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 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.
Before You Begin
Existing vs. New 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 first recessed light in a series of lights. The cable can be pulled through the ceiling.
Type of Recessed Lights to Buy
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.
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.
Equipment / Tools
- Hole saw or drywall jab saw
- Wire ripper
- Wire stripper
- Side-cutting pliers
- Voltage tester
- Old-work or remodel recessed light
- Electrical cable
Cut Hole in Ceiling
Use the paper template supplied by most light manufacturers to draw a circle for the hole. Then, 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.
Run Wiring to 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.
Attach Wire to 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.
Install Light in 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.
Add 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.
Add the light bulb as specified by the recessed light's instructions.
Installing a light bulb not rated for the recessed light can be a fire hazard.
Wire Circuit to 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.