How to Convert a Ceiling Light to a Recessed Light

Home office recessed lighting

Eric Hernandez / Getty Images

Overview
  • Total Time: 90 mins
  • Skill Level: Intermediate

A recessed light, sometimes called a can light, has both its housing and bulb recessed above the ceiling drywall. Converting a standard ceiling light fixture to a recessed light involves removing the old fixture and its electrical box and installing the new recessed light, usually in the same place. Alternatively, you can install the new light in a different location nearby. This is a simple project as long as the existing circuit cable can reach the light; if not, you have to install a junction box and extend new cable to the new light location.

Be sure to use an IC-rated light, which is safe to be in contact with ceiling insulation. With fixtures that are not IC-rated, you must keep the insulation several inches away from the fixture housing to prevent a fire hazard. Leaving the housing and surrounding area without insulation creates a big thermal hole in your ceiling that lets heated air escape into the attic.

If you don't have access to an attic above the ceiling, use a "remodel" light fixture that can be installed from below the ceiling.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Screwdrivers
  • Non-contact voltage tester
  • Pencil
  • Drywall saw
  • Hacksaw blade (as needed)

Materials

  • Recessed light fixture
  • Cable clamp
  • Wire connectors

Instructions

  1. Shut Off the Power

    Turn off the power to the ceiling light fixture first by turning off the light switch, then flipping off the appropriate circuit breaker in your home's breaker box. You cannot turn off the light switch only; this is dangerous. You must turn off the circuit breaker.

    Return to your ceiling work area. Turn the light on and off at the switch to confirm that it is not powered.

  2. Lower the Fixture and Test for Power

    Remove the dome or shade on the ceiling light, then remove all light bulbs. Use a screwdriver to remove any screws holding the housing to the electrical box. Carefully pull the fixture down a few inches to expose the wires. Test each wire with a non-contact voltage tester to confirm the power is off. If the tester detects any voltage, turn off the correct breaker and test the wires again.

  3. Remove the Fixture

    Unscrew the wire connectors joining the circuit wires to the light fixture wires, and separate the wires. Don't just cut the wires because doing so may leave them too short.

  4. Cut Out the Fixture Hole

    Place the cutting template from the new fixture over the opening for the electrical box. Trace around the template to mark a cutting outline, using a pencil. Cut along the outline with a drywall saw. Be careful not to damage any wiring inside the ceiling. Remove the cut pieces of drywall.

    If the new fixture does not come with a template, use a pencil compass to draw a circle on the ceiling that is slightly larger than the new fixture canister. The hole should be no more than 1/8 inch larger (in diameter) than the canister.

  5. Remove the Old Box

    Remove any screws securing the old electrical box to the ceiling framing. If the box is nailed in place, cut through the nails with a hacksaw blade. Loosen the cable clamp on the box to free the circuit cable, then remove the box from the ceiling.

  6. Connect the Circuit Cable

    Install a cable clamp onto the electrical splice box of the new light fixture, as needed. Feed the circuit cable through the clamp and into the splice box, then secure the cable by tightening the clamp's screws. At least 1/4 inch of the cable sheathing (outer jacket) should extend beyond the inside of the clamp.

  7. Connect the Fixture Wires

    Connect the circuit wires to the fixture wires, following the fixture manufacturer's wiring diagram. Secure each connection with a wire connector. Typically, the black (hot) circuit wire connects to the black (hot) fixture wire, the white (neutral) circuit wire connects to the white (neutral) fixture wire, and the bare copper (ground) circuit wire connects to the bare copper or green insulated fixture wire.

  8. Install the Recessed Fixture

    Fit the fixture into the hole, inserting the portion with the splice box first, then the light canister. Reach inside of the canister and firmly snap the ceiling clips downward so they lock onto the backside of the drywall.

    If the fixture has a separate module that holds the light bulb, attach the module to the wires in the fixture housing, then push the module up into the canister. Install a light bulb.

    Make sure the light bulb does not exceed the maximum wattage rating of the fixture. With energy efficient LED or CFL bulbs, it's almost impossible to exceed the rating, but it's not so hard with incandscent or halogen bulbs, which can have high wattages and run very hot.

  9. Turn On the Power

    Restore power to the light's circuit by turning on the circuit breaker, then test the light by turning on the light switch. If you have access to an attic space above the new fixture, cover the fixture with insulation (only if the fixture is IC-rated) to minimize the loss of room heat through the fixture.