How to Install a Ceiling Light Fixture (DIYer's Guide)

Step 1

Remove the old fixture. Turn off electricity to the room at the main circuit breaker panel. Double-check that power has been cut by locating and testing the light switch that controls your ceiling fixture.


Next, carefully unscrew and remove the canopy of the old fixture. With the junction box visible, remove the wire nuts and separate the supply wiring from the old fixture. Carefully examine the wires for damage, and if none are frayed or broken, leave the wires exposed for the new fixture.

Step 2: Detach The Wires

Use a bent piece of coat hanger to hang the fixture from the box in order to support it. Unscrew the wire nuts and detach the wire connections.


Make Sure the Power is Off

Test the wires to make sure the power is off. Move

Test the wires to make sure the power is off. Move the tip of a non-contact voltage detector near each wire to make sure the power to all wires in the box is turned off (make sure the light switch is turned on). If the tester lights, switch off circuit breakers or loosen fuses one at a time until the tester light goes off. Disconnect the wires from the light fixture. Leave other wires connected and tucked into the electrical box.

It’s hard to believe, but many of the light fixtures now sold at home centers and lighting showrooms can’t be safely installed in most houses wired before 1985. These fixtures are clearly labeled with a warning that reads “For supply connections, use wire rated for at least 90 degrees C.” The reason is simple: Fixtures with this label generate enough heat to damage the insulation on older wires and cause a fire hazard. Wires manufactured after 1985 are required to have coverings that can withstand the higher temperature.

If you know your wiring was installed before 1985, don’t use fixtures requiring 90-degree–rated supply wires. To confirm that you have 90-degree–rated supply wire, look at the cable jacket or wire insulation. If you have plastic sheathed cable (often referred to as Romex), look for the letters NM-B or UF-B printed on the plastic sheath. If your wiring is fed through conduit, look on the wire insulation for the letters THHN or THWN-2. If you’re still unsure, either call an electrician or choose a fixture that isn’t labeled with a supply wire temperature requirement.

Step 6: Secure The Connections

Wire nuts twist the wires around each other while securing them. Give each wire nut a pull to confirm that the connection is tight. Wrap a couple of inches of electrical tape around the wire and nut to secure the connection.

Test for Ground

Touch the leads of a neon voltage tester between t

Touch the leads of a neon voltage tester between the hot wire and the metal box (or between the hot wire and bare copper ground wire if you have one). If the tester lights, the metal box or bare copper wire is grounded and you can proceed. If the tester doesn’t light, indicating there is no ground, call in a licensed electrician to supply one. (It’s often difficult.) Turn off the power at the main circuit panel before continuing.

Fluorescent Closet Light Fixtures

Convert a Recessed Can to a Non-Recessed Light

When you take on a major renovation or change how you use a space, sometimes even the best recessed lighting is no longer the right choice. In those cases, you can use the existing wiring to replace recessed lighting with a pendant or chandelier fixture using a recessed light conversion kit or change the entire setup of the light and use a standard fixture.

Changing to a Pendant Using a Conversion Kit

A conversion kit requires a bit more effort than installing trim does. Still, the dramatic effect of a pendant light is well worth it when other recessed lighting options won’t do. To get started, choose a pendant light that speaks to your personal style and, just as importantly, has the same-shaped connector at the top as the hole in your ceiling. For example, if you plan to replace a round recessed light, make sure the cap of your new light is round, too. If the cap isn’t big enough to cover the hole in which the current light resides, pick up a ceiling medallion to bridge the gap between the cap and the ceiling. Next, check the conversion kit package to find out what tools you’ll need. Then, gather a ladder, some painter’s tape and a circuit tester. Go to the circuit breaker and turn off the power to the light you’re replacing. (Use the circuit tester periodically throughout the process to make sure the power is off.) Remove the light bulb, then turn the casing and undo the clips on the sides of the recessed fixture to take it out of the ceiling. Leave the light socket where it is, and follow the instructions to install the converter kit.

Once the kit is hanging as part of the socket, get the new fixture ready for mounting. Connect the pendant to the cap, and thread the wires through the fixture, cap and medallion, if you’re using one. Following the instructions that came with the light fixture, connect the wires to the converter kit.

Time to test your connection: Twist a light bulb into the new fixture, then switch on the breaker to see whether the wiring works. Once it does, switch the breaker back off for safety.

Next, use painter’s tape to secure the medallion to the ceiling around the open hole. Mount the fixture according to its instructions, including the cap, and remove the tape afterwards. Remember to turn the circuit breaker back on again once you’re done.

Changing to Standard Fixtures

Depending on the type of recessed lighting you have, you might be able to find a kit to help you change it to a regular fixture. In particular, new-construction fixtures — fixtures to which you had access either through an attic or during construction — are bulky and fit between joists or on T-bars in a drop ceiling, so a conversion kit works well to replace these.

Otherwise, if you want a standard fixture instead of recessed, you may need to do some remodeling in the process. That’s because normal lighting needs an electrical box that attaches to the ceiling. You can make the process easier by using a box for a ceiling fan. Here’s how.

Before You Begin

You have to take care of a few basics before you get started with your replacement project. First, identify any special circumstances that might affect the safety of your new light. If your renovation is in the bathroom, for example, you may have wet-location rated recessed lights. If so, your replacement fixtures also must stand up to wet conditions. Then, choose your fixtures and get ready for installation.


Next, gather your supplies and tools:

  • dropcloth
  • ladder or step ladder that reaches the fixture
  • safety glasses
  • screwdriver
  • circuit tester
  • adjustable wrench
  • needle-nose pliers
  • wire cutter and stripper
  • putty knife
  • drywall
  • drywall clips
  • joint compound
  • sandpaper
  • sandpaper block
  • plastic or other non-metal cable connectors
  • masking tape
  • ceiling fan electrical box that comes with a retrofit brace

Follow The Steps

Now it’s time to install the new fixture. The work itself is straightforward, as long as you have patience.

  1. Turn off the breaker. Before you start working on anything related to the fixture, cut power at the source. Don’t just cut off the power at the wall switch — current can still flow through.
  2. Set up your work area. Lay down a drop cloth and set up the ladder so you can reach the can light easily. Now’s a good time to don your safety glasses, too, so debris doesn’t fall in your eyes.
  3. Remove the old housing. Using the ladder to bring yourself as close as possible to the fixture, first take out the existing light bulb and the trim ring. Then, turn on the light at the wall switch, if there is one, and use the circuit tester to make sure that no power is reaching the socket. Turn the switch back off for good measure. Use a screwdriver or the pliers to take off the remodel clips.
  4. Take down the recessed fixture. Pull the fixture and its electrical box from the ceiling. Open the box, and mark the wiring connections so you can reuse the schematic later. Then detach the fixture’s wires from your home’s wires and connectors.
  5. Install the retrofit brace. Reach into the hole where the old fixture used to be and figure out which way the joists lay. Then, place the brace bar into the hole so that the attachment legs point at them. Center the brace bar over the hole and set the feet so that they hold the bar at the right height. Use a wrench to tighten the bar so it seats firmly between the studs.
  6. Attach the electrical box. Make holes on both sides of the electrical box. These holes should correspond to the house wires that have to connect. Slide a cable connector into each one. Follow the package instructions to attach the box to the brace, then center the box in the ceiling gap and tighten it. Next, thread the wires into the holes, with at least a quarter inch of sheathing sticking out past the connectors and 3 inches past the box face. Move the wires out of your way.
  7. Patch the ceiling. Fix the hole that’s left in the ceiling using drywall. Depending on the size of the hole, you can use putty to hold the drywall in place directly or use tape or clips to pin up the drywall while you putty it. Let the putty dry before you try to install the new light.
  8. Install the new fixture. Follow the instructions that come with the light.
  9. Test your work and clean up. Turn the breaker back on after you’ve connected the new light. Then, test to make sure the light works. Once it does, fold the dropcloth inward on itself to keep from spreading drywall dust, putty and other debris on your floor.

Armed with options abound at different skill levels, you have the know-how to replace recessed lighting in your home! No matter which one you choose, with a little work your house will look stellar in no time.

How to Replace a Fluorescent Ceiling Light

Fluorescent fixtures are a little different.

Step 1: Gain Access to the Wire Splices

Wire connections are generally hidden behind a metal cover in the center of the light; squeeze the sides of that cover together to remove it and gain access to the wire splices. Remove any wire nuts and any ground wire screwed to the light fixture.

Step 2: Remove Bolts or Screws and Lower the Fixture

Fluorescent fixtures are most often held up with toggle bolts through the sheetrock ceiling or possibly with screws into the ceiling joists. Either way, with the wires disconnected, remove these bolts or screws and lower the fixture.

It will be much easier if help is available here, although it is certainly possible to do the job with one person – very few electricians will work in pairs when installing these lights and it is always done with just one worker.

Step 3: Use Mounting Holes or Drill New Ones

Compare the old and new fixtures; if the mounting holes are in the same place, the same holes in the ceiling for toggles can be used. If not, a new hole must be drilled in either the ceiling to match the new light or in the new light to match the ceiling. Most toggle bolts will fit through a 5/8 hold drilled or cut through the sheetrock. If toggles are to be used, 2 new toggle bolts will be needed as 1/2 of the old one is still buried above the ceiling. These may come with your new light, or may have to be purchased separately.

If new holes are to be drilled into the ceiling, make sure they line up across the ceiling electrical box in a straight line with walls. Measure from a side wall to each hole to make sure the distance is the same for the center of the box and for each new hole; otherwise, the light will be crooked on the ceiling.

Step 4: Install the Light

Install the light by bringing the wires through the center knockout hole in the light fixture and pushing the toggle bolts through the holes in the ceiling or screwing directly into joists. Before tightening the screws completely, measure from each end of the light to a nearby wall to make sure it lines up with the wall and isn't crooked. The bolt holes for toggles are much larger than the toggle bolt itself and can easily allow the light to turn slightly, becoming crooked.

Step 5: Reattach and Check Wires

Reattach the black, white, and ground wires. The black wire splices to the black light wire, the white to the white light wire, and the bare ground wire loops around a green ground screw in the light. Then the screw is tightened. Check the splices by tugging on the wires, reinstall the wiring cover, lamps, and any lens of the light fixture.

Turn the power back on and check the light for proper operation. You're finished!

Lamps removed, showing the attachment for a common wiring trough. Squeeze the sides of the trough together to release it from the clip holding it.1 / 3

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2012 Dan Harmon


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