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How to Buy and Install Recessed Lighting: A Comprehensive Guide

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Recessed Lighting can add a stylish, modern touch to any room in your house. Whether your home is under construction or you're remodeling, recessed lighting is always a great alternative because it provides excellent lighting,  and since it's installed within the ceiling, it's out of the way.

This guide will give you the details you need to buy and install recessed lighting. We'll give you the information to make an informed buying decision whether you're replacing existing fixtures or adding new ones. Like most home improvement projects, planning is critical. Here's a few of the most important things to consider when buying and installing recessed lighting.

Ceiling Recessed Lighting

Buying Light Fixtures

The main types of recessed lighting fixtures available are those that are designed for new construction, and those made to retrofit into an existing home (old construction). However, recently a new ultra thin fixture has become a popular option that's suitable for either home construction project.

New Construction

These types of fixtures are designed for new home construction. However, if you have access to an open ceiling, such as an attic, you can easily install these during a renovation.

NICOR Lighting 6 inch Housing for New Construction Applications, Airtight, IC Rated (17002A)
  • Suitable for new construction applications
  • Aluminum construction provides greater heat dissipation
  • Integrated thermal protector guards against overheating
  • 7.5-inch height allows use in 2 x 8-inch joist construction
  • Airtight housing provides increased energy efficiency through room insulation

Old Construction

Is also called, remodel housing. If your ceiling is dry walled and you don't have access to an attic this is your only option for can-type recessed lighting.

Nora Lighting NHRIC-27QAT Line Voltage Shallow Quick Connect IC Air-Tight 6 Inch Remodel Housing
  • Low 5-1/2-Inch profile for existing shallow ceiling plenums
  • Rated for direct contact with insulation
  • Quick connect wiring connectors provided

Super Thin

With super thin LED lights you can simply cut a hole in the ceiling and snap the light into place. Some are so thin, they can even be installed directly under joists!

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The video below covers more about the super thin LED lights.

Watch the Video

Generally speaking, both the new and old construction fixtures use what's called a bulb and trim configuration. These types of lights have a separate trim and a light bulb that screws into the housing. 

The super thin fixtures use an LED trim which includes the entire light, lens and trim that are all sealed within the housing. In addition, many LED lights don't require a separate housing, making this type of lighting even more appealing.

LED lights are very energy efficient which also adds to their popularity. Many people find the "cleanness" of the sealed fixture to add a sharp, crisp look to their ceiling. 

There are 4 standard sizes of recessed lighting fixtures: 3-Inch, 4-inch, 5-inch and 6-inch diameters. In most situations, 5- and 6-inch lights are used for general lighting, while, 3- and 4-inch lights are used for accent and task lighting.


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Check the Following When Selecting Light Housing

  • IC Rated: If the housing will be installed in direct contact with insulation, it will need to be IC Rated.
  • Structurally Correct: If you are remodeling your home, be sure you have an Old Construction or Remodel Housing. If it's for a new home, your housing should be designed for New Construction.
  • Proper Voltage: Do you need low voltage (12v) or line voltage (120v).
  • Structural Features: Does the housing meet the structural features you need? Sloped, air tight, low profile, etc.

How to Buy Light Bulbs

There are 4 basic types of light bulbs available to use in recessed lighting fixtures:

  1. Incandescents - Incandescent is the most common type of light bulb, and also the oldest. An electric current passes through a filament wire inside the bulb, as the wire heats a soft glow of light is illuminated. Incandescent lights are becoming less popular as they are being replaced with other more energy efficient bulbs.
  2. Halogens -  Halogen light bulbs function the same as an incandescent bulb, except the filament is surrounded by halogen gas enclosed within a small quartz capsule. Halogens last longer than incandescent bulbs, burn hotter and illuminate a brighter light.
  3. Compact Fluorescents -  Compact fluorescent light bulbs, known as CFL's, use about 75% less electricity than incandescent bulbs. They also can last up to 10 times longer. When electricity flows to the bulb it energizes the argon and mercury vapor inside the phosphorus coated tube. The light illuminates because the phosphorus glows. Using a dimmer switch can be tricky with CFL's and selecting the correct wattage is critical. 
  4. LEDs -  Light Emitting Diode, commonly known as LED, is the most energy efficient lighting on the market today. As an electric current passes thru the LED (which are semiconductors) a light is emitted. LED bulbs have a very long service life. 

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Selecting the Right Trim Style

There are 3 main types of trim packages available for recessed lighting. Each trim package is designed for a specific type of illuminated light. It's important that your lighting plan places the right type of trim for the intended task.

If you choose to order your housings and trim separately rather than in a kit that includes both, be sure that you select the correct size trim for your housing. There's nothing more frustrating than realizing you have a 4-inch trim for a 5-inch housing!

Baffle Trim

The baffle trim provides a full, wide beam of light to a broad area. Baffles provide less glare than other types of trim and are available in black, white and metallic colors such as nickel.

Four Bros SB30/WHT Stepped Baffle Recessed Can Light Trim for BR30/38/40, PAR30/38, LED, Incandescent, CFL and Halogen, 6 Inch, White
  • Use with BR30 and Par30 (LED, Halogen, Incandescent)
  • Fits in all 6" standard recessed housing cans including Halo's and Juno's
  • Mounting springs for recessed can attachment included
  • Airtight gasket provided to minimize air/heat transfer from room to ceiling above
  • Preferred by most contractors and electricans. Real elegent look.

Reflector Trim

The reflector trim is designed for task lighting as it provides a higher output of light. It's an excellent choice for areas where cooking, reading or computer use will be taking place.

6 Inch Recessed Can Light Trim, Aluminum Reflector, Use with BR30/38/40, PAR30/38, LED, Incandescent, CFL, Halogen, for 6 in. Recessed Lighting Covers
  • Top Rated 6 Inch Mirrored Reflector Trim
  • Detachable plastic ring, use for covering gaps from miscuts and over-sized holes, covering unsightly and torn drywall caused by the removal of existing trim
  • Use with PAR30, PAR38, R30, R40 and same size halogen, incandescent and LED light bulbs
  • Designed for 6 inch standard recessed cans and ceiling lighting fixtures,fit Halo/Juno remodel recessed housing
  • Nice appearance and durable aluminum construction, white trim with aluminum reflector to strengthen lighting effect

Eyeball Trim

Also known as Gimbel Trim directs light towards a specific area. It's an excellent choice for areas that you'd like to highlight, such as artwork, a fireplace, or a book case. 

Halo 78P 6-Inch Eyeball Light Trim, White
  • 6" Trim PAR30L Eyeball White Trim with White Eyeball, 30 Degree tilt
  • Wide choice of finishes for any decor
  • Torsion Spring Retention
  • 30 Degree Tilt, 360 Degree Rotation
  • Can be used in Slope Ceiling application

What's Above Your Ceiling?

Before purchasing your light fixtures, you should determine what's above your ceiling. Here's a few question to ask before you begin cutting:

  • Will the housing be surrounded by insulation? If so, purchase a housing that's insulation rated.
  • Is there a floor above your project? These types of projects are a bit more complicated as you'll need to fish the wiring thru the ceiling frame. You'll also likely need a shallow ceiling housing.
  • What type of wiring was used in the home? Always use the same thickness (gauge) and material (copper or aluminum) as the original wire. If you don't have a ground wire, or your home has fabric insulated wiring, you should contact a professional electrician
  • Are you comfortable working with electricity? DYI projects can give you a great sense of accomplishment, but if you're inexperienced or uncomfortable making electrical connections, it's probably best to hire a professional


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How to Position the Lights

Determining where you place your light fixtures will take a little planning, but the results can transform a room. Proper spacing can make the room appear larger, emphasize specific aspects, or add the perfect amount of light to a workspace. But before we get to spacing, we first need to determine how many lights you'll need.

How to Determine How Many Fixtures to Buy

Deciding how many fixtures you need may seem overwhelming, but actually it isn't as hard as you might think. You'll need a tape measure and pencil.

Step One: Total Wattage

First, you'll need to know the total wattage necessary to properly illuminate the room. You can get this figure by measuring the width and length of the room and then multiply them together.

This number is the total area of the room, and you'll need to multiply it by 1.5 to find the total wattage. 

For example: If your room is 20 feet wide and 22 feet long the total area is 440 sq. ft. (20 x 22 = 440). Next multiply 440 by 1.5 (440 x 1.5 = 660). In this example, you've determined that you need 660 watts of light. 

Step Two: Number of Fixtures

Now that you know how many watts of light you need to efficiently light the room, it's time to determine how many fixtures you need to produce that amount of light.

For this, you'll need to know the wattage of the bulb you'll most likely be using. Then simply divide the total room wattage by the wattage of the bulb. Your answer is the number of fixtures you'll need to purchase.

Back to our example: We determined that your room needs 660 wats of light, and we plan to use 60-watt light bulbs, so we'll divide 660 by 60. We'll need 11 fixtures to properly light the room. 

The wattage on an LED bulb can be a bit confusing. An LED may have a wattage of 5 to 8, but that would be equivalent to a halogen bulb with a wattage of 40 to 60. If you choose to use LED lights you'll want to check the package for comparison details.

Where to Position Your Lights

Once you've determined how many lights you need for your room, it's time to decide where they should be installed. The spacing of your light fixtures doesn't need to be exact, but here are some general guidelines to  help you get started.


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Planning Your Lighting

First, we need to make a plan. It's a good idea to get a pencil and paper and sketch the room. By keeping your sketch as close to scale as possible, you can measure the dimensions of the room and draw in your furniture. 

If your room has a focal point or requires task lighting, you'll want to make these fixtures your starting point. Place them in the exact spot and then work outward using the appropriate spacing (covered below).

For rooms without a focal point or task lighting, simply locate the center of the room as your starting point and place the fixtures evenly, working outward.

Spacing Guidelines

Task lighting can be placed 1 to 2 feet apart, but your ceiling height will determine the proper spacing for general lighting. This is not an absolute rule, but it is an excellent starting place.

Divide the height of your ceiling by two. So, a 10-foot ceiling should have the lights placed approximately 5-feet apart, and 4-feet apart for an 8-foot ceiling.

Remember, this is a great starting point, but you may want to make adjustments. Some homeowners choose to "over light" a room by placing the fixtures closer together so the room is brighter than necessary. Then they use a dimmer switch to adjust the lighting to their personal preference.

Wall Light Placement

The outer lights should be placed about 3-feet from the wall. When the light reflects on the wall from this distance, it'll give the room a larger and brighter feel. Placing them too close to the wall can create harsh shadows.

When drawing your lighting plan, take care to avoid shadows in the corners as they'll give the illusion that the ceiling is lower, making the room look smaller. As a general rule, spacing the light's 3-feet from the wall should allow enough light to prevent shadowy corners. 

Watch the Video

Necessary Supplies

There are 2 different methods available to cut the hole into the ceiling. We recommend using the first, but either will work:

Hole Saw

Use your drill with a hole cutting attachment to drill the ceiling holes for the light fixtures. Using a drillers dust bowl, will catch the majority of the drywall dust.

LENOX Tools Hole Saw with Arbor, Speed Slot, 3-Inch (1772963)
  • 2X more durable with 50% longer life than previous LENOX hole saws
  • Increased wall thickness improves durability and minimizes tooth loss
  • Optimized tooth design penetrates metal with ease
  • Larger, sharper teeth for faster cutting
  • SPEED SLOT staircase design for easy plug ejection

Jab Saw

The other option is to trace the inclosed manufacturer's template onto the ceiling. Then, use a jab saw (also called a drywall saw) to cut the hole.

DEWALT Jab Saw (DWHT20540)
  • Aggressive Tooth Design of the hand saw cuts up to 50% faster than traditional tooth designs
  • The handsaw has multiple material usage for use on drywall, plastic and other building materials
  • Induction-hardened teeth stay sharp for long life

Other Tools

Here's a list of a few other tools you may need to install your new lighting:


After you've purchased your fixtures, trim and bulbs, there's still a few other supplies you may need:

Use Caution Working with Electricity

  • ALWAYS turn off the electricity at the circuit breaker before starting.
  • ALWAYS test the wires to double check that the power is off.
  • ALWAYS leave the wall switch off.
  • ALWAYS follow local codes and check to see if a permit is required.
  • NEVER use bulbs with a higher wattage than the fixture was designed for.
  • If you feel uncomfortable working with electricity, contact a electrician.


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How to Install Recessed Lighting

Recessed lighting can provide cost effective lighting in nearly any room, hallway or closet. However, if you aren't comfortable doing electrical work, you should contact a qualified electrician.

If you are installing lighting into an existing house, this video will show you how.

Watch the Video

This video will show you how to install ultra-thin low profile LED lighting.

Watch the Video


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Last update on 2024-04-16 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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