How to Install Recessed Lighting

Installing recessed lighting can greatly enhance the look and feel of any room. With recessed lights, also known as can lights, you can create ambient lighting, task lighting, or accent lighting to highlight specific areas or architectural details. Recessed lights are also an attractive and unobtrusive way to provide general illumination.

While the process may seem intimidating as a do-it-yourself project, installing recessed lighting is totally feasible if you take the proper safety precautions. With careful planning, the right tools, and attention to code requirements, you can successfully transform your space with these built-in light fixtures. Here is a step-by-step guide to installing recessed lighting in your home.

Choose the Right Type of Recessed Lighting

The first step is selecting the right type of recessed lighting for your needs. There are a few main options to consider:


Downlights, also known as can lights, direct light straight down from the ceiling and come in fixed and adjustable models. They work well for general ambient lighting. Choose downlights with different beam spreads (flood or spot) for different lighting effects.

Wall Washers

Wall washers distribute light across a wall, illuminating artwork or architectural details. They feature a wide, asymmetric beam spread. Wall washers are mounted above eye level and angled down towards the wall.

Adjustable Trim Kits

Adjustable recessed lights allow you to aim the beam in different directions even after installation. The metal trim is connected to the housing by a ball joint or swivel. They work well for task lighting.

LED Recessed Lighting

LED recessed lights are the most energy-efficient option. They last longer than other bulb types with less maintenance. LED trim kits retrofit into existing housings. Integrated LED fixtures combine the LEDs and housing into one unit.

Consider factors like beam spread, lumens, color temperature, and dimmability to choose the optimal LED recessed lighting.

Wet Location Rated

For bathrooms, laundry rooms, or areas prone to moisture, choose recessed lights rated for wet locations. They have extra protection against moisture intrusion.

Determine Number of Recessed Lights Needed

The lighting needs of the room will dictate the number of recessed lights required. As a general rule of thumb:

  • Kitchens usually need about 20 lumens per square foot. For a 200 square foot kitchen, that equals 4,000 lumens. With 700-lumen recessed lights, you would need 6 of them.
  • Living rooms need about 10-15 lumens per square foot. For a 300 square foot living room, 3,000 to 4,500 lumens are ideal. With 600-lumen lights, you would need 5 to 8 recessed lights.
  • Bathrooms need about 30 lumens per square foot. For a small 50 square foot bathroom, 1,500 lumens should suffice. With 350-lumen moisture-rated recessed lights, you would need 4-5 of them.

Consider the room layout, ceiling height, and focal points when coming up with a lighting plan. Recessed lighting works well for ambient lighting supplemented with accent lighting as needed.

Choose Locations for Recessed Lighting

Determine where you want to install each recessed light fixture based on your lighting plan. Here are some tips for optimal placement:

  • For general lighting, space recessed lights evenly apart down the center of the room.
  • Position recessed lighting to highlight architectural details like vaulted ceilings.
  • Install wall washers about 6-12 inches from the wall to properly graze the surface.
  • Place recessed lighting above tasks like kitchen counters, work benches, art pieces, alcoves, and cabinets for more direct illumination.
  • Avoid installing recessed cans too close to vents, chimneys, soffits, beams, or joists where the housing could interfere.
  • Follow all clearance requirements in your local building code. Most jurisdictions require at least 6 inches from insulation and 3 inches from combustible materials.

Mark the exact recessed lighting locations with a pencil so you know where to cut the holes. Having a friend help map out the layout is useful.

Gather the Right Tools and Materials

Installing recessed lighting requires using a few specialized tools and materials. Be sure to have the following on hand:


  • Tape measure
  • Laser level or chalk line
  • Stud finder
  • Drill and drill bits
  • Wire strippers
  • Voltage tester
  • Hammer
  • Flat pry bar
  • Socket set
  • Locking pliers
  • Wire nuts
  • Electrical tape
  • Drywall saw
  • Keyhole saw
  • Protective eyewear


  • Recessed light housings and trim kits
  • NM-B electrical cable (14/2 or 12/2)
  • Electrical boxes
  • Drywall screws
  • Insulation batting
  • Fire-rated insulation covers
  • Plaster or drywall compound
  • Primer and paint

Check that you have all the necessary tools and materials before starting to make the process go smoothly. Consider renting any specialized equipment like a drywall lift.

Turn Off Power at the Breaker

Safety should always be the top priority when working on any electrical project. Before doing anything else:

  • Locate the main breaker panel and identify the circuit breaker controlling the overhead lighting and outlets in the room.
  • Flip the breaker to the OFF position to disconnect power.
  • Test that power is off using a non-contact voltage tester. Check the outlets in the room for any stray electrical current.
  • Keep the room well-lit using temporary lighting hooked up to a separate grounded circuit or battery-powered lights. Work safely with good visibility.
  • Place tape over the breaker switch and hang a sign warning others not to turn the power back on. Keep any helpers informed.

With the electricity supply safely disconnected, you can move on to the next steps without risk of shock. Never work on a live circuit!

Cut Holes for Recessed Light Housings

Now that you have confirmed the recessed lighting layout and turned off the power, it’s time to cut holes where each light housing will be installed.

If there is attic access above:

  • Go into the attic and locate the installation points, moving any insulation if needed.
  • Outline the holes from the attic side with a chalk line or marker for reference, centering them between the joists or rafters.
  • Use a drywall saw to cut holes along the perimeter of each outline.
  • Break apart the drywall piece with a hammer and pry bar and set it aside.

If there is no attic access:

  • Drill a small hole at each recessed lighting location to insert a stick or wire.
  • Go into the attic and use the sticks/wires as guides to find the right spots between joists to cut holes.
  • Alternatively, use an electronic stud finder to locate joists and mark the centered spaces between them.
  • Use a drywall saw to cut along the inside perimeter of the marked areas.
  • Carefully break out the drywall with a hammer and pry bar.

Make the holes large enough to fit the recessed housing cannisters through. Wear protective eyewear when cutting drywall. Remove any loose drywall fragments before moving to the next step.

Run Electrical Wires to Recessed Light Locations

With access holes cut, it’s time to run the electrical supply cables through the ceiling and attach boxes at each recessed light point:

  • Measure how much NM-B wire you’ll need to run from the breaker to the first recessed box location and cut a length with wire strippers. Leave extra wire at both ends.
  • Use locking pliers to attach the cable to a fish tape and feed through the attic or ceiling cavity from the breaker to the first hole.
  • Pull about 8 inches of wire through the hole and staple it in place along the joist. Leave 3-4 inches of slack at the end.
  • Strip 1/2 inch of sheathing from the NM-B end using wire strippers and separate the inner insulated wires.
  • Secure an electrical box flush to the top of the hole. Anchor it in place by screwing into a joist.
  • Attach the white (neutral) wire to the silver screw, black (hot) wire to the brass screw, and ground wire to the green screw or post.
  • Repeat steps to run connecting NM-B cables between each consecutive recessed box location. Follow local codes for wire gauge size and stapling requirements.

Use the same process to run supply wires to other switches and fixtures on the newly created lighting circuit.

Install Recessed Light Housings

With the wiring complete, you can now mount the recessed light housings into the ceiling:

  • Remove the junction box cover from the recessed housing canister.
  • Push all wires into the canister and insert the housing into the hole until flush with the ceiling.
  • Position the clamping brackets or support wires to secure the housing against the drywall. Tighten bracket screws for those that have them.
  • Inside the housing, strip 1/2 inch of sheathing from the ends of the supply wires if needed using wire strippers
  • Connect the neutral fixture wire to the neutral supply wire (white to white) using a wire nut.
  • Twist the hot fixture wire together with the hot supply wire (black to black) and cap with a wire nut.
  • Join the grounding wires together (green or bare copper) and secure with a third wire nut.
  • Bend all the wires carefully into the canister ensuring no wires get pinched or pierced.
  • Attach the trim kit of choice following the manufacturer’s directions. Most use torsion springs that can be tricky, so take care.

With all the housings installed, reconnect the wires between boxes if you have multiple lights. Make sure no bare wires or connections are exposed.

Insulate Around Recessed Housings

Before installing the trim kits, it’s important to properly insulate around the recessed housing canisters:

  • Cut fiberglass or mineral wool insulation batts to fit over the top of each light housing against the drywall.
  • Place fire-rated covers made of metal or calcium silicate over the insulation to create a thermal barrier against the canister.
  • Pack insulation between any gaps around the edges of the housing. This prevents loose fill insulation from spilling into the fixture.
  • DO NOT pack insulation directly above or touching the canister due to fire hazard from heat buildup. Maintain 3 inches of clearance.
  • Make sure you use insulation contact rated (IC-rated) housings if insulation will be in direct contact with any part of the fixture.

Check your local building code for exact insulation requirements around recessed lights to meet fire safety standards. Proper insulation helps prevent heat loss or gain through the fixture.

Patch Drywall and Finish Ceiling

With everything installed and wired, it’s time to patch up the ceiling:

  • Mix drywall joint compound and fill in any gaps around the edges of the recessed housings. Let dry completely.
  • Screw the saved drywall pieces back into place. Secure with additional drywall screws driven into the edges.
  • Apply joint tape over the seams and spread 3 coats of compound, allowing it to dry between applications.
  • Sand down the patches to blend them with the surrounding ceiling. Carefully vacuum up dust.
  • Prime and paint the repaired areas to match the existing ceiling color. Allow the paint to fully cure for a week.

Follow these tips for a seamless drywall finish:

  • Use paper joint tape for the first embedding coat then fiberglass mesh tape for the final thin layers.
  • Thin the joint compound and make the final coats progressively wider and thinner as you spread from the center.
  • Avoid covering the sides of the recessed trim kits so they can be removed later if needed.
  • Take bright lighting at an angle across the surface to check for dips and flaws. Sand them smooth.

Patience and attention to detail will result in a repaired ceiling that looks like new.

Complete Electrical Connections

The last step is finishing up the electrical wiring connections:

  • Make sure all wire splices are contained inside junction boxes with the covers securely replaced.
  • Properly ground all components and perform insulation resistance testing.
  • Replace any attic insulation that was moved or removed during the process.
  • Have the completed circuit inspected and approved by your local building department if required.
  • Flip the breaker back to the ON position to restore power.
  • Test that all recessed lights are functioning properly using the switches. Replace any defective bulbs.
  • Attach trim kits and inserts to complete the lighting installation. Enjoy your work!

Always follow your local electrical code for any final steps when completing new circuits and modifications

How to Install Recessed Lighting Frequently Asked Questions

Installing recessed lighting involves careful planning, safety considerations, and compliance with electrical codes. Here are answers to some common questions about installing recessed lights:

How much does it cost to install recessed lighting?

The costs vary depending on factors like the number of lights, type of fixtures, and complexity of the job. On average, expect to pay $200-500 for materials and $150 per hour for professional installation of 5-10 basic recessed lights.

Do I need to hire an electrician to install recessed lights?

In most cases, you can DIY the project if you have basic electrical skills. However, an electrician may be required to install the new circuit at the breaker panel if you don’t have experience. Always check local regulations.

Do recessed lights need to be IC rated?

Recessed downlights in direct contact with insulation require IC (insulation contact) rating. Non-IC rated lights can overheat if covered by insulation. IC lights have protection to disperse heat safely.

How far apart should recessed lights be spaced?

For ambient lighting, space standard recessed lights 2-3 feet apart down the center of the room. Adjust depending on ceiling height and light output. For task lighting, install recessed lights closer over specific areas.

Can recessed lights be on the same circuit as outlets?

Yes, recessed lighting circuits can power outlets as long as the overall load complies with code. The lights and outlets should be evenly divided between the hot wires. Don’t overload a 15A circuit.

What size recessed lights should I use for a bathroom?

For moisture resistance, use 4-5″ aperture recessed lights rated for wet locations. Choose lower lumen fixtures like 35W LEDs that provide enough illumination without overheating a small space.

How do I patch drywall after installing recessed lighting?

Save the round drywall pieces after cutting the holes. After installing the housings, refasten the pieces with drywall screws. Finish by applying joint compound over the seams and texturing the patches to match the ceiling’s finish.


Installing recessed lighting is a worthwhile upgrade that can make your home more beautiful, elegant, and functional. With the right gear, careful planning, and adherence to electrical codes, you can tackle this project as a DIY enthusiast. Just be sure to take all necessary precautions when working with electrical wiring. The improved ambiance and illumination from recessed lighting is a dramatic change that’s sure to boost your enjoyment of the space for years to come.