Easily Convert a Ceiling Light into Recessed Lighting

  • 01 of 11

    Install a Recessed Light To Replace Fixture In Same Spot

    Installed Lithonia/Home Depot Recessed or Can Light
    Installed Lithonia/Home Depot Recessed or Can Light. © Lee Wallender

    Recessed lights work great in bathrooms and kitchens, where the main idea is for the fixture to cast its light and stay out of the way.  They have long been used outside of the bathroom and kitchen in any place that calls for a smooth, sleek, and contemporary look.

    Find out the easy way to install recessed/can lights in the same spot as the original ceiling light.  If you need to change locations, consult this other guide that tells you how to install can lights in different locations.

    What Are...MORE Can Lights?

    We call it a recessed light because both its housing and bulb are recessed, or sunk, inside the ceiling, past the drywall.  It's alternatively called a can light because the bulb is safely enclosed within a type of metal can.  This is important because the light is being pushed up into tinder-dry, insulated, rarely-seen attic area; in other words, the perfect environment for fires to start.  The housing effectively seals all of this potentially dangerous stuff inside of a metal shield.  If sparks develop, the theory is that they will be extinguished in the metal can.

    This Is a DIY Job

    This is not a job for an electrician.  It is within the scope of even the most "green" DIY electrician.

    Of course, if you feel at all uncomfortable, please consult a licensed electrician.

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  • 02 of 11

    Install Can Light: Open Box or Take Down Existing Fixture

    Open Box or Take Down Existing Fixture
    Open Box or Take Down Existing Fixture. © Lee Wallender

    These instructions assume that you have an existing, powered light fixture in place or a closed light fixture box with live wires inside.

    Power Off

    Turn off power to the fixture or box at the source:  the circuit breaker.  Return to your ceiling work area.  With a manual screwdriver, unscrew the two screws holding in place either the housing to the existing fixture or the blank cover place to the box.

    Confirm that power is off by using a voltage tester.

    Detach Wires

    In the case of an existing light...MORE fixture, unscrew all wire nuts between source wires and the light fixture wires.  So, this will mean unscrewing the wire nuts on black, white, and sometimes the bare/green ground wires.  Untwist all wires and separate.

    Tip:  It's tempting to expedite matters and cut these wires.  But by untwisting rather than cutting wires you preserve length, and at this point, you don't know if length will be at a premium.

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  • 03 of 11

    Install Can Light: Measure Ceiling Opening

    Measure Ceiling Opening
    Measure Ceiling Opening. © Lee Wallender

    With a tape measure, measure the diameter of the ceiling opening.  This is important because it will determine which type of recessed light you should buy.

    What If the Opening Is Too Small?

    As expected, it's easiest to purchase a light that exactly fits the opening.  If you want to install a larger light, you can enlarge the hole with a specialty drywall cutting power tool such as a RotoZip.  Don't buy a RotoZip just for this purpose, though.  For far less money, you can buy a manual jab...MORE saw, made just for cutting drywall.

    Tip:  Because drywall is so crumbly, I've always found it hard to enlarge drywall an inch or less.  You get cleaner results if you cut bigger expanses.  So, if you're enlarging from a 4-inch to a 5-inch opening, you may want to go ahead and purchase that RotoZip.

    What If the Opening Is Too Large?

    This is more difficult.  I don't know of any adapters that convert ceiling holes from large to smaller, suitable for recessed light installation.  Your best bet is to cover the existing hole and cut a new hole nearby.

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  • 04 of 11

    Install Can Light: Remove Existing Fixture's Box

    Remove Existing Light Fixture Box
    Remove Existing Light Fixture Box. © Lee Wallender

    The light fixture box currently in place will not work for your recessed/can light.  You must remove it.  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.

    Old Work Ceiling Boxes

    The only instance I can think of where you don't have to access the attic is if you find an old work ceiling box.  It's not a common installation because it doesn't provide great support for light fixtures.  This box has...MORE 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.

    All Other Boxes

    Go into the attic.  Because you don't know what you'll find up there, bring a screwdriver, hammer, and prybar.  Unscrew or pull nails from the box very gently so that you don't break drywall.

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  • 05 of 11

    Install Can Light: Open Recessed Light's Box, Install Clamp

    Open Lights Box and Install Clamp
    Open Lights Box and Install Clamp. © Lee Wallender

    Now you get to come out of the attic and do some clean work.

    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.

    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, causing it to come off.

    Install a wire clamp on the box.  You'll need to buy this wire...MORE clamp separately.

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  • 06 of 11

    Install Can Light: Pull Wires From Hole in Ceiling

    Pull Wires From Ceiling Hole
    Pull Wires From Ceiling Hole. © Lee Wallender

    Back at the ceiling, gently pull wires down as far as possible without stressing the wires.

    If you need more length, one trick is to go into the attic and remove one of the cable clips or staples holding the wire to the joist.  Remove the staple closest to the opening in the ceiling.  This should give you another couple of inches.

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  • 07 of 11

    Install Can Light: Insert Wires in Box of Recessed Light

    Insert Wires in Box of Recessed Light
    Insert Wires in Box of Recessed Light. © Lee Wallender

    Push wires into the hole of the recessed light's 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 get your next items.

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  • 08 of 11

    Install Can Light: Connect Wires in Recessed Light Box

    Connect Wires in Recessed Light Box
    Connect Wires in Recessed Light Box. © Lee Wallender

    For some reason, the exposed wire ends of light fixtures are always too short.  I like to cut off a bit more wire casing with my wire stripper, so that about 3/8" total is exposed.

    • Connect your black (load or power) power to the black wire on the light by twisting the two together with a wire nut.
    • Connect white (neutral) wire to the white wire on your light by twisting the two together with a wire nut.
    • Twist the bare copper wire from your house's supply cable with the bare copper wire on the...MORE light.  Sometimes, this copper wire is covered with green casing; same thing.  These can be twisted without using a wire nut, but you can always use a wire nut if it makes it easier for you.
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  • 09 of 11

    Install Can Light: Push Light Housing Into Ceiling Hole

    Push Light Into Ceiling Hole
    Push Light Into Ceiling Hole. © Lee Wallender

    Your recessed light looks too small to fit into that small hole, but don't worry--it will slide in.

    The trick is to first insert the back, electrical box portion.  Then, rotate the light the rest of the way in a "C" shaped motion.

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  • 10 of 11

    Install Can Light: Clip Light Into Place on Ceiling Drywall

    Clip Light Into Place on Ceiling Drywall
    Clip Light Into Place on Ceiling Drywall. © Lee Wallender

    Continue pushing the light into the hole until the brackets on the "can" portion of the light are flush with the ceiling drywall. 

    Reach inside of the "can" and snap the ceiling clips on the light downward, firmly.  These three or four clips are the only means of securing your light to the ceiling, so make sure that each one of them contacts drywall.

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  • 11 of 11

    Install Can Light: Connect Wires and Push Light Into Housing

    Make Light Wire Connections and Push Into Housing
    Make Light Wire Connections and Push Into Housing. © Lee Wallender

    Now for the fun part.  Attach the LED bulb module to the wires in the can light housing. 

    Push the bulb portion up into the housing.  With your free hand, tuck the wire up into the housing.  You don't want it to pinch along the sides.

    Turn the circuit breaker back on.  Flip the switch and enjoy your new recessed light.