Efficacy Improvement of LED Recessed Downlight Modules Slows But Benefits Remain

Updated: May 2018.


Recessed downlights are one of the most common light fixtures found in both commercial and residential applications.

In individual offices, entry lobbies, reception areas, hallways, restaurants, retail merchandising, residential kitchens, family rooms and many other spaces, the clean, ceiling integrated look of recessed downlights makes it a fixture of choice.

Traditionally, recessed downlights were equipped with either ominidirectional R20 / BR30 / BR40 incandescent lamps or directional (sometimes aimable) halogen PAR20 / PAR30 / PAR38 lamps.

More recently, commercial installations have been dominated by higher efficiency CFL lamps mounted vertically or horizontally in the recessed “cans”.

This blog post provides a brief state-of-the-technology update for LED retrofit and new construction recessed downlights consisting of integrated, single unit modules with an LED array, trim, reflector and diffuser. These complete units generally provide better light distribution and longer life than the alternative – simply replacing an incandescent / halogen or CFL bulb with an LED bulb equivalent bulb.

The rate of growth in LED lighting technology can easily be overwhelming. Almost as soon as the “ink” cries on the specification sheets for a line of LED fixtures, the next generation is only a matter of months away. It may take only six months for manufacturers to offer fixtures with a 10% improved efficacy – lumens/watt – compared to the previous version.

While this trend in improved performance may be true for many categories of commercial grade LED fixtures, it is surprisingly less so with LED recessed downlights.

CALiPER Report Tracks Downlight Performance Trends

The U.S. Department of Energy CALiPER program evaluates long term performance of LED products – lamps and fixtures. In July of 2017 they released another evaluation of LED recessed downlights – both retrofits and new construction.

One of the more interesting results in the recent CALiPER update on downlights notes that while efficacy (lm/W) improvements in LED downlight fixtures made significant leaps annually a few years ago, in the last 20 months the efficacy has increased by just 1 lm/W. Other LED fixture categories increased mean efficacy from 5 lm/W to 13 lm/W over the same period.

DOE speculates that “the lower performance of LED downlights relative to other luminaires is at least partly due to different optical requirements in downlights, but the relatively low performance of conventional halogen and CFL downlights provides less incentive for continued efficacy gains in LED downlights, compared to luminaire types competing against linear fluorescent or high-intensity discharge incumbents.”

In other words, there seems to be little incentive in the market for manufacturers of LED downlights to improve on the current 70 to 80 lum/W efficacy. This compares to CFL efficacy at 50 to 70 lm/W. The moderately more efficacious LED downlights alone might not provide a market advantage to LED but the significantly lower maintenance costs resulting from operating a 50,000 hour LED vs. 10,000 hour CFL make the difference for many buyers. The ease of dimming and strong color characteristics of the illumination provided by LED downlights also gives it an advantage over CFL.

In contrast, LED troffers and LED high bay fixtures must compete with 40,000 hour (or higher) rated life fluorescent fixtures. With a lesser advantage in operational life, manufacturers of these categories of LED fixtures rely on continually improving the efficacy of their products so they can be a competitive option.

Mature Commercial Grade LED Downlight Product Offers Strong Case Vs. CFL and Incandescent / Halogen

In addition to a significant reduction in energy and maintenance costs, commercial and architectural grade LED downlights offer the same quality materials and construction, low glare, flexible wiring, universal 120-277V and most of the same installation options of traditional halogen and CFL downlights.

Typical benefits facilities can expect for the two types of LED recessed downlight modules:

Light Commercial Retrofit: A 10W LED module replaces a 65W incandescent BR30 and lasts up to 50 times longer. No re-wiring required.

Commercial Retrofit: A 16W LED module replaces a 26W CFL and lasts up to 5 times longer. Re-wiring usually required to disable or remove the existing CFL ballast and to make the power connection. Higher quality illumination compared to CFL.

New Construction: A 15W LED module replaces a 26W CFL and lasts 5 times longer. Higher quality illumination compared to CFL.


While the performance (efficacy) advantages of LED downlights have not improved significantly in the last twelve month, that does not change the overall advantage of LED compared to halogen and CFL.

Because of several years of market penetration, manufacturers of LED recessed downlights have had opportunities to fine tune these products so they meet the demands of most downlight applications. Owners and facility managers should fine attractive returns by choosing LED solutions for their downlight projects.

Shop Commercial Grade LED Recessed Downlights

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Dave Burtner

Dave has been active in the lighting industry since 1994. Formerly a member of the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America and certified by the National Council On Qualifications for Lighting Professionals, Dave now writes blog posts, lighting tips and provides lighting product assistance for the Topbulb website.

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