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How to Install Recessed Lights in a Drop Ceiling

How to Install Recessed Lights in a Drop Ceiling

Posted by Chris Johnson on Sep 17th 2015

A drop ceiling is a very common feature in offices, basements, theaters, and schools. It's made from a metal grid and "tiles" or "panels" hung below the structural ceiling. Also known as a secondary ceiling, suspended ceiling, T-bar ceiling, or false ceiling, it most often conceals air ducts or pipes for a clean look in a previously unfinished area. Often, these ceilings feature recessed can lights - a sleek option to illuminate a space without diminishing any headroom.

Whether you're building a brand new drop ceiling complete with recessed cans, or adding them to an existing ceiling, you'll need to accommodate some special electrical and structural needs with your installation.

Follow these steps to add recessed lights to your drop ceiling:

1. Find the right lights.

Heat is your biggest concern when choosing recessed lights for your ceiling. If a light generates too much heat, especially around plastic surfaced or fiberglass panels, it can create a fire hazard. LED recessed light fixtures run cooler than other light sources, so they're generally your best option. You should also choose lights with adjustable mounting arms, or heavy duty clips that can attach to support wires or bars above the ceiling. Some canless LED fixtures have separate mounting plates available to purchase separately to help install into drop ceilings.

2. Layout your lights.

Use graph paper to make a scale drawing of your room, so you can plan where each light should go. You should space them out according to your ceiling height, any focal points that you want to add, and how bright you want your room's ambient light to be. For more detailed advice on how to layout your recessed lights, check out this article: How To Layout Recessed Lighting in 4 Easy Steps.

3. Establish supports.

Drop ceilings are too delicate to support the weight of recessed lights on their own. Also, as your structure settles and shifts, the drop ceiling will move. Install extra wire supports over the tile to help hold the lights - one wire for each of the four corners of the tile. Using support bars or blocks with an additional frame that rests on the ceiling grid will work too. Make sure you can mount the light so it's flush with the face of the tile. T-grid mounting plates are available for canless LED downlight fixtures to help support the weight.

4. Cut holes.

On each ceiling tile where you're adding a recessed light, trace the light's outline. Do this in the exact center of the tile, and double check that the opening is sized according to your light's installation instructions. Cut the first hole out using a keyhole saw or utility knife. Dust off any loose particles and set the panel back into its opening. If you mistakenly cut a whole too large, don't worry, extended goof ring trims are available to mask any imperfections made in the ceiling while cutting.

5. Position the lights.

Take out one panel next to the panel you just cut. Place the light up over the cut panel and attach it to the supports. Make sure it's positioned over the hole.

6. Wire the lights.

If you're not familiar with how to wire your lights to power, it's best to hire an electrician. Most municipalities require a certified professional to connect the lights into your home's main electrical box and inspect the circuit. This can be very dangerous to do if you're not trained for it.

7. Finish up.

Install the light bulbs into the cans (if necessary) and snap the trim ring onto the housing. Turn on the lights, and voila!

For more information, visit the recessed lighting page.

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