How to Install Recessed Lighting

Installing recessed lighting in ceiling
BanksPhotos / Getty Images
Project Overview
  • Working Time: 30 - 45 mins
  • Total Time: 30 - 45 mins
  • Yield: 1 recessed light
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Estimated Cost: $15 to $30 each

Recessed lights provide light to your home from a light fixture that's nearly invisible from many angles. This low-profile light hugs the ceiling with just a ridge of trim showing. Also called canister lights, can lights, or downlights, recessed lights are found in many contemporary homes because they emphasize the home's pure geometry of planes and lines.

If you have a nearby power source, you can easily install recessed lights by yourself. Bringing in a power source adds some time to the project, but this can be accomplished by wiring your own circuit or hiring an electrician.

Recessed lighting holes in ceilings with wire dangling needing patches

The Spruce / Margot Cavin

Consider the Circuits

Electric power for recessed lights can come from either an existing source or from an electrical circuit installed just for this project. The cost, speed, and ease of installation all hinge on the availability of electricity at the start of the run of recessed lights.

  • Existing Circuit: An existing circuit may already power a ceiling light or ceiling fan near the center of the room. Or, if you already have recessed lights, you may be able to continue the run of lights. Searching in the attic may produce ideas for spare circuits. Blank faceplates on the ceiling or wall often contain live circuits inside.
  • New Circuit: To run a new circuit, an electrical cable needs to be run from the electric service panel to the switch and from the switch to the first recessed light in a series of lights. The cable can be pulled through the ceiling.

Choose the Right Lights

Purchase old-work or remodel recessed lights. These lights do not need to be secured to ceiling joists. Instead, they attach directly to the ceiling drywall.

IC-rated recessed lights are appropriate for ceilings that contain insulation as they can be covered over with insulation. Non-IC-rated recessed lights must have clearance above and around the light housing in the ceiling area.

Cost of Recessed Light Installation

Installing your own recessed lights will be much less expensive than hiring an electrician. An electrician will charge around $200 to $300 per light. But since most recessed lights are installed in multiples, the overall cost will be $1,000 to $1,500 for five lights and $2,000 to $3,000 for ten lights.

When you install your own recessed lights, most of the cost comes from the price of the light itself: from $15 to $30 per fixture, plus a short length of 14-gauge electrical cable.

Codes and Permits

Most communities will require a permit to enlarge, build, or alter residential lighting systems, activities that cover recessed lighting installation. Check with your local permit office to see if you need one.

Safety Considerations

Turn off the circuit breaker servicing the electrical cable you are working on. If the circuit has not yet been connected, wait until the recessed lights have been installed to make this final connection. Test circuits with a voltage tester.

When working above ceilings, wear breathing protection. Be careful of roofing nails protruding from the roof. Walk only on rafters or joists to avoid falling through the ceiling drywall. Use a piece of plywood to stand or sit on when working in the attic.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Hole saw or drywall jab saw
  • Wire ripper
  • Wire stripper
  • Side-cutting pliers
  • Voltage tester
  • Breathing protection
  • Piece of plywood large enough to span a few rafters
  • Eye protection

Materials

  • Old-work or remodel recessed light
  • Electrical cable

Instructions

  1. Cut the Hole in the Ceiling

    Use the paper template supplied by most light manufacturers to draw a circle for the hole. Put on your eye protection.

    Use a jab saw to carefully cut along the line. For cutting more than just a couple of holes, use a hole saw attached to the end of a drill, as this goes faster.

    Hole being cut in ceiling for recessed lighting

    The Spruce / Margot Cavin

  2. Run Wiring to the Ceiling Hole

    Rough-in the supply wire to the recessed light. If the wire will be coming from another recessed light, open the previous light's junction box and attach the wire. If the wire will be coming from its own circuit, pull the wire down through the hole.

    If a standard electrical ceiling box is present, as shown, it must be removed if a recessed light is being installed.

    Wires dangling from recessed lighting hole in ceiling while being worked on

    The Spruce / Margot Cavin

  3. Attach the Wire to the Recessed Light

    Rip off about 4 inches of cable sheathing with the wire ripper. Strip the coating from the wires inside the sheathing. Pull the wire into the light's junction box and make the connections. For example, a black wire from the light will be attached to the cable's black wire. Or, some lights may have push-fit connectors, which are identified by color.

  4. Install the Light in the Ceiling Hole

    Push the light up into the ceiling hole. The fit should be tight, but not so tight as to damage the surrounding drywall. Most recessed lights have some form of clip system that attaches to the inside top of the ceiling drywall.

  5. Add the Recessed Light Trim

    If the recessed light does not have attached trim, install its separate trim once the light is firmly attached to the ceiling.

  6. Add the Right Bulb

    Add the light bulb as specified by the recessed light's instructions.

    Warning

    Installing a light bulb that is too large and not rated for the recessed light can be a fire hazard.

  7. Wire the Circuit to the Service Panel

    Pull the electrical cable into the electric service panel or circuit breaker panel. Attach the wire to an appropriately-sized circuit breaker (usually 15 amp), then attach the circuit breaker into an available slot on the service panel.

When to Call a Professional

Qualified, licensed electricians can install recessed lighting for you. Pulling cables through attics or walls is difficult. Electricians are adept at fishing wires, and they have the right tools for this job. If you are unfamiliar with working with an open service panel, hire an electrician to wire the circuit for you.