Be Illuminated! Downlighting for Dummies

Downlighters are the go-to choice when it comes to light fittings for homes in a large proportion of modern properties. In new builds they are almost exclusively used as the primary source of lighting with opportunities to use decorative pendants brushed aside in favour of uniformity and simplicity.

Downlighters, if used well, can be an excellent choice to not only provide a room with light – the basic function of course but essentially, for anyone wanting to get the best from their interior, to highlight key focal points in the room and create different moods.

Whilst colour choices of fabric, furniture and walls are obviously important to give a room personality a purely white space can be given just as much character by having a well-planned lighting scheme using 3-4 different light circuits.

Unfortunately the placement of downlighters in many properties, especially new builds is not a plan at all but moreover a geometric pattern that looks ‘tidy’ when the lights are off.

Common Mistakes: Inability to tilt means lights only light the floor, no thought to placement means in this instance one corner of the door frame and the bare wall next to the extractor have been highlighted.

Poor use of downlights: These downlights are not lighting anything particular but creating harsh sconces of light on the bare wall. If the coving is to be the focus then a better solution would be to use uplights to highlight that instead.

Top 5 Questions to Ask Before Using Downlights

As with most things, to do lighting well requires some thought or more pertinently the right questions:

1) What is the space to be used for? The greater the number of activities to be undertaken within the room the more flexible the lighting scheme should be.
2) What are the primary focal points? A lovely piece of furniture, artwork or perhaps even a decorative chandelier – lighting a beautiful light is not as absurd as it sounds!
3) What are the differing moods you would you like to achieve? Intimate dining by candlelight or open and spacious – or more likely if the space is multi-functional, both.
4) What would you not like to highlight? With light comes shadow, thinking about what features of the room you’d rather blend in to the background, an ugly air conditioning unit or the computer desk can be just as important as identifying the pretty parts.
5) Finally, less is more, don’t have too many focal points or the room will look messy and confused.

There are a truly overwhelming number of different downlighters on the market. A key point to bear in mind is the cheaper the fitting the less flexibility you will have and the less cost-efficient the bulbs will be to use within them.

A good starting point when considering a downlight is to ensure it does the following:

1) Can tilt a minimum of 30 degrees without seeing the back of the fitting or the insides
2) Can be rotated 360 degrees without having to remove it from the ceiling
3) The best downlights have a recessed seat for the lamp with an anti-glare barrel to reduce glare
4) Magnetic surrounds create a quality looking finish and make it much easier to change bulbs

The Science Part: LEDs vs Halogen

LED lights are very energy efficient. They are expensive though and need to be used with the correct “Driver”. A driver is an electrical device which is used to control and keep constant the power needed to light an LED. LEDs power requirements change constantly and without a driver they may become too hot which would result in poor light or a complete failure. When used with the correct drivers LEDs can operate at a very low voltage (under 10w), they do not get as hot to touch as halogen and do not need to be changed – rather the light quality will degrade over (a long) time. However, the light they emit is quite white and cold and although certain LED bulbs can be dimmed they have yet to create one which matches the performance of a 12v Halogen dimmer.

12v Halogen bulbs are the technology of choice at the moment for most designers. The electricity from our mains supply is 240v. If these bulbs are used within a good quality fitting and with an electric transformer (a little box which converts a higher voltage into a lower voltage) they are more energy efficient than mains voltage (240v) halogen. Mains Voltage Halogen are used in your standard cheap downlights. 12v Halogen is still less energy efficient than LEDs. They are still used because they emit the best quality light and have a warmer tone to them. Again, the more expensive they are the longer they will last but it is a false economy to think you can put good bulbs in to cheap light fittings; you will not get the best from them.

Best Practice

The best way to use 12v halogen downlighters is only when and where they are needed to actually do something, not just have one switch powering 12 downlights which chugs a huge amount of electricity in to the room focused only on the floor. Have different sets of two or three lights on different circuits to operate independently of each other and use dimmer switches to allow further flexibility. Combine the halogen lights with energy efficient LEDs; strips of LEDs hidden on top of a unit or beneath some stairs, for example, can make a great and long term cost-effective lighting statement.

Great execution of lighting the simplest of spaces in an effective way. Hidden strips of LED lights are used to create a framed effect of the shelves and their contents.

The lighting in this bathroom has been thoughtfully designed to highlight key features; two downlights wash down the back of the shower, one is placed in a small alcove, the picture hanging above the bath is highlighted and in addition, a light has been tilted to focus on another picture on the far side of the sink.

A beautifully lit hallway, tilting downlights highlight a stunning sculpture piece and artwork.

My top tip: use a well-informed, not just a well-qualified electrician.