Air Sealing Recessed Light Fixtures Below Unconditioned Space
Air seal around recessed can light fixtures installed through ceilings to keep conditioned air from leaking into unconditioned space.
- Using a saw, cleanly cut a hole that is no more than 1 inch larger in diameter than the diameter of the can.
- Install ICAT-labeled recessed lighting fixtures.
- Seal around the can with caulk before installing trim or install a trim kit with a gasket.
See the Compliance Tab for related codes and standards requirements, and criteria to meet national programs such as DOE’s Zero Energy Ready Home program, ENERGY STAR Certified Homes, and Indoor airPLUS.
Recessed “can” ceiling fixtures, or downlights, are the most popular home lighting fixture in the United States. However, recessed can fixtures can be energy intensive in three ways—if they are not approved for insulation contact and are installed in an insulated ceiling, insulation has to be kept at least 3 inches from the fixture all the way around, leaving about 1 square foot of uninsulated ceiling space. Second, many homeowners and contractors install incandescent bulbs in the fixtures that use 4 times the electricity of fluorescents and add to air-conditioning loads. Third, if the cans are not airtight, they allow conditioned air to escape from the living area into unconditioned spaces such as the attic. Leaky recessed cans are like a hole in the ceiling, only worse. A non-airtight recessed can with an incandescent bulb can draw 3 to 5 times as much air as a hole the same size, thanks to the “stack effect.” When the light inside the can is turned on, the heat it generates turns the can fixture into a chimney, pulling air from the house up into the attic (McCullough and Gordon 2002).
Recessed downlights that are installed in insulated ceilings are now required by code to be rated for insulation contact (IC) so that insulation can be placed over them. The housing of the fixture should also be rated airtight to prevent conditioned air from escaping into the ceiling cavity or attic, and unconditioned air from infiltrating the conditioned space. The fixture should bear a label showing it meets the ASTM E 283 requirement of <=2.0 cfm of air movement from the conditioned space to the ceiling cavity when tested at 75 Pa, and the housing should be caulked or gasketed where it meets the ceiling (Lstiburek 2009). Some brands of can lights designated ICAT may leak air; check the fixtures you intend to use to see whether they appear to be well designed to be air-tight (EPA 2010).
If recessed lights are installed in insulated cathedral ceilings, there must be at least R-10 of insulation above the can in IECC climate zones 4 and higher to minimize condensation potential. Extra caution should be taken to ensure the recessed can is airtight in unventilated cathedral ceilings. Leaky light fixtures can allow moisture-laden indoor air to enter the roof assembly. If the moisture encounters cold roof sheathing, it can condense, leading to moisture accumulation and rot (Holladay 2011).
Some building scientists recommend against putting recessed can lights in cathedral ceilings (see for example Holladay 2011) and some recommend against putting recessed can lights in any insulated ceiling (for example, Bailes 2011). Other alternatives are to install the recessed cans in an air-sealed dropped soffit or to limit use of recessed cans to only ceilings of rooms that have conditioned space above them such as a second floor. Another option is to avoid recessed can fixtures all together and use surface-mounted or pendant fixtures instead.
How to Air Seal Recessed Can Lights in Insulated Ceilings
- Choose fixtures that are labeled ICAT, meaning they are approved for insulation contact and are airtight as determined by the ASTM E 283 air leakage test.
- Install according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Before installing the decorative trim, caulk the housing to the ceiling, or install the fixture using a manufacturer-supplied gasket.
Inspect and verify that recessed can light fixtures installed in ceilings below unconditioned space are rated insulation-contact, air-tight (ICAT). Blower door testing, which is conducted as part of the whole-house energy performance test-out, may help indicate whether the recessed can lights are sufficiently air sealed. An infrared camera used in conjunction with the blower door testing may assist in detecting leakage. Experienced contractors can also detect air leakage with a smoke stick or by hand.
Thermal Enclosure Checklist, Air Sealing. If in insulated ceiling without attic above, exterior surface of fixture insulated to >= R-10 in CZ 4 and higher to minimize condensation potential.
International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) Climate Regions
The Compliance tab contains both program and code information. Exact code language is copyrighted and may require purchase from the publisher. While we continually update our database, links may have changed since posting. Please contact our webmaster if you find broken links.
ENERGY STAR Certified Homes (Version 3/3.1, Revision 08), Rater Field Checklist
Thermal Enclosure System:
4. Air Sealing (Unless otherwise noted below, "sealed" indicates the use of caulk, foam, or equivalent material):
4.2 Recessed lighting fixtures adjacent to unconditioned space ICAT labeled and gasketed. Also, if in insulated ceiling without attic above, exterior surface of fixture insulated to ≥ R-10 in CZ 4-8.
ENERGY STAR Revision 08 requirements are required for homes permitted starting 07/01/2016.
Exhibit 1: Mandatory Requirements. Certified under ENERGY STAR Qualified Homes Version 3.
Section 402.4.5 Recessed lighting. Recessed lights in the building thermal envelope are 1) type IC rated and ASTM E283 labeled and 2) sealed with a gasket or caulk between the housing and the interior wall or ceiling covering.*
Section N1102.4.5 Recessed lighting. Recessed lights in the building thermal envelope are 1) type IC rated and ASTM E283 labeled and 2) sealed with a gasket or caulk between the housing and the interior wall or ceiling covering.*
Table R402.4.1.1 Air Barrier and Insulation Installation, Recessed lighting: Recessed light fixtures installed in the building thermal envelope are IC rated, airtight labeled at air leakage rate <= 2.0 cfm, and sealed to the drywall with gasket or caulk.*
Table N11402.4.1.1 Air Barrier and Insulation Installation, Recessed lighting: Recessed light fixtures installed in the building thermal envelope are IC rated, airtight labeled at air leakage rate <= 2.0 cfm, and sealed to the drywall with gasket or caulk.*
*Due to copyright restrictions, exact code text is not provided. For specific code text, refer to the applicable code.
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Tight Air Sealed Home = Comprehensive Draft Protection