How to Install Recessed Lighting for Dramatic Effect

Install recessed low-voltage lights, even in the toughest situation—by fishing wires.

Give your room a stunning new look and feel by adding DIY recessed lights. Even if you don’t have access to the ceiling from the attic, you can install these lights by following the directions shown here. You don’t have to tear up your ceiling either. We’ll show you how to add these lights to your room with minimum ceiling tear-out and patching. You can also use these wiring techniques to install other types of ceiling lighting.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

TIME

Multi-day

COMPLEXITY

Complex

COST

$100 - $500

Lights cost $20 to $40 each, depending on style.

Install recessed lights with minimal tear-out

Thinking about adding recessed lights but don’t want to tear out your whole ceiling to do it? Luckily you don’t have to. With a little ingenuity and special remodeling housings, you can install a roomful of recessed lights with minimal drywall tear-out and patching.

We’ll show you how to install the housing and fish the wires through a narrow, strategically placed slot cut in your ceiling. The techniques we’ll show you will work in almost any situation, but if you’re lucky enough to have access to the ceiling from the attic, the job will be even easier. However, this is not a project for novices. You should know the basics of connecting wires and installing electrical boxes.

In this article, we’ll be focusing on recessed lights, although you could install any other type of light fixtures using the same techniques to run the wire. Depending on your choice of fixture, lamp and trim, recessed lights can provide general illumination or accent lighting. In this story, we’re installing a number of 4-in. diameter low-voltage fixtures that work best for providing accent lighting. These operate on regular household current but have built-in transformers to power the low-voltage halogen lamps. We’ll show how to add a second switch to control a group of 5-in. diameter recessed lights designed to provide overall illumination.

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Draw a lighting plan

Planning ahead is the key to getting the lights in the right spot. Begin by measuring your room. Using graph paper, make a scale drawing in which 1/4 in. equals 1 ft. Sketch in the furniture arrangement and any wall-mounted feature you’d like to accent. Decide what you want to accomplish with the lights. For example, you may want to provide accent lighting for a favorite piece of art, add task lighting over your hobby area and improve the general room lighting.

Take your drawing to a lighting showroom for help with the design. A knowledgeable lighting salesperson will help you choose the right combination of recessed light housings, trims and lamps and help figure out the ideal locations on the ceiling. If you feel confident in your planning ability, buy the lights from a home center instead. You’ll save a little money but have a smaller selection of fixtures to choose from. Make sure to obtain an electrical permit from your local building department and have the work inspected when you’re done.

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Find a circuit to provide power

To power your new lights, find an existing receptacle or switch box that contains a “hot” wire on a suitable circuit. The National Electrical Code prohibits any connections to “dedicated” circuits such as 20-amp small-appliance circuits in kitchens or dining areas, 20-amp laundry room circuits and 20-amp bathroom circuits.

Also make sure the circuit you choose won’t be overloaded by the additional lights. To determine this, first shut off the circuit in the main panel. Then go through the house turning on lights and other electrical items to find what is already on the circuit. Add up the wattage of everything that doesn’t go on. Add to this total the wattage of the lights you’ll be installing. We recommend a maximum connected load of 1,440 watts for a 15-amp circuit and 1,920 for a 20-amp circuit. (The amps are printed on the circuit breaker or fuse.) If the total amperage exceeds these amounts, you’ll have to find a new circuit.

Try to find a power source for your new switch that’s convenient to fish wires from, preferably in the same wall (in either the same room or the room opposite, or a basement or attic). After you’ve chosen the electrical box to tie in to, turn off the circuit breaker or unscrew the fuse that controls the circuit. Some electrical boxes contain more than one circuit. Before doing any work in the box, test all the wires with a non-contact voltage tester to make sure they’re “dead.”

Calculating Box Sizes

To figure the minimum box size required by the National Electrical Code, add: 1 for each hot and neutral wire entering the box, 1 for all the ground wires combined, 1 for all the clamps combined, and 2 for each device (switch or receptacle, but usually not light fixtures) installed in the box. Multiply this figure by 2 for 14-gauge wire and 2.25 for 12-gauge wire to get the minimum box volume in cubic inches. Plastic boxes have the volume stamped inside.

CAUTION

If you have aluminum wiring, call in a licensed pro who is certified to work with it. This wiring is dull gray, not the dull orange that’s characteristic of copper.

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Remove the old box

Whether you choose a switch or outlet to provide power, replace the existing electrical box with a new one. Photo 2 shows how. With the old box out of the way, you’ll be able to use the hole to fish in the new cable (Photo 6). Then determine the box size required (see “Calculating Box Sizes” at the end of this article) and install a new remodeling box that’s large enough to safely hold all the wires (Photo 11). We used a 20-cu.-in. plastic box. Make sure the new box has built-in cable clamps.

CAUTION

If you have aluminum wiring, call in a licensed pro who is certified to work with it. This wiring is dull gray, not the dull orange that’s characteristic of copper.

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Cut a slot for easy access

Now that you’ve located a source of power and have a plan showing your recessed light and switch locations, it’s time to figure out how you’ll run the cables. Start by locating the ceiling framing members (joists) with a stud finder and determining which direction they run. They’re usually spaced 16 in. or 24 in. on center. Sketch the joist locations onto your lighting plan. Now draw in the cable route. We installed a standard recessed light housing in the slot where we had access to the ceiling framing. In other areas, we installed remodeling housings that mount in a hole cut in the drywall.

Figure A shows how we ran the cables for our lights. Make sure the junction boxes on the remodeling housings are listed for “through branch circuit wiring” so you can run at least one cable in and one out to the next fixture. Check the labeling on the housing to be sure. Some recessed light junction boxes allow more than two cables.

If you don’t have access to the joist spaces from the attic, remove a 12-to 16-in.wide piece of drywall from the ceiling (Photo 1). Cut the slot perpendicular to the joists about 6 in. out from the wall and make it long enough to include all the joist spaces that will contain a recessed fixture and the power source. Ideally, the opening will be in line with the switch and power source so you can use it to drill down through the top plate (Photo 4). If not, you may have to cut another opening.

Before you cut any holes, make a small hole and measure the depth of the joists to make sure your recessed light housings will fit. Most housings require about 7 in. Look through the slot with a flashlight to check each joist space for obstructions. Then measure and mark the center of each recessed light according to your plan, adjusting the position as needed to avoid joists and other obstacles. Finally, mark and cut the holes for the housings (Photo 1).

CAUTION

Some insulating materials, ceiling spray textures, plaster and joint compounds made before 1979 contain asbestos. Breathing asbestos can cause cancer and other health problems. Call your local health department for information on testing for asbestos.

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Fish the cable

Select cable according to the circuit rating—14-gauge for 15-amp and 12-gauge for 20-amp. Photos 4 – 7 show methods of drilling and fishing the plastic sheathed cable.

Here are a few tips:

  • Uncoil, cut off and straighten a length of cable at least 15 percent longer than you think you’ll need before fishing it through the framing.
  • Leave about 2 ft. of extra cable at each opening.
  • Staple the cable to the joists where you have access (Photo 8).
  • Run only one or two cables through each 3/4-in. hole you’ve drilled. Keep holes at least 2 in. from the top and bottom of the joists.
  • Strip 12 in. of sheathing from the cable before sliding the cable into the electrical box. The sheathing should extend 1/4 in. beyond the clamp (Photo 10).

When you’re through running cables, make final connections at the lights, switch and receptacle (Photos 8 and 11 and Figure B) and install the remodel housings in the ceiling (Photo 9). If you’re using low-voltage lights like ours and want to dim them, install a special magnetic dimmer. Replace the ceiling drywall and patch the ceiling after the electrical inspector has approved the work. Then paint the ceiling and finally install the recessed light trim and lamps (Photo 12). Follow the instructions included with your recessed light for exact installation procedures.

Buying Recessed Lights

A recessed light assembly consists of the housing (Photos 8 and 9), trim (Photo 12) and lamp. Labels inside the housing list the compatible trim styles and lamps for each. Deviating from the specifications can cause inefficient lighting, and more important, dangerous overheating.

Home centers stock a selection of basic housings and trim that cost from $20 to $40 depending on style. You’ll have to special-order less-common lights like the 4-in. low-voltage fixtures we’re using. Lighting showrooms usually have a wider selection and salespeople who can help you design your lighting and order the fixtures. Manufacturers’ catalogs are another great source of information, including a complete list of housings, trim styles and lamps as well as design tips and technical information.

For open framing, buy standard housings that include mounting brackets (Photo 8). If you’re fishing wires into an existing ceiling, buy remodeling housings (Photo 9). Make sure to buy IC (insulation contact) rated housings if your recessed lights will be covered with insulation. Non-IC housings require a 1/2-in. minimum separation from combustible material and a 3-in. minimum separation from thermal insulation. For extra energy efficiency in insulated ceilings, look for airtight housings. Low-voltage housings operate on standard 115-volt wiring but have built-in transformers that allow the use of small 12-volt MR-16 lamps.

The quality of light and the ability to precisely focus the beam by changing lamp types or trim styles make low-voltage recessed lights especially useful for accent lighting. The trade-off is higher price. Including housing, trim and lamp, the average cost of each fixture is about $100.

Recessed lights highlighting a table. Recessed lights can emphasize areas in your home.
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Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

  • Hammer
  • Tape measure
  • Stud finder
  • 4-in-1 screwdriver
  • Needle-nose pliers
  • Electrical tape
  • Drywall saw
  • Voltage tester
  • Stepladder
  • Non-contact voltage tester
  • Utility knife
  • Wire stripper/cutter

Hacksaw blade
Right-angle drill (rental)
Fish tape reel

Recessed light fixtures
Recessed light housings
Remodeling boxes
Cable