Q&A / 

Recessed Lighting Problems

DEAR TIM: My husband installed some recessed lights in a family room we just built. I think he goofed something up. Every time I turn the lights on, 10 minutes later they automatically turn off. Also, I feel a draft through these fixtures. Did we make a mistake purchasing recessed lights? T. G.

DEAR T. G.: No. However, your husband very likely made several mistakes during the installation. Some of these are potentially very serious and could result in a fire. Do not use the lights again until you have them checked by a professional or by your local electrical inspector. By the way, the electrical inspector DID look at the lights and wiring before they were covered, didn't he? I hope your flashlight batteries are fresh. Recessed lighting is a very functional type of lighting. It can be used to create a border of light in a room, flood work areas with light, spotlight pictures or sculptures, and as general purpose lighting. Personally, I prefer to mix recessed lights with other types of lighting fixtures. This creates layers of light that can be; peeled from one another to create different moods.

There are several reasons why your recessed lights turn off by themselves. All Underwriters Laboratory (UL) approved recessed lighting fixtures produced since the early 1980's must have a thermal protection switch built into the fixture. This device will turn off the light if the temperature inside the fixture gets too hot. After the light cools down, the light will magically turn back on. If this is happening to you, the light is telling you that there is a problem. Your problem may be the ceiling insulation. Some recessed fixtures are allowed to be smothered in insulation. These often are designated IC fixtures. Fixtures without this designation must have a minimum of 3 inches of clearance between the fixture, its junction box, ballasts and any insulation. The National Electric Code specifically states that nothing should be installed above these fixtures that will either trap heat or block free air circulation through the fixture.

In your case, your husband may have installed a fixture without the IC designation. If insulation is too close or on top of this fixture, the fixture will overheat. The problem may also be as simple as the light bulb within the fixture. If it is too large (too high a wattage), the bulb is creating too much heat. Remove the bulb and look inside the recessed light housing. You should see labeling which tells you the maximum wattage of the bulb that you can place in the fixture. Be sure to use the approved light trims for the fixture as well. Intermixing trims between fixtures can cause you to loose your UL rating.

Finally, the draft you feel is unnecessary. Many manufacturers now make recessed lights that are completely sealed. Using these fixtures can save you money. A single recessed light fixture that is not airtight can allow up to 2.5 million cubic feet of air to pass through it in one year. This type of air flow could waste up to 1 million BTU's of energy loss per fixture per year!

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15 Responses to Recessed Lighting Problems

  1. Tim,
    I recently installed twelve 6" canned lighting units in my home. I purchased 6" LED lights as my light source. All of the LED lights fit perfectly - flush mounted with the ceiling. However, three of the LED lights seem not to fit entirely inside the canned unit. When I attempt to insert the LED light into the can, it either slips/pushes back or seemingly will not fit properly. The tensioners are in working order and both the canned unit and LED lights are 6" in size. I checked to see if I could adjust the inside height of the canned unit socket and determined that was not an option.

    Have you any suggestions?

    Thank you for your assistance.

  2. One of two recessed lights is going off and on about every 4 minutes. I removed all the insulation that might be a problem. The insulation doesn't appear to be the problem. The light next to it (about 4 ft .away) works perfectly. I have disassembled the problem light and can't identify a "thermal protector" and can only assume that it may be in a metal box near the fixture. There is a flex line running from that box to the small metal cup that holds the ceramic socket. Can you give me a clue as to what to look for?

  3. "Your husband very likely made several mistakes during the installation..." I don't think your target audience of DIYer husbands finds much pleasure in this kind of tone and will likely seek their advice elsewhere.

    • Chuck, are you serious? Am I supposed to not tell the truth? If her husband made mistakes, shouldn't I acknowledge them? Me thinks you're a bit sensitive. Toughen up buddy.

  4. Tim, I've got 4 recessed lights in the kitchen that operate off the same switch. One light I though blew, so I put a new bulb in, and nothing. Thought that bulb maybe was bad also, so I take one from a working light and put it in it, and still nothing. I put that light back in the working one and it's bad now also!! What the heck is goin on? Any ideas? The lights were installed by a licensed elec. and passed insp. I'm a carpenter, and have zero experience as far as troubleshooting electrical. Thx.

  5. Light was crooked I went to straighten it flashed all lights went out took socket holder out put in new bulb reset circuit breaker all lights worked but the one light socket hangs with a white and black wire from top of can with a looks like small chip at top of can have not taken can apart yet ?? This doug

  6. Hi Tim. 2 out of 3 Recessed lights in our bathroom has gone, but getting the fitting out to replace the bulbs seems impossible. The fitting does not twist and cannot be pulled out. It looks like it has been sealed in? Can that be true? Do I really need to start cutting away the white silicon rim around the fitting? Nikoline

    • I wish I could help you, but without being there to see this thing I'm at a disadvantage. I can tell you this. Think how the light was installed. Almost ALWAYS the electrician puts in a rough housing. Then the drywall or plaster people come and the painter. Then the LAST THING is the electrician putting in the trim that you see to finish it off. Remove the bulb and really inspect the inside of the fixture for springs. Sometimes the trim is held in by a tension clip. Good luck to you!

      • Thank you for getting back to me so quickly! The problem is that I can't even get to the bulb as the cover seems to be sealed all the way around to the ceiling (basically it looks like it's glued to the ceiling). Is this normal practice in bathrooms. The rest of the lights in our home do not have this seal.

  7. Tim,
    I've just installed six rerecessed Philips LED lights and a Leviton dimmer. everything works great, but when the lights are off you can still see a faint glow. What could be the problem? Thank you

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