What kinds of light bulbs and trims can I put in my ceiling-recessed light cans?
March 16, 2009 9:05 AM   Subscribe

What kinds of light bulbs and trims can I put in my ceiling-recessed light cans?

My bedroom is too dark and I'm curious what my options are for getting more light from the existing lighting. I'm looking for a website or catalog that explains options for what trims can be installed in the can and what kinds of bulbs there are.

I've got some regular 120V ceiling cans in my bedroom, ordinary incadescent bulb socket, controlled by a solid state Lutron dimmer. Can diameter is 3.5" inside. Right now they have 50 watt incadescent floods in them and then a trim that covers half the bulb so there's a 1.75" hole for the light to come out. It's too dark. I tried replacing one bulb with a 60W halogen and took the trim out and it's noticeably brighter.

Now I'm curious how to get a replacement trim that lets more light out. And also exactly what kinds of bulbs I can put in the fixture, balancing brightness, colour, heat, and energy efficiency. I'm also interested in replacing some trims in other parts of my house to, say, wash a wall.

Bonus question: if anyone has personal experience with a good fluorescent bulb that actually works with a solid state Lutron dimmer, I'd love to hear about it.
posted by Nelson to Home & Garden (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Fluorescent bulbs don't last very long in fittings that make them too hot. Which could be the case with your light cans. Apart from that, only special CFLs will work with dimmers. And there's always the problem they take awhile to produse light at their full capacity. So if you often make short trips to the bedroom, you won't get as much light as you like, and turning them on and off very often wears them down soon as well.

Maybe LED-lamps could overcome all this problems, but those are also a lot more expensive.
posted by ijsbrand at 9:19 AM on March 16, 2009

There should be a sticker somewhere inside the fixture, usually visible if you pull the trim, that tells you the bulb type, size and wattage limits. My guess is that 60w is going to be a bigger bulb than your fixtures are approved for.

You should take one of the existing trims to either Lowes / H.D. or a dedicated lighting store. They should be able to help you find other compatible trims.

Generally, PAR halogen reflectors are probably your best bet for recessed fixtures. They are more efficient than standard R-type incandescents and have excellent color rendering. Using CFLs in a recessed fixture that wasn't specifically designed for them is going to waste a lot of light due to inappropriate / nonexistent reflectors, so the nominal lumen ratings won't be meaningful. Also, they are likely to fail prematurely due to overheating.
posted by jon1270 at 9:29 AM on March 16, 2009

You can get CFL floods that will probably work better than a standard CFL in this type of fixture, and many of these are dimmable too. My experiences with dimmable CFLs so far have been:

1) That they don't dim as much as I would like, they just go out completely below a certain brightness.

2) They don't become redder when dimmed, so the light is more of a sickly beige colour.

3) They don't work with fancy electronic dimmers that need to pass some current through the lamp at all times to keep their fancy electronics working. At least one regular incandescent bulb needs to be hooked up to the dimmer to keep it alive or else you can't switch it on. I expect the simpler dimmers (with mechanical knob/slide and mechanical on/off switch) would work fine.
posted by FishBike at 10:21 AM on March 16, 2009

If the hole in the trim ring is significantly smaller than the reflector bulb, as you describe, you need a special type of reflector bulb called the ER or Ellipsoidal Reflector lamp. It is designed to work with trim rings with the small hole as it will focus light at a point a few inches in front of the bulb and then spread the light out again, thus getting most all the light out past the trim ring and into your room. The trim ring will block much of the light from R and PAR type reflector lamps.

The ER-40 or ER-30 flood may be hard to find, so replacing the trim ring with onw with a larger opening may be the best way to go.
posted by tommyD at 11:43 AM on March 16, 2009

Thanks for the help so far. You'd expect there to be a sticker inside explaining what the can can take, but there's not. There is very faintly visible printing though that reads, in three lines:

40W R16 OR (...can't read...)
50W R20

Still hoping for a catalog or online site that explains all the bulb and trim types that are out there. Ie: what's an A vs. R vs. PAR vs. MR vs ER, and what the various heat/light tradeoffs there are for bulb type, and... the sort of stuff a lighting designer needs to know.
posted by Nelson at 12:00 PM on March 16, 2009

Those lines of printing are exactly the info I was referring to. Bulbs are described in terms of their shape, size and wattage. 40W means 40 watts. The R in R16 means 'reflector.' The 16 is the physical size, a diameter in eighths of an inch. So 40W R16 means a 40-watt reflector bulb that's 2" across. 50w R20 means a 50 watt reflector that's 2 1/2" across.

Since none of these options use the letters PAR (Parabolic Aluminized Reflector, a type of halogen bulb), it's clear these cans aren't rated for use with halogens. It's probably fairly safe to use them, but these cans are from back in the day when PAR lamps were pretty much used only as outdoor floodlights and UL wasn't certifying interior cans to use them.
posted by jon1270 at 5:50 PM on March 16, 2009

Generally, basic incandescent lamps are the least efficient and make lots of the energy they use into heat instead of light. Halogen bulbs (including PAR lamps) are also incandescent, but are more efficient. Halogen bulbs are engineered to run hot, but they produce more light and less heat per watt than regular incandescents.

Fluorescent bulbs are much more efficient still, in terms of raw lumen production, but they produce light over large areas of tube surface instead of using a tiny filament. Because the light emanates from a large surface, it's hard to corral and direct with reflectors. Also, fluorescent color rendering is not as good as incandescent. Sometimes it's pretty good, sometimes pretty bad.

LEDs are on their way, but they aren't (for practical purposes) here yet. They are usually less efficient than fluorescents, their color rendering sucks, and they're expensive.

The Language of Light


Light Guides

elflist.com articles
posted by jon1270 at 6:10 PM on March 16, 2009

If your cans are pointing straight down, you might find that putting in an eyeball style of front allows you to throw more light where you want it, or against a nearby light-colored wall if you're looking for more light in the room generally. 200w pointed at the shag carpet will do less than 50w pointed at a white wall to light a room.

I agree with jon1270 that you should take a current facing with you to the box stores while looking for a replacement - And if they don't have what you need, try the local electrical supply stores, where the staff are probably a lot more knowing, and may be able to order what you want.
posted by Orb2069 at 9:07 PM on March 16, 2009

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