LED Downlights Buyer's Guide: Everything you ever wanted to know
Downlights are the “bread and butter” of lighting. They have occupied an important role in many Australian homes nowadays because they serve as the foundation of a good lighting plan. A downlight’s primary purpose is to provide functional ambient light throughout the home. Their discreet appearance, practicality and its amazing ability to blend well with other lights such as pendants or spotlights make them an excellent lighting staple. Therefore, it is absolutely vital to get the right downlights that not only perform well, but also reliable and will last you for a long time.
However, with so many different choices of downlights in the market, how do we decide which downlight (s) to buy? This downlight buyer guide will answer the question by explaining a number of key factors that needs to be considered and hopefully in the process, helps you to make better buying decisions when it comes to recessed downlights.
1. Brightness Level
The brightness level is the first thing that needs to be considered. Firstly, let’s make it very clear that the brightness of a downlight (or any light) is measured by lumens, not wattage. While lumens and wattage are in many ways related, they are not actually measuring the same thing.
Lumens is the measure of the total light output from a light source. This means the higher the rated lumens, the brighter the downlight will appear. Wattage (W), on the other hand, measures how much energy is burned to produce a set amount of light output (lumens). This explains why modern LED downlights are so much more energy efficient than older fluorescent or halogen downlights.
For example, a modern 12W LED downlight is equivalent to a 24W CFL downlight or a 55W halogen downlight even though they are all generating the same amount of brightness (lumens).
For those who are looking to upgrade their existing halogen or CFL downlights to LED downlights, simply refer to the chart below to find a suitable replacement.
Does this mean that we should always choose downlights with the highest lumens possible? Not necessarily. The correct brightness level should be decided based on the characteristics of each room, such as the amount of downlights relative to the size and height of the room.
In most cases, LED downlights between 9W to 15W will be adequate for most standard homes between 2.4m to 2.7m high.
2. Build Quality
Build quality is the one thing that many suppliers don’t often mention to you. Like many things in life, it is a case of “you get what you pay for”. When it comes to downlights, the materials used have a real world impact on the performance and durability of the product. The main considerations of build quality are:
- Frame and Heatsink Quality – Good quality downlights are most certainly made of aluminium frames and heatsinks while cheaper downlights tend to use plastic frames and heatsinks to keep costs down. Aluminium heatsinks are much more effective at diffusing the heat generated during usage and are more durable and reliable than plastic heatsinks.
- LED Driver Quality – Downlights with external LED drivers are often more durable and reliable than downlights with built-in LED drivers.
- Diffuser Quality – Another avenue where build quality matters is the quality of the diffuser. Poorly made diffusers can feel flimsy and cheap to the touch and often diffuse light poorly compared to better made diffusers.
If budget allows, we recommend choosing a downlight with an aluminium body, aluminium heatsink and an external LED driver.
3. Colour Temperature
Colour temperature refers to the colour characteristics of light, usually either warm (yellowish) or cool (bluish). Colour temperature is measured in Kelvin – lower Kelvin numbers produce Warm White while higher Kelvin numbers produce Cool White.
Warm White = Less than 4000K
Cool White = More than 4000K
Colour temperature has a strong influence on the atmosphere of your home. Recent research also shows a strong correlation between colour temperature and our sleeping patterns. The general consensus is that Warm White is more soothing to the eyes and has less effect on the production of melatonin (sleeping hormone) than Cool White. Cool White will improve our focus levels precisely by reducing our melatonin production twice as much as Warm White.
4. Fixed or Gimble Frame
Now you need to decide whether you need fixed or gimble (adjustable) downlights, or a combination of both. Gimble frames allow you to adjust the direction of the light, which is very useful for task lighting such as kitchen, bathroom and study areas. Otherwise, stick to fixed frame downlights as they are usually cheaper and well suited for general purpose lighting.
We recommend buying gimble downlights only when necessary, otherwise stick to fixed downlights for cost savings.
5. Beam Angle
Beam angle simply refers to the spread of light from the light source. Downlights with wide beam angle creates a wider, softer light which is suitable for general ambient lighting. On the other hand, downlights with narrow beam angle produce a sharp, concentrated light which is ideal for spotlighting.
Wide beam angle = 60 degrees or more
Narrow beam angle = Less than 60 degrees
We recommend choosing downlights with wide beam angle for general purpose lighting and narrow beam angle for spotlighting.
6. Dimmable or Non-Dimmable
Downlights can either be dimmable or non-dimmable. Dimmer switches can be added to dimmable downlights to control its level of light output. The dimming feature is very useful whenever the surrounding lighting has a strong effect on our entertainment or relaxation experience. The dimmer gives us the flexibility to turn the downlight on maximum capacity when we need to see clearly and turn down whenever we need to relax. Imagine your last experience at the cinema and the crucial effect of dimming the lights down when the movie starts.
We recommend getting dimmer switches for the flexibility of adjusting the lighting level for entertainment or relaxation reasons.
7. Surface Socket Outlets
Surface socket outlets offer a convenient way of providing power to your downlights. Many LED downlights now come equipped with flex and plug so surface socket outlets allow these downlights to be plugged-in just like any standard appliance. This allows you to easily replace a broken/faulty downlight by yourself in the event of a failure.
Without surface sockets, the electrician will have to hardwire the downlight to the power point in the ceiling, meaning that replacing downlights in the future becomes a difficult and costly practice.
8. IC Rating: Insulation Contact
“IC” stands for Insulation Contact. IC rating is a measure used to determine if a downlight is suitable to come into contact with your building insulation or not. Most Australian homes these days are protected by a layer of insulation within the walls and ceilings. When the time comes for your electrician to install the downlights in your ceiling, that is when the issue of installing downlights under insulation arises and IC rating comes into play.
We recommend choosing a downlight with either IC or IC-F rating as that will allow the downlight to be abutted and directly covered with insulation. You can read more about IC Rating here.
9. IP Rating: Ingress Protection
The next step is to determine whether you need good IP rating for your downlights. IP rating, or Ingress Protection Rating, classifies a lighting fixture’s degree of protection against both solids and liquids. Downlights with a minimum of IP44 rating is required for areas that are exposed to water or dust such as shower room, outdoor area or if you have a swimming pool. You can read more about IP Rating here.
Finally, do not neglect the warranty part! Whenever possible, choose downlights with the longest in-home warranty. It can potentially save you hundreds of dollars from having to hire electricians to replace the downlights in the unfortunate event of a failure.
We recommend choosing LED downlights with the longest warranty possible for peace of mind.
GOOD PRACTICES: KEEPING SPARES
A good practice is to purchase few extra downlights as spares. While LED downlights will last for many years, having that spare will be very handy when the time comes to replace them. Keeping few spares may also avoid the issue of not being able to get the same model if it is discontinued down the track.
SUMMARY OF THE KEY POINTS OF THIS ARTICLE:
- Decide the light output (lumens) needed to light up the room sufficiently and choose one with highest lumens per wattage. This ensures you are getting the most cost efficient downlight in the long term.
- Examine the build quality of the downlight to ensure you are getting the most value within your budget. For example, given a choice between an aluminium versus plastic heatsink at the same price point, always choose the aluminium one for better heat dissipation and durability.
- Choose your colour temperature (warm white or cool white) to match the mood you wish to create in each room.
- Decide whether to get downlights with gimble or fixed frame, or a combination of both. Gimble frame allows for adjustment of light angle, which is very useful for task lighting such as kitchen, bathroom and study areas. Otherwise, stick to fixed frame downlights as they are usually cheaper and well suited for general lighting.
- Decide your beam angle. Wide beam for soft ambient light and narrow beam for a focused, concentrated light.
- Determine whether you need dimmable technology or not. Dimmers are not a necessity but the ability to adjust the level of light output can be very useful for entertainment and home theatre rooms. To give you an idea, think of your last experience at the cinema and the crucial effect of lighting.
- We strongly recommend getting Surface socket outlets when installing your downlights. Surface socket outlet allows downlights to be plugged-in just like any standard power outlet point. That way, you can easily replace a broken downlight by yourself in the future.
- Determine whether IC Rating is an important consideration. We always recommend getting LED downlights with IC or IC-F rating which allows the downlight obe abutted and directly covered with building insulation.
- Determine whether IP Rating is an important consideration. Good IP rating is a must for areas that are exposed to water or dust such as shower room or outdoor areas.
- Finally, do not neglect the warranty part! Whenever possible, choose downlights with the longest in-home warranty. It can potentially save you hundreds of dollars from having to hire electricians in the unfortunate case of a break down.
- A good practice is to purchase few extra downlights as spares. While LED downlights will last for many years, having that spare will be very handy when the time comes to replace them. Keeping few spares may also avoid the issue of not being able to get the same model if it is discontinued down the track.