Printer Friendly

Recessed lights.

Here's a low-fuss, low-mess way to add great-looking recessed lights to any room.

Recessed lights are a shining example of how dramatically a product can improve in just a few short years. Once simple canisters, they now come in a splendid array of shapes and sizes. Once notorious fire hazards, they now have automatic shut-off devices that make them as safe as any light around. Once an oddity known primarily to designers and architects, recessed lights are now available from home centers and lighting stores everywhere.

Well, that's just swell--but most of our homes were built before this evolution in recessed lighting. More often than not, we're stuck with one ceiling light dangling from the center of the hallway, kitchen or family room. And there's a good chance this light doesn't give us the light or mood we want either.

Recessed lights offer one solution. Most of us have seen "standard" recessed lights--the kind designed to be fastened to the open joists or ceiling supports of new construction. But special "remodeling-type" recessed lights are also widely available. They're designed specially for installation in rooms that already have finished ceilings.

In this article we'll show you how to install these special remodeling recessed lights, and how -- by using your existing switch and ceiling box, and a few simple wire-fishing tricks -- to keep the work and mess to a minimum.


Everyday surface-mount ceiling lights (Fig. A) cast their light in a sphere, putting lots of light up onto the ceiling (where you don't need it) instead of downward (where you do). Recessed lights, on the other hand, provide "sourceless illumination" -- they focus light on objects below them, while drawing very little attention to themselves or the ceiling. This makes them perfect for lighting an area where you want loads of light, but not the cluttered look of lots of light fixtures.

Recessed lights, housed above the ceiling surface, solve the lighting dilemma in low-ceiling areas. They can also be used where other fixtures won't fit or aren't allowed by electrical code -- inside closets, bookcases and kitchen cabinets. Other specially designed ones can even be used in damp locations--showers, saunas and outside eaves.


While we don't recommend this as your first-ever electrical or DIY project, we will say, it's pretty darn straight-forward.

Installing the actual lights involves fitting the remodeling-type light housing (Photo 4) through a hole you cut in the ceiling and installing the trim (Photo 6) that covers the housing and any rough edges surrounding it. If you have to fish wires (Photo 3), you'll need to use simple carpentry and drywall patching skills. Pick and choose your tasks as you see fit and hire a professional for parts you don't feel comfortable with.


A ceiling cavity that's very shallow or narrow can prohibit you from installing recessed fixtures, but this is rare. Most recessed lights require 7 to 8 in. of headroom. The framework above the ceiling, whether it be floor joists or ceiling rafters, can usually accommodate this height. There are even specially designed fixtures that fit into a 5-1/2 in. space.

Since you're using an existing switch and power supply, you are limited as to the number of lights you can safely install. If the old fixture had three 100-watt bulbs, you can safely install four 75-watt recessed lights. But you must not overtax the existing circuit--other outlets and appliances are being powered through that same circuit. Consult an electrician if you are unsure of whether you'll be overloading your circuit.


Play it safe! Remove the fuse, or tape the circuit breaker in the off position for the circuit you'll be working on.

Your project involves four basic steps:

1. Marking the fixture positions. First select where you would ideally like to place your lights. Then drill a small hole and probe with a coat hanger in every direction to determine if there are any obstructions. If you find a joist or rafter in the way, shift over. You need enough space for the fixture plus the required 1/2 in. (or manufacturer's specified) clearance on all sides. Cut the holes using a drywall saw and the template that's included with most remodeling-type lights (Photos 1 and 2).

2. Running and fishing wires. Next run wires from the old ceiling light location to the first recessed light. All wires you install must be the same gauge or thickness as the wires bringing power to the ceiling box. The most common type is 14-2 wire (wire that's 14 gauge with a black, white and ground wire within).

Continue by running wire from one light location to the next. Leave at least 16 in. of wire dangling down through the hole in the drywall.

If your new lights aren't separated by floor joists or other obstacles, simply lay the wire on the back side of the ceiling. If you need to run wires perpendicular to the floor joists or rafters, cut out a 5-in. square piece of drywall, then make a small (no more than 1/2 in. deep) notch in the joist with a sharp chisel. This gives you a small space to run the wire as shown in Photo 3. After running the wire through the notch, protect it with a 1/16-in. thick metal protector plate. Keep your notches at least 1 ft. away from the line of the lights, so as you install the lights, the wire has room to accordion out of the way. Patch your wire-fishing access holes with the piece of drywall you originally removed.

If you can get up into your attic space, you can do a lot of the work from above and avoid a lot of fishing and patching altogether.

3. Wiring your lights. First, disconnect the old light fixture and make the connections to the new wire as shown in Fig. B, details 1 and 2. Touch only the wires that were connected to the old fixture; there should be only three--a black, a white and a ground. These should be full-size wires (the same size as the wires leading into the box), not small stranded leads from a previous light fixture. There could be live wires from other circuits farther up inside the box--you don't need to mess with them. The round ceiling box that contains the wiring must be left accessible. Place a blank cover plate over it.

The make the wiring connections for the actual light fixtures as shown in Fig. B, details 3 and 4. Secure the bare ends of the wires together (Photo 4).

4. Mounting your lights. Fit the fixture through the hole in the ceiling and fasten it in place according to the manufacturer's instructions.

Manufacturers each have different methods for securing their particular remodeling light to the ceiling. Some have clips that pinch the drywall once the light is in position (like ours). Others rely on a small frame that slips up into the ceiling for the housing to be fastened to.

Once the housing and trim are in place (Photos 5 and 6), install the correct size and shape bulb and switch the power back on.


We're presuming you have a switch-operated ceiling light that you're willing to sacrifice for your recessed lights. But there are other possibilities that we won't fully explore. All are very doable with the aid of a licensed electrician.

1. Put an additional recessed light fixture where the ceiling fixture box is. By replacing the ceiling box with a recessed light, then using the recessed light as a junction box, you can eliminate the cover plate. This involves removing and reconnecting all the wires now tucked within the ceiling box -- a task that requires great care.

2. Install an additional switch for operating the recessed lights. You may not have an existing switched ceiling fixture, or you may want to keep your existing ceiling fixture, but still add recessed lighting to the room. You can do this by adding a new circuit from your circuit box or fuse breaker panel, or by running power from an outlet in the room to a new switch. "How to Wire and Install Track Lighting," Oct. '88, p. 34, gives basic information on this last option.

3. Power your recessed lights directly from the switch. In many cases you can run new wires directly from the existing switch to your new lights. This may allow you to remove and patch over the inactive ceiling box.


How popular are recessed lights today? One lighting consultant mentioned she just finished work on a house that contained three conventional lights and 37 recessed ones. A local lighting store attributes 50 to 60 percent of its sales to recessed lights. These may be extreme, but the point is, recessed lights are no longer a novelty, but a standard.

Home lighting needs fall into three categories: "general lighting," the overall illumination of a room; "task lighting," the proper light required for cooking, reading or other specific activity; and "accent lighting," which concentrates on illuminating a special picture or area of the home or helps set a mood. Recessed lights can do all three.

Keep in mind that your light fixture, trim ring and bulb must be compatible with one another. There's an overwhelming number of fixtures out there, and it's easy to get hung up on cost or appearance. Look first at what you need the light to do and which type will do the best job. Most manufacturers have brochures to help you place your fixtures, and lighting designers can also provide a wealth of knowledge.

There are two other types of recessed lights, both new and worth noting:

Fluorescent lights, $150 and up, excel at general lighting where the lights is on continuously. They cast a soft, diffused light. The initial cost is much higher than conventional lights, but operating and bulb replacement costs are low.

Low-voltage lights, $125 and up, cast a very pure light in a specific pattern, making them ideal for accent lighting. Some have adjustable lenses that can change the size and shape of the light that is cast. They operate on 12 volts, so a small transformer is required.

WALL WASHERS Cost: $40 and up

Wall washers are used mainly for accent or mood lighting. Like the eyeball (below), they can highlight some of your favorite objects. They don't have the eyeball's adjustability, but because they don't bulge down below the ceiling, are less noticeable.

Wall-washing fixtures should be spaced 1-3 ft. from the wall and 3 - 5 ft. from one another.

DOWNLIGHTS Cost: $30 and up

Simple, fixed downlights can be used for general, task and accent lighting. When using them for general lighting, be sure to install an adequate number. A 100-watt light will illuminate an area about as large as the ceiling height in which it's installed; that is, a 100-watt fixture in an 8-ft. ceiling will cast an 8-ft. dia. circle on the floor.

Downlights can be either "baffled" or "open" style. Baffles, which are black coils surrounding the interior of the fixture, eliminate glare and de-emphasize the fixture. They have a crisp, clean look. Open lights have either reflector bulbs or reflector rings, which tend to highlight the fixture itself.

EYEBALLS Cost: $40 and up

Eyeballs can rotate up to 350 degrees and tilt 30 to 40 degrees. These are used mainly for accent lighting -- highlighting artwork or a fireplace mantel -- but may be used for task lighting and other purposes as well. Eyeballs, bulging from their fixtures, are the most obtrusive of recessed lights, but are also the most versatile.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Home Service Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:room lighting design
Author:Carlsen, Gregg
Publication:The Family Handyman
Date:Nov 1, 1991
Previous Article:Classic wood walls: turn an ordinary room into something spectacular - with wood paneling.
Next Article:Great gifts for kids: four easy-to-build projects to thrill the children on your holiday gift list.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters