Written by Kathy Roth Eastman, Smart Choices editor
A little over a year ago, I invested in a home energy audit conducted by Cenergy. (Find the complete details here) One of the leaky areas we observed during the audit was around the recessed canister lights in our living room and in our bathroom. While I knew that we could gain some energy savings by changing out the fixtures, I put this project low on our “do-later” list.
The project moved into the “must-do-now” category, however, when we noticed a strange spot on our living room carpet. We thought someone (Kids? Dog?) had spilled something until we realized it was directly below one of the can lights … and that it was melted insulation that had dripped from one of the fixtures! We quit using the lights immediately and called our handyman to help us fix the problem.
Our house, built in 1959, had recessed canister lights that were not insulated. When we added attic insulation, we had the contractors leave those areas in the living room and bathroom uninsulated to avoid overheating problems. Apparently, some insulation had shifted in the attic and had fallen onto the hot lights, melted, and fallen to the floor. Fortunately, this didn’t start a fire and the melted insulation was all the warning we needed to retrofit the canisters.
The value of replacement canisters
A study by The Pennsylvania Housing Research/Resource Center a few years ago found that lighting canisters are one of the worst culprits for allowing warm air loss in a home and can cost between $5 and $30 in lost energy per can per year. I discovered that new, energy-efficient recessed lighting fixtures use 80 percent less electricity than less efficient ones, yet give at least as much light (our new lights are brighter than our old ones were).
Energy Star qualified can lights can hold CFL bulbs for greater efficiency and less heat generation. Energy Star recommends using indoor reflector bulbs because they are specially designed to direct the light out of the fixture and to withstand the heat buildup that occurs in these fixtures. You should check the canisters to be sure you install bulbs of the correct wattage in your canisters.
IC-rated (insulation-contact), sealed, airtight canisters prevent air leakage plus, if attic insulation falls onto the cans, there is no danger of starting a fire (or having melted insulation dripping onto your living room carpet, as we did!). The cans are made to have insulation surrounding them, for greatest energy efficiency. The sealed canisters are a good choice if you have an attic above (like we do) or if it’s in an unheated basement so that you can minimize drafts between floors. For recessed cans between floors, where there is no need for insulation, you can use non-IC-rated cans.
When replacing canisters, be sure to check for adequate insulation in the attic above the canisters. In our case, we knew from our energy audit that there was no insulation in the bathroom bulkhead containing the recessed lights. When we had a handyman replace those canisters, he was also able to install insulation in the bulkhead. This should provide a warmer, more energy-efficient bathroom.