How much does it cost to install downlights?

Digital Editor · 10 September 2021

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.

This article covers:

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. Importantly, improperly installed downlights can be a fire hazard, and for this reason, a licensed electrician is required to install new downlight units. Trade website says electricians may charge as much as $100 per downlight, but expect to be charged around $60 – $75 per point for installing LED downlights. Other sparkies may charge an hourly rate, and says this can be between $80 to $130 per hour.

These figures are approximate, and can vary according to where you live.  This being the case, it’s always a good idea to obtain quotes from several tradespeople and suppliers to ensure you are getting the best deal.

Cost of Downlights
Source: zstock (Shutterstock)

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 due to concerns over their lack of energy efficiency.

While halogen bulbs may still be available to buy, they should no longer be available by late 2021. That being the case, it makes sense to avoid installing any new halogen lights. CFL (Compact Fluorescent) bulbs are available to buy, but LED lights are considered to be more energy efficient and longer lasting. 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.

Our friends at Canstar Blue have further information available on the types of light bulbs.

Cost of Downlights Installation
Source: Jatuporn Sakchaikul (Shutterstock)

What are the pros and cons of LED downlights?

LEDs are widely considered one of the most energy-efficient lighting choices 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

LED lights have some valuable pluses that can put savings in your pocket over time.

Lowest lifetime cost: According to the Energy Rating agency, LED lights may be more expensive upfront in comparison to halogen or CFL, but they come out on top when considering ongoing electricity and replacement costs.

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

Cons of LED lights

Along with the benefits, it’s worth being aware of the cons of LED lighting. These include:

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 before they are allowed to be legally sold in Australia.

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:

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, although this depends on the type of fitting. This may not need the expertise of an electrician, and 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, if in doubt, 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 and hardware stores, 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. The electrician may be able to include in their quote the supply of lights and conversion plates (if needed) as well as their installation.

What to consider when installing downlights?

There is a range of LED downlights available, and 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, keeping in mind that they may charge for this service.

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 bright lights near a vanity mirror. In the kitchen, bright lights over the workbench could help when food is being prepared. However, in the lounge or dining 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.

The brightness of light is measured in ‘lumens’, as opposed to the power a bulb uses, which is measured in ‘watts’. How many lumens you may need depends on the size of a room, and what you use it for. Retailer Lighting Illusions suggests that general lighting of non-work areas such as bedrooms should be between about 170-180 lumens per square metre (Lux).  Kitchen and laundry lighting should be about 250 Lux. Task lighting – illuminating a work area – should be about 400-500 Lux.

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.

Spread of light

The style of light fitting will determine how far the light beam can spread. A wider beam can diffuse light to create a softer atmosphere, while a concentrated beam can create light that lets you focus on details – such as may be needed in a kitchen. There are also spotlights or angled downlights, 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 (as long as the LED unit and bulb are designed to be dimmable). Most LED lights are dimmable, and adding a dimmer can help you save on power as it reduces the flow of electricity to the light. Your electrician can explain whether adding dimmers when installing downlights will add to the cost – and by how much.

Proximity to insulation

Lights that are close to insulation may need to have a fitting to handle heat transfer, in order to reduce fire risks. Advice from a qualified professional can help determine the type of light in this instance – and the location of the lights so they are not near any combustible materials.

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 appropriate light comes down to what will suit your decor – do you want the lights to stand out, or blend in?

Cost of Downlights
Source: Suriya KK (Shutterstock)

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.”

Main image source: Polnon Prapanon ( Article Sub edited by Milan Cuk.

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