Lighting design is one of the most effective ways to add drama and aesthetic appeal to a home. And when designers need light in a place where they don’t want an obtrusive lighting fixture, they may reach for recessed lighting -- to the dismay of energy efficiency experts.

Sometimes called “pot lights”, recessed lights are tucked up into the ceiling. The housing that holds the bulb is located above the ceiling material, which offers a sleek look, but requires a large hole in the room’s envelope. That leads to drafts.

It’s Your Loss

Any household energy auditor will tell you that recessed lights are among the most notorious energy wasters in modern homes. Auditors often use thermal mapping technology to see exactly where air leaks are located, and these fixtures often stand out as the biggest HVAC efficiency problem in the room.

To make matters worse, this is usually a year-round problem. Hot air leaks in during the summer and frigid air drops down during the winter.

Size Up the Situation

Unfortunately, there are no dead-simple tricks you can pull to address this problem. But if you’re willing to invest a little effort, money or both, you have a range of options to reduce or even eliminate the energy loss.

The first task is to determine what type of recessed light fixtures you have and how they’re attached to the ceiling. If you don’t already know this, you may want to ask an electrician for help inspecting your lights.

There are two types of recessed lights: insulation contact (IC) and non-insulation contact (non-IC). Non-IC lights get too hot to be in direct contact with insulation material, which means these lights often have the worst air leak issues. IC fixtures are lower wattage and produce less heat, which means it’s acceptable to pile insulation material over the light housing.

You’ll also want to check how the light is affixed to the ceiling. Ideally, you want a tight caulk seal attaching the light directly to the ceiling material. If it’s merely bolted or wedged into place, you know the air is getting through.

Decisions, Decisions

Once you know what you’re dealing with, you’re free to decide how much you want to invest in boosting your energy efficiency. If all you want to do is improve the seals around your lights, all it will cost you is a little caulk -- but your efficiency boost will be minimal.

If you’re willing to upgrade your fixtures, make sure you choose IC fixtures that are fully sealed. When you have them installed, be sure to get a tight seal and cover the tops of the fixtures with plenty of heat-resistant insulation.

And if you’re really serious, you can remodel, losing the recessed lights entirely and replacing them with hanging fixtures, track lighting, wall sconces or floor lamps. Fully patching those holes in the ceiling is the most HVAC-friendly choice you can make.

Looking to do more about household energy loss from air leaks? Get in touch with your local HVAC experts today.