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Recessed Can-Do

By: Cary Weiner, 7/15/2017

If you thought you were done dealing with your home’s lighting after upgrading to LED, the bad news is that this post is going to give you more to think about. The good news is that this post will provide you with another opportunity to save energy and money.

Recessed can lights are common across households in Colorado and the U.S. They offer a nice down light, flexibly spaced, without intruding into a room’s overhead square footage. Yet many recessed cans – especially those installed in older homes – are not air tight or rated for insulation contact. As a result, heat produced by your furnace can escape right out through the cans and into your attic. In addition, insulation must be kept away from these cans to avoid a fire hazard (especially if using incandescent or halogen bulbs), reducing your attic’s R-value and increasing your energy bills.

How do you know if your can is air tight and rated for insulation contact? Unscrew the bulb and use a headlamp or flashlight to peer into the can itself. Look for a label that reads either IC or ICAT. IC stands for insulation contact, and those cans contain a switch to automatically shut the light off should the temperature reach a set threshold. ICAT cans contain this thermal switch but also do not contain any holes or slits and are therefore air tight.

Inside a can shows the text Halo E5ICAT

A look inside this can shows the ICAT, or “insulation contact and air tight” rating.

So what can be done if you have non-ICAT recessed can lights? A few options exist.

  1. Integrated LED recessed can trims. These are inserts into the existing recessed can that come with an airtight trim and a hard-wired LED light. The insert itself may still let air travel through the can.
  2. Recessed can covers. If you can access the cans from your attic, you can place these new rock wool covers over your cans, seal them in place, and insulate over the covers. This is a more airtight solution than just sealing the trim. Note that although many of these products claim that they are safe for non-IC fixtures, some experts in the field caution that they are to be used only with cans rated for insulation contact.
  3. Replacing the cans. A straightforward but more expensive solution is to replace a non-IC or just IC-rated can with an ICAT can.
  4. Removing the cans altogether. This is of course the most extreme solution, but one that will guarantee you an opportunity to have a properly sealed and insulated ceiling/attic. The cans would be plugged with drywall and surface/other lighting would be used instead.

While it’s hard to pinpoint expected savings from these upgrades as each home is different, recessed cans can be a significant source of air leaks as shown by IR cameras during energy audits. With some options being quite inexpensive (can covers and integrated can trims both cost around $15), improving the air tightness (and insulation capacity) of your cans is likely a cost-effective move. It’s also a DIY special!

Two cans located next to each other

An ICAT rated can on the left has no holes or slits. The IC rated can on the right is not air tight.