Recessed Lighting Renovation Guide

By Amanda Lutz Updated April 16, 2024

Recessed lighting fixtures are attractive alternatives to light fixtures such as pendants, ceiling lights, chandeliers, and half-dome lights. They sit in cavities built into your home’s ceilings and increase the total amount of light in your rooms. Read on to learn about different types of recessed lighting and to gain tips for a downlight installation project.

Types of Recessed Lighting

There are many types of recessed lighting bulbs to choose from, with options such as smart bulbs, colored bulbs, dimmable bulbs, warm or cold bulbs, and directional lights. You must consider housing when deciding which type is right for you, as this plays a major role in the lights’ safety and in the technical specifications of the bulbs you can use.

The housing is the exterior shell of the fixture that sticks up into the ceiling and the subfloor or attic space above it. From below, all you can see of the housing is the exterior rim that sits flush with your ceiling and the interior of the housing near the bulb.

There are two main categories of recessed lighting housing: insulation contact-rated (IC-rated) and non-IC-rated. Read more about each type of housing below.

IC-Rated Housing

IC-rated lighting fixture housings are designed to sit safely against insulation. They have air gaps built into their designs but remain airtight from outside elements, mitigating the risk of fire breaking out.

IC housings have a double-can design, meaning that lights sit within one can that’s surrounded by a second one that features an air gap. The exterior of the inner can and the interior of the outer one don’t touch, so heat dissipates. So, there’s no risk of the insulation fibers making contact with hot surfaces or live wiring. 

IC-rated cans are typically silver and larger than non-IC-rated options. These cans are ideal if your attic has blown-in insulation or insulation batts that may expand or move over time.

Non-IC-Rated Housing

Non-IC-rated housings are suitable for spaces that don’t have insulation, making a protective outer can less critical. These units are typically small, white, and feature vent holes around the can body that disperse light.

There must be at least 3 inches of clearance around a non-IC-rated can, or it won’t be energy efficient. This type of recessed lighting works best in subceilings that will never include insulation and in homes in mild climates that don’t need additional insulation. You can also consider canless lights.

Cost of Recessed Lighting Renovation

The average cost of installing a new recessed lighting fixture is $180*, though there are many variables that could affect the final price. There may also be differences based on whether the lights are being added as part of a retrofit or for new-construction housing.

Sometimes installing recessed lighting is more than simply replacing existing lighting features. Homeowners’ installation projects may include adding light fixtures around the perimeter of a room, putting recessed can lighting above islands or bars, or placing it on a bathroom’s ceiling.

Most homes start with builder-grade or construction-grade lighting, which include the minimum number of lighting fixtures for a space.

*Cost data in this article sourced from Angi.

Hiring a Lighting Designer

Lighting designers can help you decide which types and sizes of lights work best for different rooms. A combination of task lighting and general lighting can drastically change the look of a living room with multiple entrances or orientations, for example, while kitchen light should put an emphasis on appliances and countertops.

Installation Complexity

Some recessed lights are tougher to install than others. Installing a fixture on a hardwood ceiling is more difficult than installing it in drywall, for example. Insulation, heating vents, and pipes may also require more complicated installation techniques.

Number of Lights

A larger number of lights will require more materials and labor, causing the project to get pricier. Many electricians offer better per-unit pricing on big projects, so you may save money by installing recessed lights across your whole home instead of completing one room at a time.

Technical Specifications of Lighting

IC-rated housings are more expensive than non-IC-rated materials. Smart and remote-enabled lighting will also increase the cost of a recessed lighting renovation project.

The location of recessed lighting units in your house could also change the price of installation. Shallow and vaulted ceilings frequently require specially shaped cans or ultrathin housings while bathrooms need can lights that are rated for wet environments.

Wiring Considerations

If you plan to install many recessed lights in a single room, consider that they may each require their own switches and wiring configurations. An electrician will need to install additional wires, create a new circuit instead of wiring everything in a series, and install a new light switch plate, which requires drywall work.

Installing Recessed Lighting

You can probably install new recessed lighting as a do-it-yourself (DIY) project if you have experience with lighting and electrical home improvement projects. Follow the steps below to install your own recessed lighting:

  1. Decide which type of lighting you want: Consider factors such as IC-rated cans, whether you want lights to be part of an existing circuit or a new one, and your home’s amperage requirements.
  2. Gather your tools and materials: You’ll need properly rated electrical cables, wire cutters and strippers, a voltage tester, a stud finder, and a drywall saw. Wear protective equipment including a mask and eye protection. Consider buying a light kit for easier DIY installation.
  3. Cut holes for the recessed lighting: Map out the holes for each recessed light. These openings should be at least 6 inches away from the joists and some distance away from fixtures such as pipes and vents. Draw the circular pattern of the recessed light you’ve chosen, and cut the hole. Repeat for each fixture.
  4. Run the wiring across each hole: Run wiring from each previous light junction box to the next from the attic. Cut the wire at each recessed lighting cavity, and strip at least 4 inches off both ends.
  5. Install the recessed light wiring: Pull the wire into the canned light’s junction box, or attach and tightly connect the wiring. Most canned lights are delicate enough to dangle, so you can complete this step for every light in a series at once.
  6. Install the light into position: Push light housing into the new cavity, and clip it in place on top of the drywall. Firmly insert the light trim so it’s flush with the ceiling. Screw in the appropriate bulb for the housing.

Consider hiring a professional electrician if you plan to wire a new circuit into your home’s electrical panel. It’s possible to accidentally overload the panel or install circuits improperly.

We also recommend hiring a professional lighting installer if you have vaulted ceilings, if the interiors of your ceilings are hard to access, or if you’re uncomfortable working with electricity.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Recessed Lighting

A recessed light housing project offers several benefits. You can increase the amount of light in your home and eliminate shadows in areas such as kitchens, bathrooms, and dining rooms. Recessed lighting also offers a chic, timeless look, so you don’t have to worry about updating the style of your fixtures anytime soon. The lights are also ideal for closets, rooms with low ceilings, and basements.

There are some drawbacks to installing recessed lighting, though. It can be a complex project compared to simply purchasing and plugging in decorative lamps, and it increases the amount of energy your home uses. Many homeowners are also nervous about fires, though this can be resolved by purchasing IC-rated housings.

Our Recommendation

Installing recessed lighting in your home may make rooms brighter, easier to work in, and more inviting. Today’s recessed lighting fixtures can feature bulbs of different color temperatures, wattage, and lumens along with features like dimmers, smart lights, and color-changing bulbs.

We recommend hiring a lighting designer who can advise you on the best positions and configurations of recessed lighting. Then, you can add the lights as part of a DIY project or hire an electrician if you’re worried about complications.

Recessed Lighting Renovation FAQ

Does recessed lighting add value to a house?

Recessed lighting can add value to a house by making it more sellable. The home will look updated and photograph better than a darker home with original or minimal lighting.

How long does it take to install recessed lighting?

Professionals can install a recessed lighting fixture in less than four hours.

Where should you not put recessed lights?

You shouldn’t place recessed lights closely together or in the center of a room. This could make the lights look messy or clinical. A professional lighting designer can suggest the right positions for lights in your home.

Are LED recessed lights a fire hazard?

LED lights can be minor fire hazards, but they’re safer than other bulbs that get hot such as halogen lights or incandescent bulbs. You can further mitigate fire risks by installing IC-rated housings and hiring a professional electrician to handle wiring for LED downlights. Many people retrofit LED lights in place of old incandescent or fluorescent lights as they remodel housing.