Recessed Canister Lights Review: Pros and Cons

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This article comes from The Spruce.

Recessed Canister Lights Review: Pros and Cons

Recessed light fixtures offer a number of design advantages. Except for a thin trim piece around the bottom rim and sometimes a small portion of the inner reflector, no part of the light fixture extends below the ceiling line. Individual fixtures don’t cast the same broad sphere of light as standard ceiling fixtures, and most significantly, the low profile works well for low ceilings.

What Is Recessed Canister Lighting?

Called recessed light fixture canisters, can lights, or cans, these are light fixtures contained up inside an inverted can that is mounted fully above the line of the ceiling.


  • Low profile ideal for low ceilings
  • Illumination can be “aimed”
  • Nondescript style


  • Potential overheating risk
  • Limited illumination
  • Poor energy efficiency

Anatomy of a Recessed Light Fixture

Recessed light fixtures operate the same way as standard light fixtures, with a screw-in Edison socket that accepts lightbulbs with matching threaded bases, but the rest of the fixture has a much different configuration, designed for installation above the ceiling line. Some styles use a shallow design for ceilings that butt directly against roof rafter rather than an attic space. The parts of a recessed light fixture include:

  • Bar hangers: Most recessed light fixtures have two adjustable bar hangers that allow you to brace the fixture between ceiling joists to hold it firmly in place.
  • Junction box: Some recessed lights come with their own junction boxes; with others, you will have to purchase a separate electrical box. Either way, this metal box, attached to a framing member in the ceiling, is where the circuit wires are connected.
  • Wire cable: Most fixtures have a metal cable that contains the wire leads that are attached to the circuit wires. The cable runs from the light fixture to the junction box, protecting the wire leads.
  • Metal housing: All recessed light fixtures have a housing made of thin-gauge metal that contains the reflector, socket, thermal sensor, and any other parts. This is the “can” or “canister” that gives the fixture its other common name. The housing can be anywhere from 3 to 9 inches in diameter.
  • Thermal sensor: Attached to the inside of the canister, the thermal sensor is a safety device that senses temperature and shuts off the light fixture if heat builds up to a dangerous degree. Today, nearly all recessed light fixtures are equipped with thermal sensors, and if you have old-style lights without this feature, it’s a good idea to replace them.
  • Reflector: A white or shiny inner lining called the reflector helps direct light from the bulb down into the room. This reflector is sometimes a swiveling gimbal cone that allows light to be directed in whatever direction you want.
  • Edison socket: Inside the fixture is a standard screw-in Edison socket that accepts standard incandescent, LED, or compact fluorescent bulbs. LEDs are now very common for recessed lights, since they generate considerably less heat than incandescent bulbs. Manufacturers offer special large bulbs for use in recessed lights, designed to fill the open mouth of the reflector, although some types use standard bulbs. There are also styles that accept only LED bulbs.
  • Rim: Attached to the reflector with clips, the rim is a decorative trim piece that hides the joint between the ceiling drywall and the metal housing. The rim is sometimes integrated into the reflector; the whole unit is inserted up into the metal housing as the last step of installation.

Recessed Canister Light Cost

Like most light fixtures, recessed canister lights have a wide range of costs, depending on the quality and features. At big-box home improvement centers, costs can range from around $5 to around $30 for individual fixtures, but convenient multipacks are also available, offering four, six, or eight fixtures in a kit. There are both standard incandescent and LED recessed light fixtures available; LED fixtures tend to use smaller canisters, making them ideal for sloped ceilings that butt up against roof rafters. LED fixtures often cost a little more than standard recessed lights, but the energy cost savings makes them a good bargain over the long run.

Maintenance and Repair

Installed properly, recessed can lights rarely need maintenance, although like any light fixture, light bulb sockets can wear out or go bad, and wire connections can loosen and require reconnection. In rare instances, the thermal sensors can go bad, leading to a fixture that periodically “goes dark” until the sensor cools and resets itself. The fix here is often to replace the sensor—or more often, replace the entire fixture, which is relatively easy. But many fixtures can last for decades, and with new LED-style lightbulbs, you may never need to touch these fixtures at all.

Periodically, you may want to clean away dust and grime from the reflector compartment to improve the downward illumination.

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