Soffit floodlights (C) D Friedman Exterior Lighting Installation, Inspection, Troubleshooting, Repair
     


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This article describes exterior lighting for residential & light commercial properties.

We begin with a discussion of how to install recessed lights in an exterior soffit or roof overhang. We provide lighting installation suggestions about the type of light fixture to use, light fixture support, clearances, fire safety, moisture resistance, switch location, and electrical code citations for exterior lighting on buildings.

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Exterior Light Choices, Installation, Troubleshooting

Outdoor soffit surface mount fixture (C) D FriedmanArticle Contents

Also see our discussion of lighting requirements over stairs, at Lighting over Stairs and see LIGHTING, INTERIOR GUIDE for details about lighting fixtures, bulbs, and indoor requirements.

How to Install Recessed Lights in Roof Soffit Overhangs Outdoors

Vinyl roof soffit covering (C) D FriedmanReader Question:

I've used your website many times to find trusted advice on building and remodeling practices. I have a question that I can't seem to find an answer on at inspectapedia.

I wonder if you might be able to answer. I want to know if it is acceptable to put recessed can lighting in exterior vinyl soffits.

I know it is fine in aluminum soffits, but I am concerned about the effects of the heat on the Vinyl soffits. In particular, can regular IC or non-IC 4" or 5" can lights be installed in the eves in Vinyl soffits? Thanks for your time and keep up the excellent work. - A. F.

Photo (above left) of recessed lighting installed in a roof soffit overhang, courtesy of Paul Galow.

Reply: how to install recessed lights in a vinyl soffit or roof overhang

Here are the installation considerations that you should keep in mind when buying & installing outdoor light fixtures for a roof overhang or soffit. These points include addressing your worry about the effects of heat on vinyl roof soffits as well as other installation advice we found while researching the question.

Choice of recessed light fixtures for an outdoor roof soffit

IC damp location recessed  light fixture label (C) D FriedmanWhile there are of course many surface-mount light fixtures that also work fine outdoors including at the roof eaves, you (and many people) want to install recessed fixtures, also referred to as "pot lights" or in some installations, downlights.

  • Choose an IC recessed lighting fixture. IC fixtures are rated for installation in insulated ceilings. You won't be insulating your soffit outdoors, at least not normally, but using an IC fixture there means that issues about fire clearances are just about eliminated.

    Technical notes about types of recessed light fixture housings
    • IC-rated refers to lighting fixture housings rated for installation in contact with insulation, typically rated for handling up to 100 watts.
    • Spacing - Clearance for Non-IC-rated light fixtures: these housings may not be installed in contact with building insulation and typically require a 3-inch clearance between the fixture surfaces and the nearest insulation. In some building electrical code jurisdictions, Non-IC light fixtures are not allowed if insulation is present at all.

      Non-IC-rated fixtures may be able to handle higher light wattages, but are currently more likely to be replaced with "IC Air-Tight light fixture housings.
    • Spacing - Clearances for IC-rated air-tight-rated lighting fixtures: these housings are IC-rated (as above) and are air-tight rated. These fixtures are specified by some energy-savings codes.

      You may not need air-tight rated fixtures in an outdoor building soffit, but see our notes below about ice dam effects of warm or hot light fixtures in an outdoor roof overhang or soffit. Because an air-tight light fixture housing will run hotter, the wattage in these fixtures and the trim selections may be limited - do not violate the manufacturer's instructions. Note that by choosing CF or LED lighting you should be able to increase the light output while keeping the fixture temperature down.

      Details are at RECESSED LIGHT CLEARANCES
    • Thermal overload (overheating) protection: currently all UL-listed recessed lighting fixtures sold for installation in North America include a thermal sensor device that will turn the fixture off if its temperature exceeds its design temperature.

      Thermal protection devices use either a thermal protection device that turns off the fixture if its temperature exceeds a specified limit (used in all IC and IC/Non-IC rated fixtures) or an insulation sensor that detects the presence of insulation fibers and will turn off the fixture if it detects insulation.

      Insulation sensors are used in Non-IC lighting fixtures. Arcadian Lighting warns that if you install a Non-IC fixture in a building where insulation is nearby and the sensor detects insulation, the fixture may continue to shut down even if you remove the insulation (as its sensor is now contaminated). [16]
  • Choose a recessed light fixture that is also UL listed for use in damp locations. In most jurisdictions your electrical code compliance inspector will insist on an IC, damp-location-rated fixture. (Check the label in our photo at left).

    Watch out: "dry & damp location" recessed light housings may be installed in dry or damp locations only. The trims for most of these fixtures are not listed for wet locations. Special fixtures and trim are however, available for wet locations.[14] including Dekor's waterproof 12-V LED lighting fixtures[15].

    Some if not many builders assert that the space under a roof overhang is "dry" but in fact the area is exposed to both dampness, and in event of high wind during rains, wind-blown rain that can actually cycle upwards against the soffit in some locations. (There are waterproof recessed light fixtures intended for use outdoors in lawns, decks, and walkways. You shouldn't need these and it would most likely be overkill.)
  • You may need to use a 4-inch IC fixture rather than a 6-inch unit. Standing under the eaves and looking up at a soffit you may think there is plenty of space for the light fixture but if your roof is constructed with a fairly low slope, say 4 in 12, and depending on how far past the building walls your soffit extends, you may find it difficult to squeeze a 6-inch "can" or pot light into the space and still center it.
    • Recessed lighting fixtures are sold in housing diameter opening sizes of 3", 4", 5" and 6". Two fixtures of different diameters will permit the same lighting output provided that they are rated to accept the same bulb and wattage.
    • 4-inch recessed light fixtures are the most common size used for 12-Volt systems.
    • 6-inch recessed light fixtures are the most common size used for 120-volt recessed light systems
    • 3-inch and 5-inch recessed light fixture sizes are design alternatives to the 6-inch system.
    • If space is tight, you can opt for a standard 4-inch fixture instead of a 6-inch unit. If you have not already done so, remove one of the vinyl panels from your soffit to inspect the interior area for space, clearances, and also to see how the soffit was constructed. More on that next.
  • Angled surface or adjustable-angle recessed light fixtures may be desirable if you are installing recessed lighting into a sloped soffit or ceiling rather than into horizontal soffits or ceilings.

    Angled or adjustable-angle fixtures allow you to set the angle of the bulb in the housing to point at an angle different from the position of the fixture itself. So in a sloped roof overhang whose soffits are affixed directly to the rafter under-sides, an adjustable-angle recessed light fixture allows you to still aim the fixture straight down if desired. An "eyeball" or "gimbal" recessed light fixture are examples of angle-adjustable recessed light fixture units.

    Watch out: if your roof slope is very shallow or if the soffit follows the underside of roof rafters, the space for a recesed light fixture may be limited, even using IC-rated devices (and depending on rafter size).

    For example in the roof soffit of a 1920's era low-slope roofed bungalow you may need to install a shallow housing IC-rated light fixture just to fit the unit into the space afforded by nominal 2x6 rafters (giving about 5 1/2" of vertical space). If you opt for an eyeball type shallow recessed light fixture the "eyeball" project out below the soffit face, and even so you may not be able to point the light straight down.
  • Before buying your light fixtures to use in the soffits, I'd give some thought to the bulb type alternatives that we describe below. Also see details at Guide to Recessed Light Housings.

Installing the Recessed Lights Under the Soffit

  • If you haven't already done so, remove the soffit covering panels, intact. Usually we can do this by pulling out the L-channel or J-channel at the bottom of the fascia board, leaving the J or F channel on the building walls in place.

Support for recessed lights in an outdoor roof overhang

  • Do not try to support a recessed light fixture by simply cutting a hole in the soffit covering and securing the light to it. You might get away with that approach if your building is an older one that was originally constructed with solid plywood

    soffit coverings, but more likely you'll find that the vinyl (or aluminum) soffit covering is supported only by -channel. The light fixture needs to be secured to the building structure.
  • If the roof eaves are enclosed with a horizontal soffit cover, you may need to install a short, horizontal support that is secured to the building wall at one end and to the inner face of the fascia or the rafter tail-end at the outer end. Your soffit light fixture will be in turn secured to this member. A 2x4 will most likely be adequate.
  • If the roof eaves are enclosed with a soffit that is secured to the underside of the rafters, you will have still less installation space (and a 4-inch box will surely be needed), but the installation is otherwise simple since you can secure the fixture to the side of a rafter.
  • On the installation sheet for your pot lights you'll see and follow any clearance and support details given by the fixture manufacturer.
  • Most recessed light fixtures allow for a range of adjusting of the can position, but I'd pay some attention to locating the face edge of the can just above where you expect the upper surface of the soffit covering to reach when you are reinstalling that material.

Wiring the recessed soffit lights

  • No surprise, all of your electrical wiring must comply with local electrical codes, for which the National Electrical code is usually the starting model. Check with your building department about the required permits and inspections. In many jurisdictions, electrical wiring must be done by a licensed electrician.

    Even if your town permits do-it-yourself wiring, the results must meet the requirements of the electrical code. I'd hire a licensed professional.
  • GFCI's (ground fault circuit interrupter) protection is not required by the NEC for outdoor overhead lights. (We found a few electricians who recommended GFCI protection for the circuit, fearing that someone would stand on an aluminum ladder set on wet ground while messing with the fixture.)
  • Choose your power source. Often for getting power to lights in a roof soffit, you can find an available circuit in the building attic, or in a nearby garage.
  • Choose the switch location. Remember when planning wiring routing that you will want to locate a switch for these lights at a convenient spot indoors, preferably by an exit door.
  • When planning your wiring and wire routing, now is a good time to make any final decisions on other electrical control options for your roof downlights, such as
    • Light timers
    • Light dimmers
    • Motion sensors. We installed motion-sensing surface mount lights under an outdoor soffit that covered the approach to a building door - they have been much appreciated since.

Choosing Bulb Types for Outdoor Recessed Soffit Lights

  • Decide on 120V or 12-V lighting: there are recessed lighting fixtures or "pot lights" that can accept just about all bulb types. First confirm that your wiring and installation is going to use 120V lighting fixtures.) There are low-voltage (12-V) outdoor lights that can also work in roof soffit installations.)
    • 120V recessed lighting housing & fixtures will operate the entire circuit, switches, any timer or dimmer option, all on a 120V circuit.

      No low-voltage transformer is used. 120-V systems are usually less costly than a 12-V low-voltage system, are less energy efficient if using incandescent or halogen bulbs. Incandescent or halogen bulbs, some up to 150 watts, can be installed provided that you accept a more limited trim choice (possibly allowing more air movement through the fixture). You can also install CFs or LED bulbs that are designed for installation in a 120V bulb socket.
    • 12V (low voltage) recessed lighting housings & fixtures use a low-voltage transformer to provide power to 12-V lighting fixtures that typically use LED or halogen bulbs.

      Low-voltage recessed light fixtures are more economical to operate and generally involve lower temperatures - something that may be a consideration even in outdoor use if you have a snow and ice-dam concern for your roof edge.

      Watch out: It must be remembered that a lower voltage signifies a higher current in amperes.

      Therefore secondary fusing based a multiplier of 1.25% (NEC) must be used. The conductor on the secondary side of the [low voltage] transformer at 12-volts must be sized for the full load amperage. E.g. 50 watts / 12 volts = 4.16 amps. 4.16 Amps x 1.25 (125%) = 5.20 AMPS.

      Use a 5-amp fuse, not a 4-amp fuse. - paraphrased from Lucifer Lighting low voltage lighting installation instructions. These instructions also describe the requirement for selecting an electrical wire (conductor) size based on the distance between the light fixture and the low voltage transformer. [14] Also
      see LOW VOLTAGE BUILDING WIRING
  • Bulb choices for outdoor recessed lights in roof overhangs / soffits include
    • LED bulbs are the least costly to operate, most costly to buy, and are cooler in operating temperature.

      You might consider LEDs (or the much less costly CFs below) to keep the temperature coolest in your soffit lighting, not only out of respect for the vinyl soffit covering but in snow-climates, to minimize the effects of heating the roof overhang and contributing to ice damming up-roof from the lights.

      Also, in our OPINION, because some roof eaves are high, making changing bulbs a risky ordeal, the prospect of installing very long-lived bulbs in these fixtures such as LEDs or the CFs below is appealing.
    • Compact fluorescent (CF) bulbs, typically in 9W to 42W ratings, are less costly to operate, less costly to buy than LEDs, cooler operating temperatures than the bulbs below.

      We found conflicting reports, some saying these bulbs work fine outdoors (we use them here in New York at our place), and a few claims that these bulbs may not last well in very cold outdoor environments. This is probably the most economical choice with the most advantages.
    • Halogen bulbs and fixtures of course offer brightness, and these are often used in weatherproof outdoor floodlights or areas lights.

      They may be a bit hot for your installation however. Halogen bulbs are energy efficient and deliver pure white light in both wide and spot beam patterns. Low-voltage halogen bulbs (or "lamps" in the lingo) are more energy efficient than standard lamps, providing more light per watt than incandescents.
    • Incandescent (conventional light bulbs), most costly to operate, shorter life, hotter temperatures, my last choice, but incandescents are often chosen for interior recessed lighting where a warm bright lighting color is desired.

      Some new (and expensive) LED bulbs and color-corrected CF bulbs can also provide bright and warm interior lighting. Incandescent bulbs in a recessed light fixture use type "A" or type "R" (reflector) lamps, or PAR reflector lamps for accent lighting.
    • Metal halide bulbs are very high performance (very bright) lights used in special applications such as museums, building lobbies, showrooms. You wouldn't normally choose metal halide lamps for outdoor soffit lighting.

    Details about bulb types for recessed light fixtures, and bulb properties can be read
    at Guide to Recessed & Track Light Bulbs

Reinstall the Soffit Covering of Vinyl or Aluminum; Choose & Install Recessed Soffit Light Trim

Vinyl roof soffit covering (C) D Friedman
  • Cutting the hole for recessed lighting fixtures: use the dimensions or template provided by the fixture manufacturer.

    Watch out: the size of the fixture opening for recessed lighting may vary significantly depending on whether the installation during new construction (the fixture housing is installed before the ceiling or soffit cover is installed) or a retrofit installation. Retrofit openings tend to be larger.

    For example, a typical retrofit installation hole template may specify a diameter of 162mm or 6.375", but your fixture may be different.[11]
  • Reinstall the soffit covering: If you managed to remove your soffit covering intact, then its' ready for reinstallation. You will want to measure twice and cut once to get your round openings properly centered below each light fixture. Cut the opening to clear the fixture by 1/4 to 1/2".

    Do not allow the soffit covering material to contact the can surface, especially if you are using vinyl soffit covers.
  • Choose & install light fixture trim: we recommend choosing solid trim bezels for use around your soffit lights. We're not concerned about airflow as we would be with indoor recessed ceiling lights, but we like to discourage insects and small birds from making a home in the soffit or in the fixtures themselves.

    For details about trim types used with recessed lighting also
    see Recessed Lighting Fixture Trims

 

Surface-Mount Outdoor Light Fixture Installations

At below left our photo illustrates a surface-mounted outdoor light fixture installed beneath a building overhang. This fixture, one of a pair along a walkway beneath the overhang, lights the passage to the building's front door.

Outdoor soffit surface mount fixture (C) D Friedman Light switch lock (C) D Friedman

By choosing a fixture that includes a motion sensor and day-night controls, the ownes can leave this fixture switched "on" 24-hours a day. Settings on the light control for many outdoor lights permit the occupant to choose among

  • Off during day, on at night
  • Off during day, on at night only when motion is detected
  • Off during day, on at night at dim level, on at bright level when motion is detected
  • On during day at low-level, on at night at bright level when motion is detected

At the indoor light switch for such fixtures, we like to install a reminder that the switch should normally be left in the "on" position. To prevent the switch from being flipped to the "off" position accidentally, we install the clear plastic switch block shown in our second photo, above right. It is still possible to turn the switch off, leaving the plastic switch-block in place but prying it away from the switch with your thumbnail, or better, by loosening its mounting screw.

Outdoor Light Fixture Installations We Hate

Here are a few examples of outdoor "lighting" practices to avoid. Jury-rigged hanging exposed wiring (below left) and use of indoor "zip cord" electrical wiring to add a (non-weather-tight) outdoor light at the house fascia (below right).

Unsafe outdoor lighting (C) D Friedman Unsafe outdoor lighting (C) D Friedman

Below left, well at least there is some conduit. That flood bulb is actually touching the wood fascia board interior surface. At below right we lack weather protection and the bulb base is broken.

Unsafe outdoor lighting (C) D Friedman Unsafe outdoor lighting (C) D Friedman

We inspected a home that caught fire after the owner installed an over-watted incandescent bulb in a plastic coach light fixture like the one at left. Click the news story to read about a similar fire that began in the outside light.

Unsafe outdoor lighting (C) D Friedman Unsafe outdoor lighting (C) D Friedman

Below left we see an indoor light fixture screwed to a vinyl sided wall, and added to that unsafe installation is the use of an extension cord adapter on the fixture. Outside electrical receptacles for extension cords require grounded and GFCI receptacles.

At below right we illustrate a closer look at a wall-mounted floodlight that includes cracked unsafe electrical wires, an opening into the box missing a weather cover, and exposed electrical wires almost touching the metal light fixture. At least he taped them.

Unsafe outdoor lighting (C) D Friedman Unsafe outdoor lighting (C) D Friedman

Similar to the plastic light fixture fire we cited above, even in a well built metal light fixture such as the coachlight at left, if the bulb and wiring become loose and damaged it is possible to short-circuit the wobbly bulb simply by touching it. Notice in the left photo below that the bulb is askew. We could push it to center - it was hanging by a wire. This exterior light fixture needs repair or replacement.

Unsafe outdoor lighting (C) D Friedman Unsafe outdoor lighting (C) D Friedman

 

 

 

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