Recessed lights provide directed lighting in kitchens, living rooms, and bedrooms. The best thing about recessed lights is that they are flush with the ceiling, so they tuck neatly away—which is the opposite of most ceiling lights.
Ceiling lights are surface-mounted. Embedded within the ceiling drywall is an electrical box with wires. But on the surface of the ceiling and quite prominent is the light. Some homeowners might not like this obstruction or they just might want a different type of light, and that's where recessed lights come in.
Converting a ceiling light to a recessed light takes some work, but it can be accomplished in less than a couple of hours by a do-it-yourselfer.
Before You Begin
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—in the same place. Before doing so, it's worth considering a couple of aspects:
- Recessed lights are not centrally located. Ceiling lights are usually centrally located within a room. Recessed lights usually are located along a room's perimeter. When you switch out a ceiling light for a recessed light, you end up with a recessed light in the middle of the room.
- Removing the old electrical box can be difficult. The ceiling light's electrical box can be so difficult to remove that it's easier to leave the box in place.
Two options are to either transfer the existing wires to a new location or to run new wires to the new location. In either case, the ceiling light's electrical box is kept live and powered. But the light itself is removed and the face of the box is covered with a blank ceiling box cover.
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.
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.
Click Play to Learn How to Convert a Ceiling Light to a Recessed Light
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Equipment / Tools
- Non-contact voltage tester
- Drywall saw
- Hacksaw blade (as needed)
- Recessed light fixture
- Cable clamp
- Wire connectors
Turn Power Off
Turn the power off at the electric service panel by flipping off the circuit breaker. Turn the light on and off at the switch to confirm that it is not powered. If the light doesn't come on, you can proceed with the steps below.
Open 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.
Remove the Fixture
Unscrew the wire connectors joining the circuit wires to the light fixture wires, and separate the wires. Unless the wires are already very long or damaged in some way, don't just cut the wires. Doing so may leave them too short to use with the new fixture.
Cut Out the Fixture Hole
Place the cutting template from the new fixture over the opening for the electrical box. Using a pencil, trace around the template to mark a cutting outline. Cut along the outline with a drywall saw. Be careful not to damage any wiring inside the ceiling. Remove the cut pieces of drywall.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Electrical Safety Foundation International. Electrical Safety Workbook.
Installation Clearance Requirement for Recessed Luminaries. International Association of Electrical Inspectors.
Energy Savings: LED Lighting. United States Department of Energy.