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Executive Editor

Sal Alfano is executive editor for Professional, 202.365.9070

The Whole Truth

Tradeoffs are a fact of life for remodeling Clients. To make good decisions, they need information...all of it.

March 26, 2018

My wife and I are remodeling our new home. The lighting plan calls for recessed cans over the kitchen countertops and in the four corners of the dining room, which also has a central chandelier. We brought the chandelier with us from our old house, but the can lights will be new, so I asked the electrician about them during a visit to the jobsite. “I don’t use can lights anymore,” he said. He stepped out of the room for a moment, and when he returned he was holding a flat, round fixture of a type I had never seen before. “I use these,” he said. “They’re easy to install just about anywhere, and they only cost about $30.”

What he was holding was an “ultra-thin recessed downlight” or “wafer” LED, and it has a lot going for it. Rough-in requires running 2- or 3-wire to the fixture location and cutting an opening in the drywall. Installation is a simple matter of wiring up the driver, plugging in the wafer, sliding the driver into the ceiling cavity and clamping the wafer housing to the drywall using built-in spring clips. Most versions are IC-rated, suitable for wet locations, dimmable, and available in several shapes, sizes, and color temperatures. And because they are so thin, they don’t need much clearance and can even be installed directly under a joist. What’s not to like, right? Especially at that price.

Glaring Omission

I didn’t think much more about it until a few days later during a visit to a lighting showroom to pick out the rest of the fixtures we needed. While looking at a display of surface mount ceiling fixtures, my wife and I noticed a couple of wafer lights, and I mentioned my conversation with our electrician to the showroom manager who was guiding our search. He hesitated, seemingly searching for the right words, then said, “You have to be careful where you use them. They’re not really recessed, so they can create glare.” In fact, the glare from the display models was obvious.

As a result of that conversation, we arranged to visit one of our remodeler’s recent projects where wafers had been installed in a similar setting. One look was all it took for us to decide that, while wafers might work in other parts of the house, for the kitchen and dining rooms we wanted “real” recessed downlights.

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

Maybe the electrician assumed I would be familiar with wafer lights—he knew that I’m part of the industry. But a simpler explanation is that, because other clients were happy with wafer lights, he assumed we would be, too, particularly given conversations we’d had about our budget.

But using yesterday’s client to draw conclusions about today’s client is dangerous. Remember that chandelier we brought from our old house? We bought it to replace the existing fixture, partly because we didn’t like its bright brass finish, but mostly because of the annoying glare from the exposed candle bulbs. Maybe glare doesn’t matter to some people, but it matters to us.

I appreciate the electrician’s concern for our budget, and I understand why he likes a fixture that installs so easily. But by failing to mention the glare, he took a big risk.

So did the showroom manager. He and his showroom had been recommended to us by the electrician, and the moment I mentioned the wafers, he knew he had a whole-house lighting order on the line. He could have let my comment slide. Instead he took a risk, knowing that his comments could reflect poorly on the electrician, with whom he hoped to do a lot of future business.

Remodeling is an exercise in compromise. Clients have to choose between what they want and what they can afford. Remodelers have to decide whether to withhold information that might complicate a decision or lay all the cards on the table.

Ultimately, the showroom manager’s candor won our trust ... and an order for eight recessed cans at three times the price of the wafers.

 The truth will set you free.



I'm glad to see somebody else bring up the topic of glare, because it frequently seems I'm the only involved with a project who considers it an issue. I've been taking pains to discuss fixture choices with my architectural clients, and to provide a specification for the cans, where we might have previous left it as more generic. Still, I come back to the jobsite, and everything is some variation on the LED combined "lamp" & trim, little or no recess, and lots of apparent brightness (glare), when looking across the ceiling.

I think lighting is a critical component in any remodeling project.
Can you please recommend a course, book, articles on principles of lighting?

You hit the nail on the head, Sal. They look like downlights, but are far from it. Photometric data is hard to find on the web, but I just researched the SLD6LED by Halo that's for sale at my local big box, and in the fine print I find the beam spread is a whopping 107 degrees, which explains why this product is a glare bomb.
With most downlights, you want a beam spread of maybe 40 degrees, while I use 25 Spots and 10 degree Narrow Spots for certain applications. I've only used the surface mounts once, and that was on a job where we had only 2 inches of plenum to work with in a low-ceilinged basement mudroom, and they were the perfect solution to a space you quickly moved through, but I'd be very careful in using them, as they are NOT a substitute for a recessed can. Perhaps they could come out with one with a tighter beam spread, and I'd reconsider. But til then, just say "no"!

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