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Recessed Can Light Fixtures and Fire Hazards

October 23, 2012

We’ve investigated this type of fire a couple of times.  Recessed light fixtures are built into the ceiling to create lighting without a visible fixture hanging below the ceiling.  This type of lighting is very popular and has a good fire safety record . . . provided it is installed and maintained in accordance with building codes and the manufacturer’s recommendations.

In many applications, recessed light fixtures end up being covered by insulation.  If the insulation does the job well, temperatures inside the light fixture can get high.  Designers have provided for this and modern recessed light fixtures have thermal cut-outs that shut off power when light fixture temperatures reach a certain point.  This keeps the light fixture from igniting blown-in insulation, paper backing on batt insulation, or surrounding construction elements.

Using a bulb with too high of a wattage is a common problem with all light fixtures.  However, we’ve seen a couple of problems come up with recessed lighting lately:

  1. On one homeowner remodel they wished to get rid of the existing recessed lighting.  So they installed a second layer of sheetrock to the ceiling, covering the old recessed lights with new sheetrock.  The problem is they left bulbs in the old lights and someone left the switch on.  With no way for the built up heat to dissipate (and apparently no thermal cut-out switches), those light fixtures began cooking the blown-in cellulosic insulation and we got called for an attic fire.
  2. In another case contractors pushed the recessed light fixtures up into the attic and patched the old light fixture hole with intent to move the light fixtures later on.  Once again the bulbs were left in the fixtures and before the contractor got around to re-installing the light fixtures, two of them ignited blown-in insulation burning out three trusses over the kitchen.  That remodel job wound up getting much more extensive.

Recessed light fixtures provide for a number of visually appealing lighting solutions.  Like most things in life, if we follow the instructions, we’ll have no trouble.  If the safety guidelines for recessed light fixtures are not followed, you may have a bunch of our guys in your house plying their trade . . . and that’s always a headache for the homeowner.

If you’ve got questions about recessed lighting installations, you  can give us a call at 466-4602, or e-mail me at dbleeker@scfd9.org, or you can post your question here on this blog.

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