Garage Recessed Lighting: A Complete Guide

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Choosing the right recessed garage lights can be tricky.

Most homeowners struggle with questions like: What kind of lights are best for high ceilings? How can I ensure they’re energy-efficient? Or, what’s the most cost-effective option?

My garage had recessed lighting before I went completely overboard and installed 62,000 lumens worth of LED shop lights. So, I’m very familiar with the benefits (and drawbacks) of living with recessed garage lighting for several years.

My goal in writing this article is to share that experience and provide information that’s easy to apply to your garage.

Whether you use your garage as a workspace, a storage area, or just for parking cars, the right lighting can make a big difference. We’ll look at different styles, how to choose the right size and spacing, and even touch on the pros and cons of recessed lighting.

By the end of this article, you’ll have a good grasp of garage recessed lighting and what to look for when choosing them.

Let’s get started on finding the best lighting solutions for your garage.


Types of Recessed Garage Lighting

The first thing to understand when talking about recessed lighting in your garage is the nuance between can lights and pot lights. 

Each type of light serves a specific purpose, tailored to different garage layouts and ceiling heights.

Can Lights

Can lights, often called canister or housing lights, are concealed metal housings that embed into the ceiling. They’re the structural foundation of recessed lighting, securing the light fixtures.

These lights are pivotal not just for holding the fixtures but also for ensuring safety and energy efficiency.

Several factors influence the choice of can lights:

Ceiling Type and Insulation:

  • New construction can lights are ideal for new or unfinished ceilings as they attach to ceiling joists, offering robust stability, which is crucial for garages under extensive renovation.
  • In contrast, remodel can lights are designed for existing ceilings, using clips or springs for attachment, thus being less intrusive and easier for installation in a finished space.

Insulation Contact (IC) Rating:

  • IC-rated can lights are insulated, making them necessary for insulated ceilings. They reduce fire risk and enhance energy efficiency.
  • Non-IC-rated can lights, suited for non-insulated ceilings, require a safety clearance from insulation, offering a more budget-friendly but less efficient solution.

Voltage Type:

  • Line voltage can lights, compatible with standard 120-volt wiring, are economical and straightforward but might be less energy-efficient.
  • Low-voltage can lights, which need a transformer for 12 or 24-volt systems, are notable for their better energy efficiency and finer light control.

Wafer Lights

Wafer lights, also known as canless or ultra-thin lights, are lighting fixtures that do not require a can or housing to install. They consist of a thin LED panel with a junction box attached, which can be connected directly to the electrical wires.

These lights are ideal for low-clearance ceilings or tight spaces, as they only need a small hole to fit in. They lie flush with the ceiling surface, offering a sleek and modern look.

Some advantages of wafer lights are:

  • They are easy and quick to install, as they do not need any additional hardware or tools.
  • They are energy-efficient and long-lasting, using LED technology that consumes less power and lasts longer than traditional bulbs.
  • They are compatible with dimmers and smart controls, allowing for more flexibility and customization of the lighting.
  • They are available in different sizes, shapes, colors, and color temperatures, catering to various preferences and needs.

Some disadvantages of wafer lights are:

  • They are more expensive than can lights, including one unit’s LED panel and junction box.
  • They are not as versatile as can lights, as they cannot accommodate different types of bulbs or trims.
  • They are harder to replace, requiring removing the entire fixture instead of just the bulb or trim.
Garage recessed lighting: wafer lights vs can lights
Recessed garage lighting: Wafer lights (left) vs. Can lights (right)

Pot Lights

Pot lights, or trim lights, are the visible elements of recessed lighting that influence the light’s look and functionality.

Different styles cater to varied needs:

  • Baffle pot lights, with their ribbed interior, reduce glare and provide a soft, diffuse light ideal for general lighting in the garage.
  • Reflector pot lights, in contrast, have a shiny interior that enhances light output, making them suitable for focused task lighting.
  • Eyeball pot lights allow for directional focus, perfect for highlighting specific areas or features in the garage.
  • Gimbal pot lights offer similar adjustability but are less conspicuous, providing a discreet yet flexible lighting solution.

Selecting the Right Size and Spacing

The size and spacing of recessed garage lights varies, ranging from 3 to 9 inches in diameter.

This affects the light’s coverage and style. Smaller lights suit specific task areas, while larger ones are better for general ambient lighting and should complement the garage’s size.

Spacing is critical to even light distribution, avoiding dark spots or overly bright areas. A practical approach is to divide the ceiling height by two to decide the distance between each light and the wall.

A pro tip is to match the size of the lights with their spacing.

For instance, in a garage with a 10-foot ceiling, spacing several 5-inch can lights about 5 feet apart will help create a balanced lighting scheme.


Pros & Cons of Garage Recessed Lighting

Recessed garage lighting offers a blend of functional and aesthetic benefits, but it’s not without drawbacks. Understanding both is crucial for homeowners considering this lighting option.

Let’s delve into the pros and cons to help you make an informed decision.

Pros

Energy Efficiency: One advantage of recessed lighting is its energy efficiency. These lights can consume up to 80% less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs while lasting up to 25 times longer.

Durability: Designed to endure the harsh conditions often found in garages, such as dust, moisture, and fluctuating temperatures, recessed lights are a robust choice. They’re much more durable than many conventional bulb types.

Aesthetics: Recessed garage lighting can significantly enhance the visual appeal of your garage. They seamlessly blend into your garage ceiling, providing different effects (ambient, accent, or task lighting) depending on their trim and placement.

Cons

Cost: A notable downside to recessed lighting is the cost. The initial installation and ongoing maintenance are more expensive than other lighting options.

Installation Complexity: Installing garage recessed lighting can be challenging, particularly in garages with low or sloped ceilings or where insulation and wiring are in the ceiling.

The process often involves cutting holes, running wires, and securing the lights. Adherence to safety standards and electrical codes is paramount.

In many cases, it may be prudent to hire a professional electrician, especially if you haven’t done electrical work before.


Do You Need a Permit to Install Recessed Lighting in Your Garage?

When planning to install recessed lighting in your garage, it’s crucial to consider whether you need a permit.

The requirement for a permit largely depends on the type and scope of your project, along with the local building codes and regulations.

Understanding Permit Requirements

The most common reasons to pull a permit are installing new recessed lights where none existed before or if the installation alters your home’s existing wiring or electrical panel.

These changes can significantly impact your home’s electrical system, and obtaining a permit ensures that all work meets safety standards.

On the other hand, if your project involves merely updating your garage’s lighting, such as replacing existing recessed lights with similar types and sizes or changing out fixtures within existing lighting cans, you may not need a permit.

These kinds of updates are often seen as minor and typically do not require formal oversight.

The Importance of Checking Local Regulations

It’s always important to check with your local building department before starting any electrical work.

Building codes and permit requirements can vary significantly from place to place.

You can avoid unintentional regulatory violations by consulting local authorities and ensuring your project complies with all local requirements.

Benefits of Obtaining a Permit

Securing a permit for your recessed garage lighting installation comes with several benefits:

  • It assures that your installation meets safety and quality standards, reducing the risk of electrical hazards.
  • It helps you avoid potential fines or penalties that can arise from unpermitted work.
  • Permitted work can enhance a home’s value, providing assurance to potential buyers about the legality and safety of its electrical installations.

Tips for Applying for a Permit

When applying for a permit, the process typically involves several steps.

Start by contacting your local building department to understand the specific requirements for your area. Then, fill out the application form detailing your project’s scope.

Be prepared to pay any required fees, which vary based on your project’s complexity and location.

Finally, after completing the installation, schedule an inspection with a local official to ensure everything complies with the relevant codes and standards.


Design Ideas for Garage Recessed Lighting

Recessed lighting offers a versatile and stylish way to illuminate your garage. With the proper placement, direction, and color, it can create various design effects. Here are some creative ways to use recessed lighting in your garage:

Creating a Focal Point: Use recessed garage lighting to draw attention to specific areas or features, such as a workbench, display case, or wall art.

Achieve this by using lights of a different color or brightness for the focal point. Opt for directional trims like an eyeball or gimbal to angle the light towards the desired spot.

Highlighting a Feature: Recessed lighting can accentuate architectural or structural elements in your garage, such as beams, columns, or niches.

To enhance these elements, use a light with a narrow beam angle or a trim that matches the feature’s shape, such as square or hexagonal garage lighting.

Adding Color and Contrast: Recessed garage lights in various colors or temperatures can create visual interest in specific areas. For instance, pair warm white light for general illumination with cool white or colored light for accent lighting.

You can also incorporate dimmers or smart bulbs to adjust the color and mood of the light to your liking.

Complementing with Other Lighting Types

Recessed lighting can be effectively combined with other lighting types to create a balanced and layered effect:

  • Pendant Lights: These hanging lights can create a focal point, add personality, and provide task lighting over work areas. Combine them with recessed garage lights for contrast and variety, like a large pendant light over a workbench complemented by recessed lights around the garage’s perimeter.
  • Track Lights: These movable and adjustable fixtures are perfect to highlight specific garage areas or features. Use track lights along walls and complement them with ceiling recessed lights for flexibility and versatility in lighting.
  • Wall Lights: Wall-mounted lights can add ambiance, accent, or decoration. Pair wall lights like sconces, lanterns, or spotlights with recessed lighting to create depth and dimension, illuminating walls or niches effectively.

Customizing for Specific Applications

Tailor your recessed lighting to your garage’s needs by considering the color temperature, Color Rendering Index (CRI), and brightness (lumens):

  • Color Temperature: Choose a color temperature that suits your garage’s purpose and mood, ranging from warm white (2700K to 3000K) for a cozy atmosphere to daylight white (6000K to 6500K) for a crisp, energizing environment.
  • CRI: Choose a CRI based on the garage activities you perform. A high CRI (90 or above) is ideal for detailed tasks like painting or woodworking. Lower CRIs (80 or below) are usually sufficient for general storage or parking.
  • Brightness: How bright you want your garage to be is measured in lumens. Use higher lumen lampss (800 lm or above) for larger or darker spaces and lower lumen lamps (400 lm or below) for smaller, well-lit areas.

Incorporating these design ideas can transform your garage into a functional and aesthetically pleasing space, making it more than just a place to park your car.


Alternatives to Garage Recessed Lighting

While recessed lighting is a popular choice for garages, it may not always be the most suitable or feasible option.

Factors such as garage ceiling height, structure, insulation, wiring, and budget constraints can make recessed garage lighting less ideal.

Fortunately, several alternative lighting options can provide comparable or superior illumination and aesthetic appeal for garage spaces.

Disk Lights

Disk lights are a sleek and modern alternative to recessed lighting.

These thin LED lights fit directly onto the ceiling and look similar to recessed lights without cutting holes or installing boxes. They are straightforward to install, energy-efficient, and often include dimming features.

Additionally, disk lights can be mounted on garage walls or under cabinets, making them versatile for accent lighting.

Track Lights

Track lights are specialized fixtures mounted on a track, allowing them to be moved, rotated, and angled as needed.

This flexibility makes them ideal for highlighting specific areas or features in the garage, such as a workbench, tool rack, or display area.

Track lights come in various styles, sizes, and colors, allowing customization to fit any garage’s design scheme.

Pendant Lights

Pendant lights hang from the ceiling by cords, chains, or rods and offer a different style than recessed lighting. They can be a striking focal point and add personality to the garage space.

Beyond their aesthetic value, pendant lights are excellent for task lighting over work areas or tables.

Available in a wide array of shapes, materials, and designs, they can complement various themes and moods.

Comparing new LED shop lights and my old recessed garage lighting
Recessed garage lighting vs shop lights in my garage

Tube Lights

Tube lights, or shop lights, are commonly seen in commercial or industrial settings. However, they’re are also well-suited for garage lighting.

These long, cylindrical lights provide bright, uniform, and energy-efficient illumination, ideal for larger garage spaces. They can be mounted on the ceiling, walls, or even under shelves and cabinets.

One of the benefits of tube lights is that they can be linked together, creating an unbroken strip of light. They typically use LED bulbs, known for their long lifespan and minimal flicker.


Wrapping It Up

Recessed lighting offers a sleek and modern solution to garage lighting, bringing numerous benefits such as energy efficiency, durability, and the ability to enhance the aesthetics of your space.

We’ve explored various aspects, from understanding the types of recessed lights – can and pot lights – to the pros and cons of choosing this lighting style.

We also covered the practicalities of installation, including whether you need a permit and how to navigate the process.

Additionally, we ignited your creativity with design ideas. We introduced you to alternatives like disk, track, pendant, flush mount, and tube lights, providing options for different preferences and garage setups.

Now, it’s your turn.

Go ahead and experiment with some of the recessed garage lighting ideas and tips shared in this article.

Whether choosing the right type of recessed light for your space, creatively placing them to highlight specific areas, or even opting for an alternative lighting solution, there are many possibilities to explore in enhancing your garage’s lighting.

We’d love to hear about your experiences and feedback. And, if you’re keen to dive deeper into home improvement or explore related products, be sure to check out our other articles and guides.

They are packed with information and ideas that could spark your next big project.

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Tim Wells

Tim Wells, the founder of Garage Transformed, has been featured in dozens of home renovation publications, including BobVila.com, Home Stratosphere, House Digest, Livingetc, and SFGate. Since 2018, he has helped over two million people transform their everyday garages into something they can be proud of. He lives in Central Florida with his wife and bulldog.

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