Heads – The name of the light source on a track lighting fixture is called the ‘head.’ Heads look like spotlights you’d see in a production studio or on a concert stage. They can be angled or adjusted to spotlight specific areas.

Housing – The inner core, where the light source and electrical components live. This is what is actually recessed into the ceiling, wall or ground.  

There are two main types of housing, based on the surrounding support structure.

  • New Construction: As the name implies, new construction housing is the type specifically designed for spaces that do not have drywall. Exposed ceiling lines allow recessed lights to be installed between the ceiling joists.
  • Remodel: Remodel housing is meant for spaces with existing ceilings. These units are installed by cutting a hole in the drywall, and then using clips to hold them in place.

IC Rating – Any recessed light fixtures that come within three inches of wall or ceiling insulation must have an Insulated Contact rating. The housing is what receives the IC rating.

Line Voltage – Line voltage is what you have with standard 120-volt outlets and junction boxes. Most residential spaces in the U.S. and Canada use 120V. If you’re not sure where your home stands, ask a professional electrician or lighting specialist.

Low Voltage – Low voltage refers to fixtures using 12 or 24 volts. These fixtures usually require a transformer to reduce the line voltage. The transformer is either built into the fixture.

Trim – The visible seam that sits flush to your ceiling. Trim comes in a variety of shapes and styles, but you’ll more commonly see a square or circular trim.  

Of course, there are different types of trim, which you’ll want to consider, as well.

  • Baffle trim: Features large grooves that absorb excess light/reduce glare.
  • Gimbal trim: Features a pivot inside the housing to control the direction of light.
  • Reflector trim: Features a smooth, polished interior to maximize the amount of light.

Types of Recessed Lighting

Recessed lighting fixtures fall under one of three categories: ceiling, wall or ground fixtures. Aside from being situated in a different place within your home, each of these serves a unique purpose.

Ceiling recessed lighting – These fixtures are installed in the ceiling and are used for downlighting a space. As a result, they mostly provide ambient lighting. Ambient lighting is also known as general lighting. Every room benefits from general lighting, which means you could use ceiling recessed lighting all throughout your home.

Wall recessed lighting – Some pot lights are installed within your home’s walls. These fixtures are used for spotlighting or to achieve a technique called “wall washing.” They are angled to direct light up or down. This can create a very dramatic effect, which is perfect for home theatres, hallways or rooms with interesting architectural details – like a water feature or a magnificent piece of art.

Ground recessed lighting – Though not the most common type of recessed lighting, there are units that can be installed in the ground. They are often used in landscaping to light a walkway or to create up-lighting on the side of your home. Ground recessed lighting can instantly add curb appeal and make your home look more inviting.

Types of Track Lighting

Track lighting fixtures vary based on their flexibility. Some tracks allow the heads to move in a full range of motion, while others limit their reach.

Fixed Track – On a fixed track, lighting heads can be angled up or down, but they cannot move along the length of the track.

Swing Arm Track – Swing arm tracks are made of multiple fixed tracks that can pivot at their joint. Like a fixed track, the heads cannot move side-to-side. They can, however, reach different angles by swinging an arm or adjusting the angle of the head itself.

Standard Track – Standard tracks are simply designed, but they do allow lights to move freely along the strip. These linear fixtures are among the easiest to install because they mount directly on the ceiling.

Monorail Track – The monorail is the most flexible of all the tracks. Light heads can slide along the track, while the track itself can be angled, curved or shaped in any number of ways.

A Room-by-Room Guide: How to Pick the Right Lighting for Your Home

Not all rooms were created equally. This guide will walk you through the different lighting needs throughout your house, so you have a better understanding of when to choose recessed lighting, tracking lighting or both. This guide also offers tips on how to space your fixtures and shows you a few lighting options in action.

Bathroom

Whether you realize it or not, you perform a lot of tasks in the bathroom – from flossing your teeth to applying makeup. That’s why this room requires high ambient lighting, which can be achieved by sprinkling several recessed lights around the room. Because bathrooms tend to be on the smaller size, you can space your recessed lighting close together. For that same reason, you’ll want to go with a smaller trim size, so the fixtures don’t appear too crowded.   

  • Amount of lighting: high ambient lighting
  • Type of ceiling fixture: recessed lighting
  • Trim size: 2 – 3.5 inches
  • Lumens: 700 – 1200 per light fixture
  • Spacing: 2 – 3 inches apart
Cove recessed lighting brightens a sleek, contemporary bathroom vanity | Capitol Lighting

Cove LED Recessed Lighting by Maxim Lighting

The Cove is an IC-rated recessed light fixture that includes its own outlet box, so it doesn’t even need housing to function. That’s not the best part, though. This unique unit features a concave lens that distributes light evenly down and throughout your room. Install this recessed lighting option over your bathroom vanity, where all that downlighting will be put to good use.

Bedroom

Not all bedrooms are blessed with French doors that lead to a balcony or skylights that open to the clouds. That’s where recessed lighting comes in handy. While you don’t need high lumens in this space, you can use a few strategically placed pot lights to make the room look like it was kissed by the natural sun. To guarantee these fixtures don’t overpower, opt for a small trim size and keep them few and far between one another.

  • Amount of lighting: low ambient lighting
  • Type of ceiling fixture: recessed lighting
  • Trim size: 2 inches
  • Lumens: 200 – 400 per light fixture
  • Spacing: dependent on square footage
Horizon recessed lights are the only source of general lighting in a transitional-glam bedroom | Capitol Lighting

Horizon LED Recessed Lighting by Kichler Lighting

While 850 lumens in your bedroom may seem excessive, the Horizon LED fixture is exactly what you need if you don’t have any other ceiling lights. Just a handful of these lights will keep the design bright and airy, especially in a room filled with heavy blankets, oversized pillows, blackout drapes and plush area rugs.

Dining Room

You can find dining room chandeliers to complement any design style. The problem is, one fixture may not quite give you that moderate ambient lighting. Believe it or not, dining rooms need more than just mood lighting, so you can actually see the food you’re eating. Recessed lights are an easy way to round out the space. They’re subtle and won’t take away from any extravagant, statement piece you put in the center.

  • Amount of lighting: moderate ambient lighting
  • Type of ceiling fixture: recessed lighting
  • Trim size: 2 – 4 inches
  • Lumens: 600 – 1000 per light fixture
  • Spacing: 3 – 4 inches apart for recessed lighting

Hallway

Without light, your hallway can look a little ominous. Thankfully, this space doesn’t need much. Low ambient lighting is enough to turn this corridor into a catwalk – especially if you have something to show off. A wall of family photos, for instance, deserves downlighting. Whether you choose recessed or track lighting will largely depend on your hallway’s ceiling height. If there’s not enough head space for track lighting heads to hang down, don’t worry. Recessed lights in a narrow hallway will highlight everything.

  • Amount of lighting: low ambient lighting
  • Type of ceiling fixture: recessed lighting or track lighting
  • Trim size: 2 – 3.5 inches
  • Lumens: 400 – 800 per light fixture
  • Spacing: 3 – 4 inches apart for recessed lighting; 1 inch or more for track lights
L-shaped Rialto track light highlights a picture on the wall in this cool, relaxed living room | Capitol Lighting

Rialto by WAC Lighting

This fixture was made for the spotlight. The Rialto’s directional head allows you to focus the 75-watt LED on one particular work of art or on an entire wall of family photos. Fixed to a track, you can carry the Rialto lighting down a long hallway. You can even flex the monorail track, so it turns around a corner.

Kitchen

Your kitchen is the most functional room in your house, which explains the need for high ambient lighting. As explained in our kitchen island lighting guide, you can use pendants and recessed lighting together in this room. Recessed lights help hit spots on your counter that pendants don’t cove. Plus, pot lights naturally accent other fixtures and features. Just make sure your recessed lights are only a couple inches apart and offer substantial lumen output for all your slicing and dicing.

  • Amount of lighting: high ambient lighting
  • Type of ceiling fixture: recessed lighting or track lighting
  • Trim size: 3 – 4 inches
  • Lumens: 600 – 1200 per light fixture
  • Spacing: 2 – 3 inches apart for recessed lighting; 1 inch for track lights
Traverse recessed lighting on white wood ceiling shines in high-trafficked laundry, kitchen or bath | Capitol Lighting

Traverse Mirage LED Recessed Lighting by Sea Gull Lighting

Are you enamored with a pair of pendants? The Traverse Mirage has a flat, no-nonsense trim that will let your kitchen island lighting shine. While the clean, white circle will get lost in a standard ceiling, the 12.5-watt LED illumination will not. This Energy Star-qualified fixture delivers high-performing light, which you can connect to a dimmer for even more control.

Living Room

Living rooms vary in size and features, which will determine whether you’re better off choosing recessed lighting or a linear track fixture. Recessed lights are the most versatile when it comes to spacing and size because you can add as few or as many as you need. That said, grand rooms with family portraits or beautiful built-ins will get a lot more attention if you install track lighting. The multi-directional pieces do a wonderful job of spotlighting accessories, art and architecture.  

  • Amount of lighting: low ambient lighting
  • Type of ceiling fixture: recessed lighting or track lighting
  • Trim size: 2 – 3 inches
  • Lumens: 400 – 800 per light fixture
  • Spacing: 3 – 4 inches apart for recessed lighting; 1 inch or more for track lights
Agron track lighting in bronze is both functional and stylish in this warm-toned media room | Capitol Lighting

Agron by ET2 Lighting

In a living room, you can be more decorative with your light fixtures. While a traditional chandelier is always an option, the S-curved Agron will finish the job. Its adjustable heads allow you to fill a large living space with all the light it needs, while the smooth metal finish gives you the elegant accent you want.  

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