How to Convert a Ceiling Light to a Recessed Light

Update Dim Ceiling Lights to Sleek Recessed Lights

Home office recessed lighting
Eric Hernandez / Getty Images

Most electrical codes dictate that every room should have one permanent light that is controlled by a wall switch. This is why many homes come outfitted with just one basic ceiling light per room. But those single ceiling lights can cast an inadequate amount of light to the edges of the room. Plus, they can make a room look tired and old. Many homeowners want to update their ceiling lights by converting them to recessed lights.

Recessed lights work well in bathrooms and kitchens, where the main idea is for the fixture to cast its light and stay out of the way. Recessed lights have long been used outside of the bathroom and kitchen, too, in any space that calls for a smooth, sleek, and contemporary look. Under many conditions, the area where a ceiling light is currently located, or nearby, can be converted to a recessed light.

Tools and Supplies You Will Need

  • Recessed light (retrofit lighting that clips to the ceiling drywall)
  • Electrical cable clamp
  • Voltage tester
  • Wire stripper
  • Manual screwdriver
  • Cordless drill
  • Jab saw
  • Hammer
  • Prybar
  • Ladder
  • Portable light
  • Round plastic faceplate for covering old ceiling box (optional)


A recessed light, sometimes called a can light, has both its housing and bulb recessed, or sunk, inside and above the ceiling drywall. Converting a ceiling light to a recessed light does not mean that you are literally placing recessed light apparatus inside of a ceiling light box. Rather, the ceiling light's old box is removed and the recessed light takes its place, using the same electrical wiring. Alternatively, the ceiling light's box is retained as a junction box or is removed and covered over, while the recessed light occupies a nearby area.

With recessed lighting, the bulb is enclosed within a metal cone. This is important because the light completely extends into the attic area, a prime environment for fires to start unless precautions are taken. Assuming that your attic currently has insulation and that you plan to replace the insulation after the light has been installed, you must use an IC-rated light. IC lights are allowed to have insulation contact. If you do not purchase an IC-rated light, insulation must be kept away from the recessed light. Consult the light's instructions for specifics about how far the light must be kept away from the insulation.

As long as the ceiling light and the recessed light are a one-for-one substitute in terms of electrical needs, everything between the new light and the service panel, such as wiring, switch, and circuit breaker, may remain in place. In fact, the majority of the work is less about electrical wiring and more about the logistics of physically establishing a secure attachment point on the ceiling. In some instances, this also includes closing off the hole for the old ceiling light.

Remove the Existing Ceiling Light

  1. Turn off the power to the ceiling light fixture first by turning off the light switch, then flipping off the circuit breaker. You cannot turn off the light switch only; this is dangerous. You must turn off the circuit breaker.
  2. Return to your ceiling work area. Turn the light on and off at the switch to confirm that it is not powered.
  3. Using a ladder, remove the dome or shade on the ceiling light, then remove all light bulbs.
  4. With a manual or cordless screwdriver, unscrew the two screws holding the housing to the upper electrical box.
  5. Confirm that power is off by using a voltage tester on all of the wires within the electrical box.
  6. Unscrew all wire nuts between the source wires and the light fixture wires. This means unscrewing the wire nuts on black, white, and sometimes the bare or green ground wires. Untwist all wires and separate them. While it may be tempting to expedite matters and cut these wires, untwisting wires will preserve their length. At this point, you do not know if length will be a problem, so it is best to keep as much as possible.

Remove or Retain the Existing Electrical Box

You can either place the recessed light in the same location, as long as hole diameters match, or you can place the recessed light in a different, nearby location. Placing the new light in the current location is preferable if conditions allow.

Placing the Recessed Light in the Same Location

If you wish to place the recessed light in the same location, the light fixture box currently in place will not work for the intended recessed light as it is blocking the new light's entry. The current box must be removed. This may be harder than it seems because light boxes can be attached in any number of ways and may even require you to go into the attic.

The only instance where you will not have to access the attic is if you find what is termed an old-work ceiling box. Not a common installation, this box has screws flush on the face of its outer ring. Turn those screws counter-clockwise in order to bring the box's supporting wings back against the box, allowing you to remove the box.

If your ceiling does not have an old-work box, you will need to go into the attic. Access the attic with a ladder. Bring a portable light source, screwdriver, hammer, and prybar. Unscrew or pull nails that connect the box to the ceiling joist. Do this very gently so that you do not break the ceiling drywall.

Placing the Recessed Light in a Different Location

If you wish to abandon the current location and place the recessed light nearby, you have two options for extending the wiring.

If wire length permits, it is best to simply move the old wires to the new location. Stay in the ceiling and, working gently with a screwdriver, pry away any staples that are holding the electrical cable to the joist.

If wire length is a problem, retain the box as a junction box in order to splice wires and run an additional length of new wire to the recessed light location.

Note: Electrical boxes used as junction boxes must be accessible so they can be reached without removing finish materials or structural elements. Often (but not always) it is permissible to cover junction boxes with easily removable attic insulation (such as loose-fill or blanket insulation; not spray foam). Junction boxes must be covered with a blank (no holes) cover. 

Cut a New Opening in the Ceiling

With a tape measure, measure the diameter of the ceiling opening. This will help you determine which type of recessed light you should buy. If the recessed light is the same diameter as the current opening, skip this step. Otherwise, you will need to adjust the hole.

The Ceiling Opening Is Too Small

If you want to install a light that is larger than the hole, you can enlarge the hole with a power tool such as a RotoZip or with a manual jab saw. Because drywall is so crumbly, it can be hard to cleanly enlarge the hole in the drywall, so go slow and be patient. 

The Ceiling Opening Is Too Large

The best approach with an opening that is too large is to cover the existing hole and cut a new hole nearby. Patching the current hole, then cutting a smaller hole within that patch will only dislodge the patch.

After abandoning the old hole, it can be patched up with a circle of drywall cut to size. 

Connect the Wires on the Recessed Light

From below, stand on the ladder and connect the wires. The electrical box portion of your recessed light may hinge open or there may be a door that comes off with screws. Take this door off to access the wires inside.

  1. With a screwdriver, punch out the metal plate covering the access hole on the box.  If you can get the screwdriver under one side of this plate, you can twist the plate back and forth, forcing it off.
  2. Install a cable clamp on the box. Cable clamps must be purchased separately.
  3. Pull the circuit cable down as far as possible without stressing it. If you need more length from the cable, you may need to go into the attic again and remove even more of the cable clips or staples holding the cable to the joist. 
  4. Feed the cable through the cable clamp on the recessed light's electrical box. Screw the clamp down onto the cable tightly, but not so tight that you cut into the cable casing. This connection should be strong enough that you can let go of the recessed light in order to proceed with the next steps.
  5. If you need, strip back more wire casing with the wire stripper. If you have enough wire at your disposal, it is often a good idea to strip back the casing to obtain fresh, smooth wire.
  6. Connect the black power wire to the black wire on the light by twisting the two together with a wire nut. Connect the white (neutral) wire to the white wire on the light by twisting the two together with a wire nut.
  7. Twist the bare copper wire from your house's supply cable with the bare copper wire on the light. Sometimes, this copper wire is covered with a green casing. While these can be twisted without using a wire nut, it is considered ​a better practice to use a wire nut.

Install the Recessed Light in the Ceiling

While the recessed light may look too large to fit into the ceiling hole, it will slide in as long as you were careful to precisely cut the hole.

  1. Insert the electrical box portion first. Then, rotate the light the rest of the way in a C-shaped or hooking motion.
  2. Continue pushing the light into the hole until the brackets on the cone portion of the light are flush with the ceiling drywall. 
  3. Reach inside of the cone and firmly snap the ceiling clips on the light downward. These clips are the only means of securing the light to the ceiling, so make sure that each one of them contacts the drywall.
  4. Attach the light module to the wires in the light housing. 
  5. Push the bulb portion up into the housing. With a free hand, tuck the wire up into the housing. Make sure that it does not pinch along the sides.
  6. Turn the circuit breaker back on. Flip the switch and enjoy the new recessed light.