How to update old recessed lights to LED

May 04, 2021

A tutorial on how to easily change your energy sucking recessed lights with LED versions!

I've been working on this lighting project (that has already saved us a ton of money!) slow but sure since early this year. It makes a BIG difference in both how your rooms look and your electrical bill!

When we were having some electrical work done for the new basement built ins, the electrician noted how many recessed lights we have in the basement -- a ton! He recommended looking into replacing the standard can lights with an LED version that would save a us a lot of money. 

He told us it was easy to change them out, so I started doing some research. It's a quick change and you don't need any electrical experience! Turning off your lights at the breaker is all the electrical knowledge you'll need.

Even though we have plenty of light down in the basement, my photos were usually dark. You can see how grainy the wall and ceiling are in this "before" photo I took: 
westchester gray before

While I worked on that build I started changing out the lights as well -- what a difference!: 
huge DIY entertainment wall with cabinets

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I found my LED lights at Lowe's, but you can find them at any hardware store or online. I'll share links for a few versions at the end of the post:

LED recessed lights save money

You'll want to look for this specific version that has the base that you screw in like a light bulb. Any other version takes electrical know how and isn't really necessary. 

We loved that you can change the warmth of the lights with these: 
Adjustable light color LED can lights

You have to pick what warmth you want before installing, but it's very easy to change them to a different "color" after they are in the ceiling. 

Before you start, if you have the adjustable option, decide on the warmth you want first. Well, you may want to install one and see how it looks to decide. But after picking, I highly recommend going through the lights before installation and moving them to the right spot. Otherwise you'll forget and turn them all on and only one will be right. Speaking from experience. ;)
adjustable warmth led can lights

Soft white is the most "yellow" or warmest version, and the least bright. Cool daylight is a more white look and much brighter. Daylight or cool daylight are what I prefer for bathrooms or spaces without natural light. 

Mine came with a bracket that didn't work for our fixtures, so I had to remove them: 
how to change to led can lights

And replace them with the wire clips that come with the lights: 
change to led recessed lights

See how I have the clips pulled all the way out? Our ceiling holes are six inches. For five inches you want to install them closer to the fixture. Smaller options are available as well. 

That's the only prep to get them ready for installation! To replace your old fixtures, first TURN OFF THE POWER at the breaker box. This process is almost as easy as replacing a light bulb, but you will be up inside the fixture where there are wires. Always better safe than sorry. 

Remove the light bulb and then just pull down on the metal trim: 
how to change to led recessed lights

Grab the metal clips and squeeze to remove them from the ceiling fixture: 
how to remove recessed light fixtures

Then grab the part where the bulb screws in and squeeze the two metal brackets on the side to remove it from the metal can: 
easily replace old recessed lights

Now you're ready to install the new one! 

Take your LED light and screw it in like a light bulb: 
how to install new LED can lights

Grab the metal clips and squeeze them into the brackets inside the ceiling fixture: 
replace can lights to save money

Make sure the wires are tucked in above the fixture and then push it up into the ceiling. That's it!

Attaching the new light with the metal clips is the hardest part, and even that isn't bad. I found it helpful to wear rubber garden gloves when I was installing a bunch of cans at a time. 

These lights aren't just money savers, they look much better (in my opinion) than the standard recessed trim kit. The new ones don't create a dark hole in the ceiling when the lights are off: 

You can get LED can lights that are completely flush with the ceiling as well. 

I've replaced all but a couple recessed lights in our house -- and it was a lot! But once you get the hang of it, it only takes a couple minutes each. 

I finished up our loft this week. It's hard to capture the huge difference in photos, especially if you are keeping the warmth at a softer level like the originals. 

The LED versions have 70 more lumens than the incandescent bulbs we had before. So at the very least, even at the warmest light, they are still brighter! Here's the before: 
small upstairs loft layout

And here's the after!:
the difference LED bulbs make

I used the warm white setting and it's much brighter and way less yellow! 

I've talked about changing your bulbs to cooler tones in some rooms for years now. The slightly cooler lights take all of the yellow out of the space and let you see the real colors in the room!

Here's another view before:
small upstairs loft furniture

And after -- see how the lights wash the walls with more light?:
brighter cooler led lights

You can't beat it -- brighter, cleaner light for less money!
  • In general, I prefer the warmer tones in living spaces and bedrooms. But in rooms with no windows or very little (like a basement) I always go with the cooler lights. Bathrooms are the perfect place for daylight or cooler bulbs -- you'll see what your makeup TRULY looks like!
  • Depending on how many bulbs and what warmth you use, you may want to consider adding a dimmer switch as well. If you go with a cooler tone it can be really bright!
  • The metal trim on the standard recessed lights tends to yellow over time. I've heard that's due to the high heat from recessed bulbs. LED bulbs will cool down rooms with can lights, especially if you use halogen bulbs before!
  • Overall these save a ton of money -- our electrical bill dropped by $70 and I'm not even done replacing them all. We'll make up the cost of the new fixtures in just a few months! 

Have you changed out your old recessed can lights with brighter, energy saving LED versions? I've finally embraced the LED -- I used to hoard incandescent bulbs. 😂 Now I appreciate how far the LED options have come!

Here are a few LED can light options. You'll save money by buying a set:
comparing incandescent and daylight bulbs

blue and white wallpaper in hallway white door

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  1. Hi! Our electrician recommended these earlier this year and wow, what a difference! So easy to change out and they look so much cleaner. We have a lot of recessed lights so I still have a ways to go to replace them all, but it's on the list.

  2. Hi! This is probably a dumb question but why can’t you just screw in LED lightbulbs instead? I feel like I’m missing something. As the lightbulbs in our recessed lights burn out, we have just added a LED bulb as a replacement. They don’t dim well but other than that they seem fine. Just curious as I’m wondering if we’ve done something wrong by not swapping out the whole kit. Thanks!

    1. Oh you can! Not a dumb question at all. The bulbs just don't last nearly as long as these, and if you compare the cost these are a better deal (considering how long they last). A lot of people find them more aesthetically pleasing. And these dim beautifully!

    2. Mainly aesthetics. these kits look so much better, also they last longer. some of the cheap LED bulbs aren't worth the cost of the box they come in. The adjustability of the kits is really nice too. Threading in an LED bulb into a down light that was never intended to have one in the first place is really the wrong approach. a new LED assembly which was designed to be LED is the smart choice

  3. You've never shown your loft before. Very nice. That's the very first thing we did in our new to us house was change every light to LED. I prefer brighter than the sun's surface everywhere. It really helps with keeping the house clean since I can see everything.

  4. Ohhhh! I see a new project in my future!!! Cute "Nook" space!

  5. Hi, A quick question. How do we replace these LEDs in the future? Follow the same process? Thanks.

    1. They last for 35,000 hours, so for decades! You would need to replace the fixture after that.

    2. Yes, however... doubtful that you will ever need to. These should last well over 20 years. Maybe longer...

  6. We've been replacing our cans with the CREE retrofit kit like these from Amazon. LOVE them too! They are also physically cooler. Our studio room used to get SO HOT with all the lights on, but now we can run them all and it doesn't get over heated. Very nice!

  7. I didn't retrofit my pot lights, but I did change them to LED bulbs. I've changed a lot of my house lights to LEDs. We've had a few duds where we had to replace bulbs well before 35k hours, but mostly it's been a lot better.

  8. We switched out our lights just after reading your article - still have one to replace over a staircase. What a great update.


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