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Recessed Lighting: A Comprehensive Guide

How to Install Recessed Lighting

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. 

How to Buy Recessed Lighting

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

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.

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.

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!

Watch this video to learn more about th​​​​e super thin LED lights:

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.

When selecting your housing check the following:

  • 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.

Light Bulbs

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

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.

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.

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. 

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. 

Trim Styles

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.

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.

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. 

What's Above Your Ceiling?

Before purchasing your light fixtures, you should determine what's above your ceiling. Here's a few questions 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

Light Placement

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 Many Fixtures Do I Need?

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.

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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.

Designing Your Lighting Plan

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.

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. 

This video is a good overview on how to buy recessed lighting:

Necessary Supplies

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

  1. 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.
  2. The other option is to trace the inclosed manufacturer's template onto the ceiling. Then, use a drywall saw to cut the hole.

Hole Saw



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:

  • 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.

Installing 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.

This video shows how to install lighting in an existing home:

Here's a video on how to install LED lighting: