In the spotlight: How much does it cost to install downlights?

Digital Editor · 6 December 2019

Downlights are a modern choice when it comes to choosing a lighting scheme for your home. But how much do they cost? We’ve shone a spotlight on some of the factors you might want to consider when installing downlights.

Whether you are replacing an older, existing light or adding a new lighting scheme, downlights can provide a sleek decor solution. Downlights may be subtle – they are small light fittings that either sit flush with a ceiling or recessed into one – but they can still pack a punch when it comes to creating atmosphere. And they have the bonus of leaving your ceiling looking uncluttered.  

Cost of Downlights Installation
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What does it cost to install downlights?

The exact cost can depend on several factors, such as what type of downlight you choose, whether you are replacing existing ones or installing new lights, how many and where in your home they are to be installed, and where you live. A licensed electrician is required to install new downlights. Trade websites and both put the general cost as:

Licenced electrician: Per light $50-$75 for installation, (plus a callout fee which could be as much as $150); or $80 – $110 per hour plus a service fee of between $70 and $130.

Cost of one downlight kit: $10 to more than $190. 

These figures are approximate, and could vary depending on availability of tradespeople, as well as the general cost of trade work and supplies in your area – these could be more expensive in regional areas, for example. If you are installing a large number of lights, it could be a good idea to obtain quotes from several tradespeople and suppliers to ensure you are getting the best deal you can.

What type of downlights should I buy?

The answer to that question varies according to the purpose of the lights, their location in your home, your budget and who you will have installing them. The most common types of downlights used in new Australian homes are LED (Light-Emitting Diode) downlights. In some older homes, it is not unusual to see existing halogen downlights, but this type of downlight is being phased out and will be banned from September 2020, due to concerns over their lack of energy efficiency. While halogen bulbs are still available to buy at present, they will no longer be sold after the ban kicks in, so it could be a good idea to avoid installing any new halogen lights. There are also CFL (Compact Fluorescent) downlights installed in older homes and available to buy, but they are not commonly used, as LED lights are considered to be more efficient. In fact, in some states, residents can receive financial assistance from the government to help them replace less efficient lighting such as halogen and CFL downlights. Check with your local authority to see if a scheme is available in your area. 

More information from our friends at Canstar Blue: Types of Light Bulbs Explained

Cost of Downlights Installation
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What are the pros and cons of LED downlights?

LEDs are widely considered the most energy-efficient lighting choice on the market. The Federal Government’s Energy Rating agency says “quality LEDs are now in most cases the ‘best buy’ in terms of electricity costs to run, frequency of replacement and overall lifetime costs”.

More information from our friends at Canstar Blue: LED Light Bulbs Explained

Pros of LED lights

Lowest lifetime cost: According to the Energy Rating agency, LED lights have the cheapest “lifetime cost” when compared with halogen or CFL. “The lifetime cost is the purchase price of the bulb plus the electricity costs and replacement bulb costs over 10 years,” the agency states. LED bulbs use one quarter of the energy needed for halogen lights, and last five to 10 times longer.

Cost of Downlights
The 10-year costs of buying and running 800-lumen halogen, CFL and LED bulbs, according to Energy Rating. Image: Energy Rating


Lowest energy use: LEDs are generally acknowledged as burning the least amount of electricity, meaning they could result in cheaper power bills compared to other bulb types. An 800-lumen halogen light burns around 42 watts an hour, while a CFL of the same brightness uses between 11-14 watts, according to Energy Rating. A LED light, in comparison, uses between 8-12 watts. A brighter 1,500-lumen halogen light burns 70 watts, a CFL uses 19-23, while a LED uses 15-23.

In terms of what this could mean for a quarterly electricity bill, Canstar Blue has calculated that a single LED bulb could work out around three-and-a-half times cheaper than a halogen bulb of the same brightness, assuming a flat electricity usage rate of $0.27/kwH and excluding bulb purchase and replacement costs. 

Cons of LED lights

More expensive to buy bulbs: There could potentially be a larger up-front cost associated with LED downlights. While they tend to save money in the long term due to their energy efficiency and durability, the initial cost of buying the bulbs can be much higher than other types. This is partly because they last for so long, so you won’t need to replace them as often. 

Usually need expert installation: It is strongly recommended by many retailers and government websites that new downlight units be installed by a qualified electrician, as there are many safety factors to consider. As the units are inserted into the ceiling, they vent their heat into the roof cavity, which can pose a fire risk if installed incorrectly or if the wrong type of downlight kit is used. The bulbs themselves have also been implicated as a risk. In 2018, “all mains voltage self-ballasted LED lamps” were deemed to be a “high risk” product and so now need to meet Australian standards and carry the Regulatory Compliance Mark (see below) before they are allowed to be legally sold in Australia. Different states have different regulations as to what bulbs can be sold.

Cost of Downlights

May impact insulation effectiveness: Another issue with all downlights is that they may reduce the overall energy efficiency of your home. Sustainability Victoria’s website states: “If you have multiple downlight fittings in your home, the insulation gap around the fittings will decrease the effectiveness of your home’s ceiling insulation, increasing your heating, cooling and lighting costs.”

There are several factors to consider when installing downlights. It may be useful to have a plan before you start:

Cost of Downlights
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How do I replace halogen downlights with LED?

If you are replacing halogen downlights, it could be possible to just replace the bulb with a more energy-efficient LED light. This may not need the expertise of an electrician, provided you know which bulb to buy. Specialist lighting shops should be able to help you determine which bulb you need, if you take in one of the old halogen bulbs for them to see. However, in some cases, the halogen or CFL bulbs cannot be removed, in which case it could be best to consult a qualified electrician for advice on what to do.

In some cases, you might decide that you want to replace the entire halogen or CFC downlight unit with a new LED one (see below). Sometimes, the size of the hole left by the older model downlights may be larger than what is needed for the new lights. There are “conversion plates” available to fix this problem, which can be purchased at many lighting retailers, along with LED downlight kits. As LED downlights must be installed by a licensed electrician, it could be a wise idea to talk about this issue when you are getting quotes for your new lights. 

How do I install LED downlights?

There are a range of LED downlights available, so it might be a good idea to design a lighting plan so you have a clear picture of what you want to buy. This means working out exactly what kind of lighting you need in a room. Considerations could include location, brightness, colour and dimmers. This will help you receive a more accurate quote from an electrician for installation.  

Some retailers have a “downlight calculator” that can help with planning, estimating the types and number of lights you may need in a specific room to provide the right level of lighting for various activities. Qualified electricians or an interior designer could also help with this. 

These are some of the factors you may need to consider when choosing which types of downlights should go where: 

Purpose of room/area:  Different rooms often need different lighting requirements. For example, a bathroom may require two bright lights near the mirror, so people can apply makeup effectively. In the kitchen, bright lights over the workbench could help when food is being prepared. However, in the lounge room, you may wish to be able to adjust the light. 

Direction/spread of light: Think about where you need the light to reach, and if shadows are going to be a problem. As downlights shine from close to the ceiling, they have a tendency to create shadows if their light spread is not overlapped effectively. There are also downlights that can act as spotlights, to provide dramatic illumination of a feature wall or artwork.  

Brightness/quality of light: The brightness of light is measured in “lumens”, as opposed to the power a bulb uses, which is measured in “watts”. The bigger the room, generally the more lumens you will need. Retailer Lighting Illusions suggests that general lighting of non-work areas such as bedrooms rooms should be between about 170-180 lumens per square metre (lm/m2).  Kitchen and laundry lighting should be about 250 lm/m2. Task lighting – illuminating a work area – should be about 400-500lm/m2

Temperature of light: The temperature of a white light refers to the shade of colour it provides, ranging from “warm” – which throws a yellow tinge – to “cool”, which has a blue hue. The colour temperature is measured in Kelvin (K) – the higher the number, the closer to natural light it is. Warm white is about 3000K, while cool white is about 4000K, up to about 6000K, which is similar to daylight. Different colour temperatures can produce a different ambiance and visual quality, which may suit different areas, but it also depends on personal preference.  Warm white lights cast a glow much like an old-fashioned incandescent light bulb or a candle. Cool white is closer to fluorescent lighting, and is often used in places such as offices or kitchens and as task lighting. Warm white, however, is said to promote relaxation, and so is often used in bedrooms. 

Cost of Downlights
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Spread of light: While the brightness of a light will determine how far it will reach if left unimpeded, the style of light fitting will determine how far the light can spread. For example, choosing a downlight that is recessed into the roof could mean that there will be more shadows created as the fitting blocks some of the light. A fitting that is flush with a lightly-coloured ceiling will spread the light across the paint of that ceiling and can help to brighten a room. There are also spotlights or angled downlights available, which could be useful if you want to direct the light to a specific spot.

Dimmer switch: The addition of a dimmer switch means that a downlight can be brightened or dimmed. There are also some LED downlighting systems available that allow users to alter the colour temperature. Dimmer switches are usually more expensive than a standard, non-dimmable switch, and must be paired with suitable downlight kits. There could also be an extra fee charged by electricians to install them, so it can often be worth asking how much this could be when requesting a quote.  

Type of ceiling/roof cavity: The type of downlight system you buy will likely also depend on the type of ceiling and roof cavity the lights will be fitted into. For example, if the lights are close to insulation, they may need to be specific lights that have a fitting to handle heat transfer, in order to reduce fire risks. Also, there are some ceiling arrangements where installing downlights may not be possible. Advice from a qualified professional can help determine the type of light in this instance. 

Colour/look of housing: There are many styles of downlights available, from showy stainless steel to others designed to virtually disappear into the ceiling. Some retailers also sell coloured housing, such as gold, grey or matte black, or kits where multiple downlights are contained in the one housing. The size of the housing can also vary, as can the size of the light shaft. Choosing the right-looking light comes down to what will suit your decor – do you want the lights to stand out, or blend in? 

Smart LED systems – a warning

Energy Rating states that some “smart” LED bulbs and systems may impact the energy efficiency of a home. That’s because they could require a light to remain on “standby” mode, which means they are still drawing power. 

“Some ‘smart’ lighting products draw a surprising amount of energy (Watts) when on standby – and aren’t always a smarter choice,” the website states. “Tests have shown some smart lighting products – despite using LED technology – end up being as inefficient as the old fashioned incandescent light bulbs phased-out years ago.” 

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Main image source: Justadust (Shutterstock)

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