What is a Drop Ceiling?

A dropped ceiling is a secondary ceiling, hung below the main (structural) ceiling. Also referred to as a drop ceiling, T-bar ceiling, and suspended ceiling, among others, it is common in modern construction. T-bar ceilings are widely used in both commercial and residential applications.

What Is a Drop Ceiling?

Drop ceilings are a combination of metal gridwork and ceiling tiles hung from the framing above them. The space between the framing and the suspended ceiling is usually 3 – 8 inches–allowing space to remove tiles and access electrical wiring, mechanical ducting, and other services hidden above.

Uses For Drop Ceilings

There are various types of ceilings available, but most people are familiar with drop ceilings used in commercial applications Office buildings, hospitals, schools, etc. As product choices expand, they are becoming more acceptable in residential settings–mostly basements.

Drop ceilings now offer options such as metal and coffered looks, along with multiple colors and designs. Architects and designers are now using some of these options to escape that institutional look.

Many basements are used for theater or entertainment rooms. Many suspended ceiling panels are designed with acoustics in mind. Choosing a complimentary type of panel will enhance entertainment pleasure and reduce the amount of acoustic and soundproofing products required in the room.

Advantages of Using Drop Ceilings

A big advantage of installing a drop ceiling is speed. Depending on room size, it can be done in a day or two. Drywall, taping, painting, and/or texturing can take up to a week. Here are some of the other advantages.

  • Conceals Imperfections – Although painted exposed ceilings are becoming an acceptable option, many people prefer clean finished ceilings like drywall and drop ceilings. Drywall and other solid finishes like wood or plaster make repairs difficult. Drop ceilings make access easy.
  • Easy Access to Services – Lifting out drop ceiling panels is easy and quick. Allowing access to the electrical, ducting, and water leaks. After the repairs are done the panels can be replaced and look as good as new.
  • Better Soundproofing – For a quieter lifestyle, the floor above can be insulated before installing the drop ceiling. Insulated floors reduce footfall noise from above and prevent basement theater sound from leaking into the rest of the house. Many drop ceiling panels are made of half-inch thick fiberglass or other sound-suppressing material to further dampen sound.
  • Ease of Installation – Although drop ceilings may present a few installation challenges, few of them match lifting and holding a sheet of drywall overhead. Most drop ceiling manufacturers provide detailed installation instructions.

Disadvantages of Using Drop Ceilings

Drop ceilings are usually more expensive than drywall. Over time they will make up the difference in convenience.

  • Can Deteriorate Quickly – Some T-Bar ceiling panels can deteriorate quicker than others–particularly vinyl-covered fiberglass. They can sag and discolor if there is a leak. Some brands may need to be replaced every ten years. Thicker rigid panels usually do not have a sagging problem.
  • Lack of Strength – Drop ceiling panels have a zero load-bearing rating. (Some of them have trouble not sagging.) Grid pieces may hold up to 5 lbs. Without twisting or having the hangar tear out. To hang anything over five lbs.–such as a potted plant or speaker–remove the panel, find a framing member above, secure a light chain or picture wire, and run it through the panel.
  • Reduce Headroom – By definition, drop ceilings will reduce headroom by at least three inches and as much as eight inches. If the ceiling is being lowered enough to clear warm and cold air furnace ducting, they could reduce height by 12”. Installing drop ceilings in rooms with less than seven feet between the floor and the existing ceiling may be impractical. At the very least, the room may feel like it is closed in–or closing in.

Types of Drop Ceilings

Most drop ceilings are a fairly simple DIY project or there are professional installers to do the job.

Lay-In Drop Ceilings

By far, the most common drop ceiling is the lay-in system. It is a grid made up of snap-together inverted T-shaped metal bars and L-shaped wall brackets. The various components are assembled to form 2’ x 4’ or 2’ x 2’ openings that the panels drop into.

They are available in many textures, styles, and colors. Easy to assemble. Easy to remove for access to the services above.

Clip-In Tile Drop Ceiling

The Snap Clip drop ceiling system requires less than 1 1/8th inch of clearance. It is attached to the undersides of floor joists. Components click and slide into place and can be easily removed for access to electrical, ducting, and pipes above.

This Canadian-made product is only available in white. It is the perfect product for spaces where height is at a premium.

How to Install Lay-In Drop Ceilings

Installing a lay-in drop panel ceiling should be within the capabilities of most DIYers. As with most construction projects “level, plumb, and square” are necessary for a successful installation. A few important things to keep in mind:

  • Grid Height. Make sure the finished drop ceiling leaves enough space to remove panels and still hide all the services. Most newer homes will have enough wall height to accept a drop ceiling. Any finished room less than seven feet high may feel claustrophobic.
  • Panel Lay-Out. Make sure that the end panels on opposite walls are the same size. (Starting with a full panel and ending with a part panel detracts from the look and is more difficult to work with.
  • Pot Lights. Pot lights can generate a lot of heat in an enclosed space. Make sure they are rated properly.
  • Projections. All services such as lights, HVAC, sprinklers, and speakers have to be extended and secured.

The following YouTube video provides an excellent example of how to properly lay out and install the ceiling grid. Laying out the entire grid first ensures that none of the beams will run below lights or vents. It is usually easier to relocate a light fixture or extend a duct than to rework an entire grid layout–especially before any panels are installed.