Outfitting Recessed Can Lights: LED Light Bulbs, LED Retrofits, or LED Housings?

condominium kitchen
When using LEDs in your recessed can lights, should you install completely new LED housings and trims, use LED retrofit modules, or simply switch out your light bulbs for LEDs?

A customer recently contacted Pegasus Lighting with that very question. She wanted to use LEDs in her recessed cans, and asked us about the advantages and disadvantages of LED housings/trims, retrofits, and light bulbs in order to make her decision.

So, our lighting experts went to work crafting an answer. Here’s what they had to say:

When Using An LED Lamp With A Conventional Incandescent Housing And Trim…

L Prize Light Bulb

This option is by far the simplest. Just unscrew that old incandescent or halogen light bulb and replace it with an LED lamp. Depending on the size of your recessed can, you can use LED reflector lamps or A lamps.


  • Easy To Alter. It only takes one person to screw in a light bulb (usually). So, if you don’t like how your new LED light bulb looks or performs, you can switch it out for a different one with minimal hassle. Since LED innovations are still evolving and LED efficacy is increasing dramatically each year, using LED light bulbs gives you more freedom to try out new technology. With a more extensive LED system, it would be annoying and expensive to try to keep up with new technology.

  • Generally Cheaper Upfront. LED light bulbs for recessed cans can cost anywhere from about $15 to over $100, while the prices for LED retrofits and LED housings and trims range from around $30 to over $200.


  • Could Trip Your Circuit Breaker. LED light bulbs and conventional recessed can lights aren’t always compatible. Some of the LED light bulbs used in halogen and incandescent recessed lights might cause a heat sensor inside the housing to trip your circuit breaker. This is because LED lamps generally direct heat up towards the ceiling and the fixture’s heat sensor, while incandescent sources project heat down and out of the recessed light.

  • Shortened Rated Life. The excess warmth in the ceiling might reduce your light bulb’s rated life, depending on how the LED’s system manages heat. If the lamp doesn’t have well-designed “heat sinks,” high temperatures trapped in the housing will cause the its light emitting diodes to degrade at a faster rate.

  • Possibly Unattractive. Not all LED light bulbs look good in open recessed lights. Those with more high-tech designs may look out of place within a subtle, conventional housing. Or, or the LED lamp may stick too far down in the housing and provide too much direct glare.

  • May Not Be Dimmable. Not all LED light bulbs are dimmable. If dimming your recessed lights is a priority, make the LED lamp you choose is dimmable. Also, whenever changing from some type of incandescent light bulb to an LED light bulb, you may have install a new dimmer that is compatible with LED lamps.

When Using An LED Retrofit Module With A Conventional Incandescent Housing…

LED Retrofit

An LED retrofit module is a fixture that attaches to your current standard housing, replacing both the old light bulb and the trim. To install, you just need to attach the fixture’s base adapter to the existing socket, and secure the light in place with built-in clips.


  • Convenient Package. The LED retrofit module includes an LED light source, LED driver, and recessed trim all in one fixture, so you don’t have to worry about keeping up with multiple parts.

  • Easy To Install. Retrofitting your recessed lights with these fixtures is a quick do-it-yourself project. You don’t have to tamper with the housing or make any huge changes up in the ceiling, so you can be done with the installation in just an afternoon.

  • Easy to Replace. Because the LED retrofit is so easy to install and comes in just one piece, you can uninstall it just as easily. If, for instance, more advanced technology hits the market in the next few years, it will be very simple to change out your fixtures for different ones.

  • Better Heat Management. LED retrofit modules are designed and built to last in your ceiling. Because manufacturers are aware that heat may be a problem, retrofit modules are equipped with better heat management systems compared to LED light bulbs. Higher temperatures won’t have an effect on their rated lives.

  • Nice To Look At. LED retrofits come in a variety of low-profile and decorative styles meant to look attractive on the ceiling. They’re generally more aesthetically pleasing than exposed LED light bulbs in recessed cans.

  • Least Expensive. For many installations, this option will give you the most energy savings for the least cost upfront. You can get a good LED retrofit for as little as $35.

  • Reliable. Many manufacturers provide great warranties for their LED retrofits. Some last as long as 7 years!


  • Sizing. A retrofit’s compatibility with incandescent housings can occasionally be an issue. Retrofit modules don’t always fit in each and every manufacturer’s housing.

  • Possible Dimming Issues. Just like LED light bulbs, not all LED retrofit modules are dimmable. In order to dim your lights when using LED retrofits, opt for fixtures specifically labeled “dimmable.” Also, whenever changing from some type of incandescent light bulb to an LED retrofit, you may have to install a new dimmer that is compatible with that LED module.

When Using A Dedicated LED Housing And Trim…

2 Inch High Output Circle

The final option is replacing your conventional housing/trim with a new system. For example, if you wanted a 2-inch recessed light, you would need a 2-inch housing and a 2-inch trim.


  • Guaranteed Functionality. When you invest in an LED housing and trim, you’re purchasing a complete lighting system. It has been tested, and all the parts are compatible. So, you don’t have to worry about tripping any circuit breakers or malfunctions from mismatched technology.

  • Reliable Rated Life. LED recessed lights are designed specifically for use in the ceiling. Therefore, they’re equipped with systems necessary to deal with the excess heat and strain that come along with the location. The entire system is also generally under warranty for 3-5 years, so you can be confident that it will do its job well.

  • Often More Attractive. Manufacturers take the time to make sure their LED can lights look nice. They put effort into seamlessly integrating the LED lights into each fixture so they look natural and provide the kind of quality light we expect from your recessed cans. You can even find LED recessed lighting fixtures with special decorative trims.


  • Removing Your Present Recessed Light Could Be a Real Problem. If you now have a new construction housing installed in your ceiling, you might have a significant problem trying to remove it for the new LED housing – unless you have direct access to your ceiling. If, on the other hand, you presently have a remodel housing installed in your ceiling, this could be removed much more easily. In either case, be sure to determine which type of housing you already have installed before you decide to replace it.

  • Parts Affect The Life Of The Whole. If the LED driver (the power source of the LED downlight) needs to be replaced long before the LED light source dies, it might be difficult, if not impossible, to replace. You may have to install an entirely new fixture.

  • Replacement Parts Could Be Hard To Find In The Future. LEDs and LED recessed housings are still a new technology. So, we have no way of knowing if manufacturers will be able to provide replacement LED modules in 15-25 years, after the rated lives of your first LEDs run out. This again means you might need to replace the whole system.

  • Yet Again, There May Be Dimming Issues. Just like LED light bulbs, not all dedicated LED housings and trims are dimmable. In order to dim your lights when using new dedicated LED recessed downlights, opt for fixtures that are labeled as “dimmable.” Also, whenever changing to a dedicated LED recessed light, you may have to install a new dimmer that is compatible with that LED recessed fixture.

  • Higher Initial Cost. Unlike LED retrofits and LED light bulbs, installing an LED housing and trim requires you to purchase more than one component. You need both the housing and the trim for this project.

Annie Josey

Annie Josey

Annie was the E-Commerce Marketing Specialist at Pegasus Lighting from June 2012 to October 2013. She has a background in English literature, and loves using language to help illuminate the world. So covering lighting news and tips naturally fit her interests. In her personal time she enjoys painting, biking, and reading.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dasal.lighting Dasal Lighting

    Great review of the options! I would like to add LED remodel luminaires in between kits and new fixtures. They should fit into an existing housing (check the clearance requirements), but they have the quality thermal management of a dedicated fixture. Plus they are designed to be installed and maintained through the ceiling aperture, including driver replacement. Price point is up there with new fixtures, but no need to rip out the ceiling.

    • http://www.pegasuslighting.com Annie Josey

      Thanks for chiming in! I always appreciate advice from other lighting experts :)

  • Jon Murphy

    I am in the middle of this retrofitting project and am finding that the LED retrofits don’t quite slip into the existing cans. Is there a problem with just pushing the can up a couple inches, and have the ears of the retrofit hang up on the sheet rock…..instead of clinging to the inside of the can?

    • http://www.pegasuslighting.com Jacob Swiger


      I think there could be a couple of issues. One, you may no longer have an air tight housing if you have a gap. Additionally, if it’s in a damp or wet location such as a bathroom or kitchen, you may be allowing moisture up into the ceiling.

      My advice is to measure the inside height of the recessed can and select a retrofit module that meets the height requirement. It’s always best to be safe with electrical installations.

      There are some retrofit modules that use a medium base whip, which allows them to fit in more housings compared to the retrofit modules with a base attached to the end. Additionally, some retrofit modules include different clips/springs to aid with housing compatibility.

      Here’s an example of a retrofit module with a medium base whip – http://www.pegasuslighting.com/6inch-led-recessed-light-retrofit-module-10w-dimmable-damp.html

      Here’s an example of a retrofit module with a medium base on the end – http://www.pegasuslighting.com/6inch-led-recessed-light-retrofit-module-10w-reflector-wet.html

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