Q&A / 

Recessed Lighting Safety

Insulation + Lights = Fire?

Have you ever tried to change a light bulb that has been on for several minutes? Did you burn your fingers? Light bulbs get extremely hot. The surface temperature of a bulb can be hundreds of degrees.

This type of heat can cause fires. In fact, many residential fires have resulted from improperly installed or modified recessed light fixtures. This is especially true in older homes that have old recessed light fixtures. In these situations, homeowners have mistakenly covered older fixtures with insulation. This insulation traps the heat created by the bulb. This heat, in turn, can either melt the insulation on the electrical wiring or ignite combustible materials near the fixture.

This insulation craze, created by the energy crisis in the late 70's, caused the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) to respond. This is the organization that is responsible for the many improvements to our electrical fixtures, wiring and code requirements.

The individuals at UL mandated that recessed lights be equipped with a safety override switch within the fixture. This switch would sense when the light fixture was trapping too much heat. In such an instance, the safety switch would simply turn the light off automatically. Once the fixture cooled down, the light would then turn itself on.

Leaky Lights

But, this wasn't the total answer. The popularity of vaulted ceilings in the 80's created another problem. Recessed lights were installed in roof rafter spaces where insulation was absolutely necessary. However, the code and the lighting manufacturers said not to put insulation within several inches of the fixtures. As you can imagine, this caused major problems.

Every recessed light location was like a hole in your ceiling! Heat would leak out of the fixture as cold air blasted into your house. Many homeowners became disenchanted with recessed lights.The honeymoon was over.

In Contact (IC) Fixtures

Once again, the UL people responded. They developed guidelines that allowed manufacturers to build recessed light fixtures which could be completely covered and smothered with insulation. These fixtures carry an IC designation. The fixture will actually be labeled as such. This is your safety guarantee.

However, these lights often come with a slight penalty. They tend to use lower (less than 100 watt) wattage light bulbs. This is because the insulation covering or abutting the fixture will trap way too much heat from the higher temperature bulbs.

These IC fixtures are also equipped, as long as they are UL approved, with the thermal protection switches. So, if you install a bulb that is too powerful, the light will cycle on and off.

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