Retrofit Recessed Lighting: Installation Hacks and Tips

Installing Recessed Light
You can install recessed lighting faster if you cut all holes at once, ahead of time. Lee Wallender

Recessed lights are sleek and clean, but recessed light installation is not. Little about the installation process can be called easy. It's tiring because you're working with your arms above your head. It's dirty because of drywall dust and years of accumulated ceiling debris. And you're often fighting against lights that don't want to stay secure in the ceiling.

Use any of these tricks to make your retrofit light installation go faster, as well as be more efficient and attractive.

Purchase Recessed Lights That Stay in Place

Recessed lights are held in place by clips that snap inside the ceiling. A good recessed light that decisively snaps into your ceiling and stays secure is worth its weight in gold. Often, poorly designed lights will unsnap and fall down when someone walks on the floor above or even when a door shuts. Lights that require you to spend more time pushing and clipping them into place are a huge waste of time.

When shopping for lights online, spend time on the reviews and keep your eye open for comments about clips and about lights staying up or falling down. 

Plan Well to Avoid Patching Abandoned Holes

Patching accidental holes slows you down immensely. Plan well and intelligently, thinking in terms of cable runs, correct placement of lights, and establishing an attractive pattern of lights. If you hate planning, you'll find that drywall patching, mudding, sanding, priming, and painting are five extra layers of work that you don't need. Thinking this through ahead of time gives you better recessed lights and saves work.

Cut All of Your Ceiling Holes at the Same Time

It's tempting to cut a hole, wire and place the light, then move onto the next one. This may work with wall outlets, but given the amount of work involved with cutting into ceiling drywall, it is best to do all of the cutting at one time.

Suit up with safety glasses, respirator or dust mask, and a hat. Cut the holes and clean up the work area. Then you can dust yourself off and get to the cleaner job of hooking up wires.

Cut Recessed Light Holes as Small as Possible

Recessed lights have very low diameter tolerances. If you cut the ceiling hole even a tiny bit too big, the light housing is at risk of slipping through. Repairing this is so difficult that it is usually better to cut a new hole nearby. Take the old adage "measure twice, cut once" to heart. Use the paper template provided by the manufacturer. Check and re-check the measurements on your ceiling saw. Remember that you can always widen a ceiling hole that is too small, but not the opposite.

Score With the Ceiling Saw, Cut With the Jab Saw

Adjustable hole saws are good but not perfect. They do score a nice circle, but if you go too fast, you run the risk of cutting a ragged circle that allows the light to slip out.

One trick is to use both the ceiling saw and jab saw. Score the drywall with the ceiling saw. Then go back with the jab saw and redo the circle. You'll get a perfect circle every time.

Work on the Ground in Assembly Line Fashion

Working on the ladder drains your energy faster than working on the ground. Not only that, the more time you spend on the ladder, the greater your chances of falling down.

A nice trick that saves strain on your legs and neck is to do as much work as possible on the ground, rather than upon the ladder. If the weather is nice, you can even go outside for some of the work. Things like stripping wires, inserting wire clamps into the box, ripping cable are best done off of the ladder. Save your ladder work only for those moments when you need to make final connections or push the light up.

Tame Cables Before Placing the Light

Electrical cables can re-position your light in ways you don't want. Usually, one or two electrical cables run into your recessed light. These cables are so strong that they make placing your light within the ceiling hole a difficult task. Hold the light with one hand and, with the other hand, form the cables into accordion-like shapes. That way, when you push the light into the hole, the cables have more flexibility.

Tightly Press Upward to Lock Clips

Do not rely on the recessed light clips to draw the light housing up into the ceiling. Instead, you should provide the push. Put your gloved hand inside the light and push firmly up. When the light is flush with the ceiling, snap the clips down with the other hand.