Because drilling a bunch of holes in the ceiling isn’t terrifying at all, right?
When R told me about his vision of replacing the brass-and-wood ceiling fan in our living room with recessed lights, I gave two enthusiastic thumbs up.
Despite our open concept floor plan, our living room is kinda small. Eliminating a bulky light fixture and replacing it with tons of bright white LED lights hidden in the ceiling seemed like a great way to
trick people into thinking the room is bigger than it actually is open up some space and bring more light into the room.
And since we already had recessed lights in the kitchen, it would be a great way to tie the two rooms together and establish continuity.
When R told me that actually his vision was to install the lights ourselves… my enthusiasm for the project
plummeted wavered slightly.
R insisted we could handle it and reminded me of all the money we’d save by doing it ourselves (assuming we didn’t burn the house down or turn our ceiling into a piece of Swiss cheese). Next thing I knew, I was sulking in the lighting aisle at Home Depot glumly eating a slice of pizza as R shopped for a power tool attachment that could drill 6″ holes in sheetrock.
Luckily this project conveniently coincided with R’s parents visiting from England, so I was more than happy to hand over my (metaphorical) hard hat and assist from the sidelines as R and his dad tackled the tricky parts together.
Step One: Assess the Situation
Replacing a single light fixture (or the ceiling fan from hell) with multiple recessed lights is NOT an even exchange, and each additional light will increase the load on your circuit.
Think about it as a matter of multiplication, not division. That means when you’re looking up at that ugly light fixture hanging down from your ceiling, don’t assume that the electricity powering that one light can be shared or divided between six new lights. Rather, understand that each new light you install on that circuit will multiply the amount of power being used.
Therefore, if you’re planning on hijacking an existing light fixture for your DIY lighting project, your first step should be making sure you have enough juice for the job. Take a field trip to the breaker box and identify what circuit your existing light is on. The circuit breaker will also be labeled with the amperage — usually 15 or 20 amps.
Once you’ve figured out your power source and amperage, the next step is to identify everything powered by that circuit (wall outlets, other lights, etc.) and draw a balance sheet to add up the total load on the circuit.
Keep in mind that you should never utilize more than 80% of a circuit’s capacity. For a 15 amp circuit, 80% is 1440 watts. If recessed lights push you too close (or over) that limit, it might be time to reconsider.
After doing the math and verifying that the 15 amp circuit powering our ceiling fan got the green light, we moved on to the planning phase…
Step Two: Get to Know Your Ceiling
After turning off the breaker and removing the ceiling fan, the guys spent an afternoon measuring, marking for studs and joists, and creating a constellation of push-pins in the ceiling to represent the various light configurations we could chose from (while R’s mom and I watched from below and muttered helpful words of encouragement like, “this is crazy,” and “are you sure we should be doing this?!”)
Working around the hole from the ceiling fan and an existing eyeball spotlight centered over the fireplace, here’s the plan we came up with for five new lights:
You’ll notice our plan doesn’t actually utilize the original ceiling fan hole. That’s more or less because the previous owners had stuck a piece of wood in there to support the fan, and we couldn’t be bothered to deal with it. Instead, we decided to patch the existing hole and move the wires over to a fresh hole for our center light.
Step Three: Picking Out our Lights
There are two components to a recessed light: the can (a metal can that hides inside the ceiling and houses the light bulb) and the trim (that’s the decorative part that surrounds the light bulb, usually flush with the ceiling, and conceals the mouth of the can).
You’ll see two types of cans: new construction cans (which have a boxier design that affixes to framework before sheetrock has been installed) and remodel cans (for buffoons like us, who just want to cut a hole in the ceiling and stick a light up there). Unless your lighting project involves tearing down your ceiling to the studs, you’ll want the remodel cans.
To match the existing recessed lights in the kitchen, we chose to use the same 6″ satin nickel trim on our new recessed lights. We wanted the eyeball light over our fireplace to stand out from the rest of the recessed lights, but we also wanted it to look cohesive with the rest of the room… so we found a matching satin nickel trim set to upgrade it.
Step Four: Cutting Holes
When all the calculating, marking, planning, shopping, and prepping was done, it was time to finally put some holes in the ceiling.
We all exchanged an apprehensive glance, acknowledging that we were about to take the first step beyond the point of no return.
The adjustable hole cutter we used looked like the lovechild of Freddy Kreuger and a drill bit.
You set the dimensions of your hole (in our case 6″), then affix to your drill along with a large plastic cup / shield that collects any falling debris.
In a display of my renewed confidence in this project, I volunteered to climb the ladder and cut our first hole (a role I very quickly passed to R’s dad, after realizing just how much upper body strength it requires to balance on a ladder while simultaneously butchering your ceiling with tiny spinning razorblades).
It’s the kind of job that sucks so much, that when your reward drywall donut finally falls from the ceiling, you don’t even question why the drill hole is off center…
Repeat four more times.
Step Five: Ridiculously Impossible Wiring
Recessed lights are designed to be chained together, making it incredibly easy to carry power into one fixture, then out to the next using 14/2 Romex.
Fun FYI: Romex is rated by gauge / number of conductors, so 14/2 would be a 14 gauge wire with 2 conductors (black and white) plus a bare ground wire. #TheMoreYouKnow
Here was our plan for wiring the lights:
Don’t let the diagram fool you, this was a lot easier said than done. R and his dad had to bore through joists and snake wire to and from each location, all through the tiny 6″ holes in the ceiling.
Needless to say, creative genius ensued…
The pups and I busied ourselves doing the only thing we really could do at that point: watch in awe.
They pulled it off!
Step Six: Wiring the Lights
We double checked that the breaker was off and used a voltage tester to make sure all of our live wires were as dead as a doornail.
Then, using push-in connectors on the light housings and the Romex that had already been fed to and from each hole, R and his dad wired the lights…
…while I installed a new dimmer switch.
(A note about dimmer switches: just like your circuit, these guys have a maximum capacity. The dimmer we used could handle up to 150 watts of LED bulbs, or 600 watts of standard light bulbs).
Finally, it was time for the moment of truth… time to slide the lights into the ceiling and turn the breaker back on.
Annddd…. tah-dah! Let there be (recessed) light!
Disclaimer: we are not professionals, and this post is simply a regurgitation of what we learned while attempting to install some lights in our house. DIY at your own risk!
This post contains affiliate links. For more info on what that means, check out the Dreaded Disclosures Page.