Choosing a Downlight

Choosing a Downlight

With just under 250 downlights available to purchase on Light Bulb World, we understand that too much choice can sometimes be overwhelming. Well, don’t worry because we’re here to help with this handy guide. We’ll help you understand the different types of downlights that exist, what you need for your particular installation, and what all the product data means.

What is a downlight?

As the name suggests a downlight is a fixed light source, generally used to project light downward. Sometimes referred to as spotlights, the vast majority of downlights are recessed into a ceiling, where the installer will pass the downlight through a hole usually between 40mm and 100mm across. This is referred to as the cut-out. The depth or height of the downlight (this is the bit you can’t see) will be anywhere between 50mm and 120mm, so it’s important to ensure you have enough space in the ceiling void above. The majority of downlights have a bezel on the front. This is a metal ring you can see surrounding the light itself. Bezels are normally available in white, polished chrome, and satin nickel, and may be supplied with the fitting or purchased separately. We also supply what is known as a slim-trim downlight, and a fully trimless downlight, where the light is plastered into the ceiling itself.

Downlights are most often used in the key living & utility areas of the home, such as the kitchen, lounge, utility room, bathrooms, and hallways. They can also be used very well in the bedrooms, but we would always urge you to consider other softer light sources as well such as table lamps, and consider careful placement to avoid glare directly above the bed.

Modern downlights are now almost exclusively using LED technology. LEDs are efficient, super low energy, last a very long time and run much cooler than the old halogen versions we used to use. You may remember back in the 80’s the original downlight was a large reflector R80 style incandescent light bulb. The light output was poor, energy use high and you’d be changing them every 1000 hours or so. Then came the more familiar halogen bulbs, usually an MR16 50mm 50w reflector, with a low voltage transformer installed in the ceiling. Lasting up to 4000 hours, running at 50w, and with exceptional light output, these were fit for purpose for many years. However, EU legislation drove the advent of LED technology. The LED downlights were expensive at first, with poor dimming performance and reliability. Thankfully that has all changed. Even better, the use of LED’s as a light source gives lighting designers much more flexibility over how they are incorporated into fittings. There is also no need to worry about “cold” looking downlights, as manufacturers have now tuned LEDs to closely mimic the look and dimming behaviour of halogen light sources.

The vast majority of downlights we sell are fully dimmable, however, there are some that can’t be dimmed so it’s important to check the specification of each product you’re unsure of.

What are the main types of downlights available?

The majority of downlights are of a fixed integrated type. This simply means a downlight with the LED light source built in, which can’t be moved or adjusted. Non-integrated fittings are also popular, in which you can replace the GU10 bulb, such as these. Don’t be put off by ‘built in’ integrated downlights, as these are built to last up to 70,000 hours, so even being used 8 hours a day, it will be many years before you need to worry about changing them. Better still, many are supplied with a warranty of up to 7 years for total peace of mind. Some people however just prefer the flexibility of the non-integrated GU10 light bulb. It means you can change the GU10 as and when you need, choose different beam angles or colour temperatures, and often standard models are generally cheaper, such as the EN-DLM981X.

Next, you may come across adjustable downlights, where you can manually alter the beam angle of the light, usually between 20 and 40 degrees. These are particularly useful to focus light where you need it, such as towards pictures or art, or work surfaces for example. Adjustable downlights are available in both integrated and non-integrated styles.

You may also see that downlights can be fire-rated or non fire-rated. Fire-rating refers to the length of time that a downlight must withstand, to prevent the spread of fire and reduce the fire from becoming large. In a house, the construction of the floor must withstand a minimum of 30 minutes, where there is living space above. So technically in the loft space, or if your house has concrete floors no fire rating is required, however, the general advice is to install downlights rated to 30/60/90 minutes.

When buying downlights you will see the phrase Colour Temperature. This refers to the look of the light output itself, not the metal bezel on the front. Commonly downlights are supplied in either a Warm White (colour 2700k / 3000k) or Cool White (colour 4000k) light output. For the majority of residential installations, Warm White would be our preferred colour temperature. Cool White can look a little harsh, reminiscent of the colour associated with fluorescent lighting but some people prefer the crisper brighter look and it suits some rooms better than others, such as utility areas. This brings us to our next type of downlight the CCT, meaning Colour Change Technology. The newest CCT downlights on the market are supplied with 4 colour temperatures from Extra Warm White to Daylight, which can be selected on installation. They’re great for the installer of course, but also the homeowner who may want to see the different colour temperatures in situ. The better ones have the colour selector on the front hidden just behind the bezel. Finally, you may see Dim-to-Warm downlights. These clever downlights gain a warmer colour temperature as they are dimmed down, exactly how halogen used to behave. When used in living areas and bedrooms, the warm softer tones create a cozy and welcoming feel.

Baffled downlights are becoming more popular as customers desire a more designer-led look to their lighting. Baffled simply means that the light source is set back in the fitting, reducing glare without any real loss of lumen output. Quite simply avoiding glare is more appealing and restful to the eye but also happens to look great when installed.

Super slim bezels and trimless plaster-in downlights have also gained popularity due to their superior look when installed. Plaster in, as the name suggested can only be used if you are having a new ceiling installed and plastered. For that reason these downlights need to be installed at the first fix stage, so make sure to speak to your builder first if you’re considering these downlights. The majority of this style of downlight will also be baffled to give a contemporary look to your property.

Multiples or Doubles are very popular amongst lighting designers, for use in the kitchen. Usually adjustable they enable the homeowner to direct light where required on work surfaces and also double the available light output from a single point.

Finally, you may need to consider the IP (Ingress Protection) rating of your downlight. All downlights will carry an IP rating but only some can be installed in wet areas of the home. For installation into Zone 1 of the bathroom (above a shower for example) you will need IP65 as a minimum.

There are a host of other features you may see, so we’ll cover these in the glossary at the end of the article.


What downlight do I need for my installation?

When choosing your downlight there are a key few factors to consider to start your decision-making process.

We have already covered integrated and non-integrated fittings, but it’s a good starting point to narrow down your search if you have a particular preference. So, the next consideration is the general look of the fitting when installed. If you are looking for quality but functional “standard downlights” we can consider what house developers and electrical contractors use. The Enlite E8, Collingwood H2 Lite, or BELL CCT downlight, for example, are our 3 most popular selling lines for an integrated fire-rated LED downlight, which also happen to all be IP65. All of these downlights perform exceptionally well, using between just 4-8 watts of power, but provide 440lm-600lm of light output, which makes them fully compliant with Part L1 building regulations for efficiency and output. We’ll not get too in-depth into current building regulations but suffice to say the light must produce 75 lumens per watt. When installed, each of the downlights mentioned will sit around 3mm off the ceiling with a white, satin chrome, or polished chrome bezel. We prefer the look of a standard white or matt white bezel, to blend the downlight into your ceiling, rather than the metal finish bezels which can unnecessarily draw attention to the light when turned off. So, these downlights perform well, they offer a good dimming range, reliability, and light output and are more than capable of lighting up your room and surfaces. However, if you are looking for that little bit extra it is time to start considering our other options.

The stunning-looking Astro Pinhole is an adjustable fire-rated baffled downlight. Available as a non-integrated fitting, allowing you to choose the GU10 colour temperature and wattage you prefer. For a fully integrated and one-stop solution, we also recommend the BELL anti-glare CCT downlight with the added benefit of being IP65 for shower enclosures. With a choice of 4 colour temperatures, it really might be the only fitting you need. The removable baffle can also be supplied as a white option rather than black.

For kitchen lighting, we love the clean lines and flexible functionality of the Taro range from Astro, available in one, two, or three spot versions. Another non-integrated GU10 fitting, the Taro is available in fire-rated and non-fire-rated versions and a soft matt white finish.

Bathroom lighting needs to be IP65 rated for Zone 1 wet areas. Many of our standard fixed integrated downlights will carry this rating, but if you want to upgrade the look of your bathroom, the baffled Vetro range again from Astro could not look better. With its clean lines and smooth glass front plate, round or square, and black and white options available it will blend seamlessly into your surroundings.

When considering living areas, many manufacturers have now spotted the trend for plaster-in, trimless, and slim trim downlights. A very solid performer in this market is the H5 Trimless downlight from Collingwood. At just 5.5w and producing 550lm, you can be assured of exceptional light output from the integrated but removable light engine. With a cutout of just 64mm, a 70000 hour life, and an IP65 rating, this is a fabulous little unit. For a wider choice of plaster-in downlights, the Astro trimless range has everything you need, from single and twin, round to square, adjustable or fixed, and even a 45 degree tilt version. If you are installing into an existing ceiling but still want the minimal look, then the Minima range should cover everything you need. Do bear in mind the minima are larger than a standard downlight, with a large cutout – this may be beneficial if you are replacing older larger fittings.
The above information covers downlights for general and task lighting, with some consideration towards accent lighting as well. For much more accent lighting, our interior and exterior marker lights can be used to compliment your overall lighting scheme, providing a host of mood lighting.

How many downlights do I need?

A question we’re regularly asked is how many downlights are needed for a particular room. There was an often incorrectly quoted rule of thumb of placing downlights 1.5 meters apart, but we don’t subscribe to that at LBW. We prefer to place downlights where light is needed of course, but not to over light an area. Who wants their ceiling to look like an airport runway for example? Light output and ceiling height will play a part but think about placing the light needed for key tasks. In a kitchen, this would likely be above and set away from cupboards, above central islands, sink, and other worktop areas. Using any downlight producing 400 lumens and above is highly likely to give the required lux level at worktop height, of 300 lux. The multiples work well above central islands, as you will require fewer fittings overall.

In a bedroom, your task areas are dressing tables and above full-length mirrors. Careful placement of downlights around the perimeter of the bed, but not directly above the head area, can provide a welcoming effect. Bear in mind the lux level required in a bedroom is much less than say a kitchen. Creating symmetry is also not essential – you might be surprised to find how little time you spend staring at your ceiling once your downlights are installed!

For hallways, where doorways penetrate one side, a nice effect is using adjustable downlights, placed on the unhindered wall, likely shining down on artwork.

In the bathroom, above the shower is considered good practice to ensure a well-lit cubicle, whereas directly above the bath may create glare. Lighting above the sink can also cast unwelcome shadows, so here consider using good quality mirror lights which are much better for tasks such as shaving and makeup.

Finally, for living spaces, the perimeter of a room can work very well and easily provide enough light but you may also want to consider placing downlights above or near areas where you might read or perform other tasks such as needlework. Again, consider glare, and the placement within view of the TV which can cause unpleasant reflections. In every case, we recommend the careful use of wall lights, accent lighting, LED strip lighting, and table lamps, to build up your different light layers and create that ‘wow’ effect.

What about dimming and lighting control?

Of course, you can control your downlights from a simple light switch, but most people prefer to be able to dim their lights. Always ensure you use high quality LED dimmer, which have been down-rated to cope with the low wattages of LED lighting. Your standard old dimmer is likely to produce unwanted effects, such as flickering which will reduce the life of your lighting. It is normally possible to simply replace the dimmer module, rather than your whole switch plate. However, our sister site Socket World has a stunning selection of dimmers and controls. Most of these LED dimmers have what is called a low-end trim, as the majority of LEDs do not dim right down to 1%.

For an even better solution, we recommend the exceptional Lutron Ra2 system available from LBW.

Downlight Glossary

What does it all mean? If we haven’t answered it here, you didn’t need to know it

Adjustable - A directional downlight, where the light beam can be adjusted for example to shine against a wall or artwork

Anti-Glare - See Baffled

Baffled - Where the light source of the downlight is set back to prevent glare

Beam Angle - The beam angle of light that emits from the downlight. Most domestic downlights will be in the region of 45 to 70 degrees for an even but targeted light spread. For more spot directional light, aim for 10-30 degrees. Above 70 degrees and the beam angle will cause a degree of light spread

Bezel - the metal surrounds that clips or screws onto the front of the downlight. Bezels are usually available in a choice of colour. Depending on the downlight, some bezels form part of the fitting and cannot be changed

Can - Refers to a non-integrated downlight housing

CCT - Colour change technology, which means that the downlight can be set to a variety of Colour Temperatures upon installation

Colour Temperature - The colour output of your downlight, expressed as a value on the Kelvin scale. The lower the number the warmer the colour. 2700k would be considered warm white up to 6000k which is considered daylight. Some downlights such as the dim-to-warm versions go down to 2200k

CRI - Colour rendering index applies to how true to colour the downlight is. Shops and retailers look for a very high CRI to best showcase their products, but for the home 80-85 is considered normal

Cut-Out - Refers to the size of the hole diameter needed to house the downlight

Driver - A self-contained LED power supply, designed to ‘drive’ the downlight. It is essential to use the correct driver for your downlight. The majority of ours are supplied with an integrated or supplied separate driver, however, some do require a separate driver to be purchased. These are indicated where necessary

Fast-Fix - Refers to the type of connector supplied with the downlight. Fast-fix downlights are preferred by electrical contractors as they simplify installation and testing times

Fire-rated - Downlights installed in the habitable areas of the home must be fire rated either 30, 60, or 90 minutes. The downlights have an intumescent seal, which expands and seals the downlight to preserve the integrity of the ceiling

Fire hood - Fire hoods can be used in place of non fire-rated downlights to preserve the fire integrity of a building

GU10 - A mains 240v type of light bulb with 2 twist and push pins. All GU10s are now LED or can be easily changed to LED

Integrated - A downlight that includes a fixed light source or light engine, almost always an LED. These are designed to last the life of the product and are not usually replaceable

IC Rated - Insulation coverable means that the downlight can be directly overlaid with insulation in a loft space for example

IP Rating - Ingress protection expressed as a number. The first number displays protection against solid objects (1-6). The second number protects against water (1-9). IP65 is suitable for use in the bathroom in Zone 1. IP68 would be fully submersible such as pond lighting

Lumens (lm) - A measure of the light visible to the human eye, from a downlight

Lux - A measurement of the total amount of light falling on a surface

Multiple - A downlight with more than 1 light source

Non-Integrated - A downlight that has a changeable lamp or bulb, usually a GU10

Plaster-In - Or Trimless. A downlight is plastered in upon installation resulting in the appearance of having no trim

Slim-Trim - A downlight with barely visible housing, often as small as 1 or 2mm. Perfect for creating a minimalist look without the need for remedial ceiling work

Tool Free - Similar to fast-fix only even easier, as the product uses spring-loaded or push-down terminations

Trimless - See Plaster-In

Wattage - Refers to the power usage of the downlight. Wattage is not a guide to light output, as it’s better to observe the lumens

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