How to Install Recessed Lighting Fixtures

Brighten a dark hallway, accent a focal point, or light the kitchen with recessed lighting. We'll show you how to install recessed lighting in a weekend or less.

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Recessed light fixtures are one of the most popular and versatile types of lighting today. They are available in a variety of styles and sizes, including recessed wall lights and LED recessed lighting. As the name implies, recessed lighting fits into a cavity cut into the ceiling of the room, with the face of the fixture flush with the ceiling and the bulb mounted inside. Recessed lighting can be used for general room lighting, to illuminate a path such as a hallway, as task lighting in the kitchen, or for directional lighting to accent a focal point in a room.

Recessed lighting consists of a housing (commonly called a can) mounted in the ceiling cavity. A number of different types of cans are available depending on whether they will be installed in new or existing construction. Adjustable metal arms on each side of the housing get nailed or screwed to the ceiling joists to hold the can in place. A box mounted on the side of the housing contains the connections for wiring the fixture. A flexible metal conduit carries the wires between the box and light socket.

The final component of a fixture is the recessed lighting trim cover (also known as a baffle), which clips to the housing and fits over the opening. It serves to hide the rough edge of the hole and provide a finished look. Baffles come in various finishes as well as specialty applications, such as accent spotlights or adjustable light covers that swivel in any direction.

Editor's Tip: It is possible to complete this DIY project if you feel comfortable doing light electrical work. However, we recommend hiring an electrician if you encounter any loose or exposed electrical wires. And as with all projects that involve electricity, turn off the power at the circuit breaker before beginning this project or touching any wires.

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What You Need

  • Nail
  • Hammer
  • Compass or cardboard template
  • Pencil
  • Drywall keyhole saw
  • Recessed lighting housing and required hardware
  • Baffle
  • Lightbulb

Step 1: Find the Joists

To begin installing recessed lighting, determine the location of the ceiling joists. You can see the joists in the attic. While in the attic, remove insulation and tap a nail down into the ceiling to mark the center of where the light fixture housing will go.

Editor's Tip: If there is no access to the area above the ceiling, use a remodeling housing. This style unit is used when installing recessed lighting between floors in a home or installing outdoor recessed lighting. Metal spring clips hold the fixture in place without requiring attachment to ceiling joists.

Step 2: Cut Hole

Use a compass or make cardboard template from the housing to mark a circle of the correct diameter for the housing. Use a drywall keyhole saw to cut the hole in the ceiling.

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Step 3: Fit the Housing

Fit the recessed lighting housing between the joists in the attic, making sure it is centered on the hole, and attach it screws.

Step 4: Connect Wires

Complete the wiring connections to the fixture and replace insulation following the clearance requirements listed in the manufacturer's instructions. Finally, install the baffle and bulb.

Safety Tip: Always turn power off at the circuit breaker for the light you're working on before touching any wires. Flip the switch on and off to confirm the power is out.

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Bonus: How to Install Can Lights in a New House

In new construction or a remodeling project where the ceiling has been removed, the housings for the recessed lighting fixtures are attached to the joists from below and the wiring connections made before the ceiling is installed.

Once the housings are in place and the electrical connections have been made, the drywall ceiling is installed over the housings, and a rotary saw is used to cut out the openings. This is much faster method and has less chance of making mistakes than trying to mark and cut the holes in the drywall before the ceiling is installed. Once the drywall has been finished, and the ceiling painted, the baffle is installed to complete the unit.

Helpful Remodeling Tips

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