Recessed Vs Surface Mounted – Basement Lighting

By Todd Fratzel on Basements, Electrical

Last week one of my readers asked a question: Which is better? Recessed lights or surface mount ceiling lights for basement lighting?

Basement Lighting Options

Basement Lighting OptionsFor starters basements typically have a lower ceiling height than the main floors. Most modern construction today results in the ceiling joists (1st floor joists) being 7′-6″ above the concrete slab in the basement. So the first consideration will be head room if you install surface mount lights. Obviously a chandelier won’t fit in your basement.

Basement Lighting Issues – Recessed Vs Surface Mounted

The following is a list of issues to consider when choosing between recessed and surface mount lights in your basement:

  • Cost – Most projects end up being governed by your budget so it’s important to talk about the cost comparison between recessed lights and surface mounted lights. For talking purposes let’s assume you’re finishing a 10′ x 10′ basement room. In this example you could install one surface mounted light fixture or a minimum of four recessed lights (we think you’d probably want five or six to make it really bright). With this example it’s very easy to see that recessed lights are going to cost quite a bit more. In fact, you’re going to spend 4 to 5 times a much with the recessed light option when compared to a standard surface mounted light fixture.
  • Aesthetics – Obviously aesthetics is in the eye of the beholder. My wife and I completely disagree about recessed lights. I really like them and find them to be a much cleaner, modern look. She on the other hand thinks they are tacky and cheap. The real issue here depends on the look you’re going for. Are you looking for a clean look or a decorative one. Recessed lights disappear within the room while surface mounted lights can become a focal point.
  • Installation Difficulty – This category is fairly straight forward also. Recessed lights take much more time to install and it can be quite challenging to come up with a layout that works well aesthetically while not interfering with the structure. When you install recessed lights, whether new construction or remodel, the fixtures must be installed between floor joists. This makes it quite challenging sometimes to get the light laid out symmetrically and effectively. Obviously the recessed lights require more labor to run the wire from junction box to junction box. You also need to consider whether the recessed light fixture will come in contact with insulation, that will determine the type you purchase.
  • Flexibility – Recessed lights obviously pose many challenges. The fixtures must be laid out to avoid plumbing pipes, joists, and other mechanical systems. However, recessed lights allow you to utilize a room with lower ceiling heights and make the room feel much more spacious.
  • Remodel Vs New Construction – Installing surface mounted light fixtures in a remodel situation is certainly easier for a couple of reasons. First off you’ll be fishing quite a lot less wire with the surface mount lights. Secondly, the junction box can be installed using a “old work” box. Recessed lights require a precise circular hole to be cut in the ceiling and then wires to be daisy chained from fixture to fixture.

Lighting Summary

Obviously both types of light fixtures can be used in a number of really nice ways for finished basements. Both types of lights also offer pros and cons so it’s important to plan ahead and understand all the pitfalls before you make a decision. If you’re doing the work yourself make sure you’re not tackling a job that’s outside your comfort level. If you’re going to hire an electrician be prepared to pay $100 to $200 for each recessed light fixture installed.

Recommended Basement Lighting Fixtures

The following are some recommended lighting fixtures you can use in your basement.

Halo 6-inch IC Recessed Light HousingHalo 6-Inch IC Remodel Recessed Light Housing

The Halo H7RICT 6-Inch IC Housing for Remodels is perfect for remodeling when an existing ceiling is obstructing the rough framing. This fixture is one of the most widely used remodeling recessed can fixtures on the market. I’ve used it many times and highly recommend it. The can is rated for direct contact with insulation which I recommend for every situation just to be careful.

Halo 6-inch air tite IC new construction recessed housingHalo 6-Inch IC New Construction Recessed Light Housing

The Halo H7ICTNB 6-Inch Air Tite IC Recessed Light Housing is made for new construction. I’ve used this recessed light in the past and it is also one of the most popular recessed lighting cans on the market. I like the fact that this unit is designed to be in direct contact with insulation and it’s also air tight.

Hardware House Granada Ceiling LightSurface Mount Lighting Fixture

Surface mount lighting fixtures have been a staple for years and using them in the basement is a cost effective lighting solution. The Hardware House 460212 Granada 6-1/2-Inch by 13-Inch Ceiling Lighting Fixture Antique Copper is one example of a traditional surface mounted light fixture. These lights tend to be quite in expensive and come in many different finishes and sizes. If you’re looking for a way to keep your budget down then I recommend the surface mount lights.

Do any of you have an opinion or advice to other readers trying to make this decision?

About the author

Todd Fratzel

I'm full time builder for a large construction company in New Hampshire. I run their design-build division that specializes in custom homes, commercial design-build projects and sub-divisions. I'm also a licensed civil and structural engineer with extensive experience in civil and structural design and home construction. My hope is that I can share my experience in the home construction, home improvement and home renovation profession with other builders and home owners. I'm also the Editor-in-Chief and Founder of Tool Box Buzz. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions, suggestions or you'd like to inquire about advertising on this site.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    It’s helpful to know we will need 5-6 recess light for 10×10 space in basement. That’s one of the reasons I was hesitating to use them because we are not sure how many/what layout of recess lights would provided enough lighting for basement w/minimum sunlight coming in…

    I also always wonder which type of recess light we should buy in order to maximize the light since I see about 20 option in home depot/lowes. Any suggestion?

  2. Anonymous says:

    It’s very helpful to know how many recess lights we should install for 10×10 room in basement. That’s one of the reasons we were hesitating to go with recess lights since basement lighting is totally different world comparing to the one upstairs.

    I always wonder which type of recess light fitting we should choose in order to maximize the lighting capacity as well as green matter (insulation? bulbs?). I see about 20 type of fitting in Home Depot/lowes. Are they only cosmetic?? Some has glass cover, some has silver color inside instead of white, …etc.

  3. Todd says:

    You’d be best off checking with lighting design folks at a electrical supply house or showroom. My preference would probably be four recessed in a 10’x10′ I’d go with five recessed for a 12’x12′.

    There are many different types of recessed lights for many different applications. There are three basic issues, first is the application of remodel vs new construction. If you’re installing the fixtures prior to a ceiling then you have new construction, if you’re installing in holes of an existing ceiling you’ll need the remodel cans.

    The second issue is whether or not you will have the fixtures in contact with insulation or not. For me I like to play it safe and always use a “contact” fixture to completely prevent a fire.

    The third issue deals with the “trim” or finish of the light. There are so many options to choose from. You asked about “silver” lined and “glass covered”. Typically the glass lens fixtures are for bathrooms, showers, etc. The “silver” lined ones are reflective and help transmit both the heat and light in a more focused down pattern.

    It’s not really possible to discuss all the options but a lighting professional can certainly point you in the right direction.

  4. Ed says:

    Are IC cans required if there is no insulation? Using in a besement I wasn’t planning on insulating.

    Can I use Non-IC?

  5. Joolz says:

    Thank you for this page, it helped me decide which way to go. My unfinished basement is only 22’x22′ and I just started developing it. Want to make it into a livable space, mostly for the kids to play. Budget is definitely tight for this so every consideration for cost – short and long term is required. Lighting is also key, as it is dark down there (only a small window for natural lighting). Plan to install a drop ceiling and obviously must decide on the lighting fixtures ahead of time. Your page showed me that there’s a huge difference in cost between spot and surface fixtures. Huge because there’s the factor (not mentioned in your page) of the continuing cost of using spot lights. Since it requires so many more to brighten up the space, your monthly electric bill will sure take a hit compared to using fewer surface lights. Something I hope other readers will consider.

    Don’t take me wrong, I’m a big fan of recessed lightings and thought this was the way to go. Till your post showed me that I’d need at least 12 of them for my open space. Ouch. Even using CFL or LED bulbs would add considerably to my monthly bill, not to mention the cost of wiring these (which I plan to do myself). I will instead be installing 4 surface fixtures with 23 watts CFL bulbs (similar to 100 watts regular bulbs). Sure, recessed lighting looks great but for someone on a budget and whose plan is to make the space more of a play area, there’s no point in going through the cost of recessed lighting. Your page greatly helped me decide, appreciate you sharing your experience.

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