Downlights have become incredibly popular over the past 20 years or so, and are a sleek and effective way to illuminate a room. While there’s still plenty of demand for traditional hanging shaded lamps, table lamps and members of the candelabra family, LED downlights are seeing some specific applications that are integral to the modern home. In this piece, we’ll be talking about the pros and cons of downlights and what different types there are.
What’s the difference between a downlight and a spotlight?
First up, let’s dispel some confusion about downlights and spotlights. Both are popular additions to the home, and both can be mounted on a ceiling. And quite often, they’ll use the same types of bulb, typically GU10s or other parabolic bulbs. The main difference is that spotlights can be pointed in certain directions, whereas downlights simply point down (surprise, surprise!).
Yes, you can get downlights with a little bit of movement, but that’s really just to fine-tune them, so you can illuminate or avoid glare on a specific area. Spotlights often have almost 360 degrees of horizontal movement available, and up to 90 degrees of vertical range, which corresponds to 180 degrees depending on the direction it’s pointing. That means they can be used as downlights, or can point at walls, features or sometimes even ceilings.
Advantages of downlights
Downlights can be sunk into the ceiling so they leave a smooth, uninterrupted appearance. They’re not always recessed – sometimes they are surface-mounted, which is easier to install and can have a pleasing effect if the fixture is in keeping with the look of the room.
Because the light is largely focused on a cone pointing downwards from each bulb, they tend not to have much glare on people standing or even sitting in the room. If they are inside the cone, they won’t be dazzled unless they look straight up.
Mounted below eye-level, they can provide good illumination on a surface, which is why many people mount them on the underside of kitchen cabinets, thus lighting up the worktop.
Disadvantages of downlights
The main drawback is that they focus the light in a relatively small area, which means you need multiple downlights in the ceiling of a large room if you want the whole space lit up. As mentioned above, the direction can sometimes be adjusted to a degree, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are focusing the beam on a small area.
They are also quite inflexible – you need to be sure that they will cover the room before installing, as repositioning them could be a big job.
Finally, they are arguably less efficient than other forms of lighting, as each one only effectively lights up a small area, while a traditional shaded bulb or chandelier illuminates all directions equally.
Types of downlight
Although the recessed fitting is what most people would associate with downlighting, there are a few types with specific characteristics. Note that an individual light will belong to more than one category (e.g. recessed, adjustable, warm and dimmable).
A recessed downlight is installed into a hole or opening in the ceiling, creating a seamless and flush appearance. The fixture is hidden within the ceiling, with only the trim and the front of the bulb visible. Installation might be a little more involved than surface-mounted, and will leave more prominent holes behind should you want to change later. However, the installation of the wiring will necessitate some work under floorboards or in the loft, so the labour cost is generally roughly the same as surface-mounted ones for a much less conspicuous end result.
Surface mounted downlight
A surface mounted downlight is attached directly to the surface of the ceiling, rather than being recessed into it. The entire fixture is exposed and visible. It’s a bit easier to install than recessed designs, and leaves behind less damage to the ceiling if you change the design later.
A pendant downlight is suspended from the ceiling using a cord, a chain or the electric wire itself. It typically provides a more decorative and visually striking lighting option. As the design usually incorporates an opaque shade or shield, it isn’t always necessary to use parabolic bulbs, as the light will only escape in a downward direction.
These lights fit underneath the kitchen cabinets or shelving to illuminate the working surface. They are normally surface mounted, as a recess would go through into the cabinet, but since they’re below eye-level, there isn’t really an aesthetic cost. They’re often 12V models rather than regular 240V mains lights.
An adjustable downlight allows the directional angle of the light beam to be tilted slightly, providing flexibility in directing the light to specific areas or objects in the room. It’s something of a crossover with a spotlight, but nowhere near as flexible. However, it can let you fine-tune the light beam to some degree, for example if you don’t want it to shine on the TV or a glass cabinet.
A fixed downlight has a stationary direction and angle for the light beam. The position cannot be adjusted, so it points directly downward at 90 degrees to the ceiling. These are usually the cheapest option as there are no moving parts.
A dimmable downlight can be connected to a dimmer switch, allowing the intensity of the light to be adjusted to create different moods and levels of brightness in the room. You’ll need specific dimmable bulbs and an appropriate dimmer switch for this to work optimally.
A non-dimmable downlight does not have the capability to be adjusted with a dimmer switch. The brightness level remains constantly on full when switched on.
Other important things to consider with downlights
Colour temperature refers to the hue of the light emitted by a downlight. It is measured in Kelvin and can range from warm white (yellowish tone) to cool white (bluish tone). Different colour temperatures can create different ambiances and atmospheres in a space.
IP ratings (Ingress Protection ratings) indicate the level of protection that a downlight has against the intrusion of solid objects and liquids. The rating consists of two digits, with the first digit representing the level of protection against solid objects and the second digit representing the level of protection against liquids. Lights mounted in kitchen or bathroom ceilings should be at minimum IP44, but elsewhere in the home, IP20 is usually fine. Outdoor downlights should be IP65.
Downlights come in various shapes, such as round, square, rectangular or even custom shapes. The shape of the downlight will impact the overall aesthetic and design of the space.
Single or gangs
Single downlights are standalone fixtures, while gangs refer to multiple downlights that are installed together as a group or in a linear arrangement. Gangs can provide more even and uniform lighting, and can echo other aesthetic touches around the space.
Downlights can be made of various materials, including aluminium, stainless steel, plastic or glass. The choice of material affects the durability, appearance and maintenance requirements of the downlight.
With trim or trimless
A downlight with trim features a decorative ring or bezel that covers the edge of the fixture and provides a finished look. This will probably also have a practical function, such as gripping the fitting to the ceiling. Trimless downlights, on the other hand, have a seamless and streamlined appearance without any visible trim or bezel, offering a more minimalist and modern aesthetic.
Fire-rated LED downlights
These downlights are designed to meet extra-rigorous standards of fire safety, and might be considered where there’s a risk of fire spreading to rooms or dwellings above. They’re designed to keep smoke and flames contained for a certain amount of time, just like the ceiling material is.
Now, have a look at the LED downlights we have on offer at ACAS Electrical.