Installing Recessed Lights in 7 Easy Steps

installing recessed lights

First, put on your blue dork suit and ridiculous yellow visor hat. Then rock, scissors, paper to see which wire to cut first.

Installing one or two recessed lights is a great starter project for learning to wire your basement and electrical wiring in general.

If your basement is unfinished then you probably only have those little "string lights" illuminating your space.

But if you're like me then maybe your kids have started to play down there. Or maybe you have a poker game down there once in awhile or some storage shelves.  Either way, you need some lights!

One of those lights should be controlled by a switch. You can replace that light with a can light without have to deal with re-wiring the switch itself. Then you can extend that circuit to install 3 or 4 more recessed lights in that area.

I don't want to scare you off, but if you read through to the end of the post I'll explain the one thing I failed to do that nearly knocked me out cold.  But please, for now, keep reading.

7 Easy Steps to Installing Recessed Lights in your Basement

  • housing for recessed lighting

    6" HALO recessed light housing. The trim (the white part) is sold separately.

    Buy the can light - Go to the electrical section of your favorite big box store.  (attn: Home Depot or Lowe's: your name here if you want to sponsor this website). Look for  6" recessed lighting housing (just tell the guy in the orange aprons that it's your first time installing "can lights" in your basement).

    • Get the kind thats "IC rated" these can be covered by insulation without a fire risk.
    • Here is a link to the recessed light housing that I bought. Amazon, free shipping with prime, great price! 4.5 stars.
  • Turn off the power to that circuit -  Don't just use the light switch. I know you. I know you'll want to just flip the switch and work away.  I know this because you are me and that's what I did... at first. Start the habit today of turning off the power at the electrical box. You are already in the basement for Pete's sake,  just walk over.
  • installing recessed lighting voltage tester

    Easy to use voltage (line) tester. Click to buy from Amazon. (affl)

    Test the circuit with a line tester- Test the circuit with your voltage (line) tester to make sure that it's dead.  Better yet, test it before turning off the power to make sure the tester is working properly, then turn off the power and test again to make sure there no current running through it.

  • Remove the old light - Okay, the power is off. Your wife is yelling at you from upstairs because you accidentally killed the power to the TV while figuring out which circuit breaker to flip.  Deal with it woman, your man is going to provide you with light for God sake. Unscrew and dis-mantle the old light.  Un-wire it. DON"T cut any wire unless you must, you'll want all the length you can get.
    • WATCH-OUT:  If there are two wires leading into the old light then it's likely that circuit continues upstairs or elsewhere in the basement.  You'll have to wire this circuit back in when you install your can light.  It's not a big deal but just be aware.
    • CODE CHECK:  You cannot join two wires anywhere in the ceiling to make your circuit longer. Technically it works but it's a safety violation almost anywhere in the world and won't pass inspection.  You must join wires within an accessible junction box. Each recessed light you install comes with the appropriate junction box.
  • Install the new recessed light - Nail the can light in between the floor joists. They have adjustable support racks so the width is adjustable.
  • Wire the can light - It should come with some ridiculously hard to read instructions that are way to small for mortal man. I don't have room in this post to explain every step but even if I did I think I'd make you read them anyway, it's a right of passage that I wouldn't want you to miss. :-)
  • Turn on the power - Bask in the glorious light that is only possible because of your eminently smart brain and electrical knowledge. Or, run upstairs quickly and explain that the sound you just heard is a minor setback and the power should be back on shortly. Then go back and read those books you bought but just skimmed through.

Great Electrical Books for Beginners

I would highly recommend that you read at least 1 but preferably 2 professional books on the basics of electricity and electrical wiring.  Here are two of the electrical books I read, both of which I thought were excellent.

What I failed to do when installing my first recessed light

The first time I did this exact project I didn't test the line (didn't have a line tester then). I prepped and marked and followed the line and thought I had killed the power but when I went to cut... BAM! Big blue arc of light, and a big shock that knocked me off the chair I was standing on.

I was fine. I was at least using the proper rubber coated wire stripper for cutting the wire so I'm sure that helped. If there's one thing you do, buy and use a simple voltage tester

basement finishing jasonNow what are you waiting for? Try it this weekend.

Go to Home Depot at lunch and buy the can light, a line tester and a wire stripper and get started. Or go to amazon right now and order them for delivery straight to your house.

You'll have more light, save money and feel awesome.  Good luck!

Cheers - Jason 

DISCLAIMER : Working with electricity can be dangerous, please read and adhere to the safety recommendations found in the books I've recommended.  If you follow the steps in this article you are doing so of your own will and volition, I cannot be held liable for any injuries that you may incur.

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Questions and Comments

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  1. Herb says

    Jason,
    How do you calculate the number and placement of the cans for the basement lighting especially if I decide to go with LED lights?

  2. Patricia says

    Jason,
    I like your easy-to-understand and funny lighting lesson. Having never installed lights in a basement, I wanted to make sure there wasn't something I was missing about the diy. Thank you. Some of us, however, are in the reverse situation of which gender is doing the work and which is complaining about the television going off.

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