How to Install Recessed Lights in Drop Ceilings

Have a low drop ceiling where surface mount fixtures won’t work? Consider using recessed lights for a modern look and still maintain that ceiling height.

Recessed Lights
Recessed Lights – by Sophia Lorenzi

Things You’ll Need

  • Tape measure
  • Laser level
  • Hammer
  • Nails
  • Cross tee
  • Hole saw
  • Drill

Recessed lighting consists of a can light fixture installed above the ceiling tiles. It is the only type of drop-ceiling lighting where you mount the light fixture in the actual ceiling tile. Careful measurements must be taken so the fixture’s opening lines up with the hole you cut in the tile.

Ceiling tiles cut very easily with either a utility knife or a hole saw. It is wise to purchase a few extra tiles in case a measurement is off. However, the recessed lights base cover will usually hide any minor errors.

Install Recessed Lights in Drop Ceilings Step by Step

Step 1

Measure the height of the room, from the floor to the ceiling. This measurement helps you determine how far apart to place your light fixtures.

If the ceiling is 8 feet high, place the lights 3 feet apart. Place the lights 4 feet apart for a 10 foot ceiling and 5 feet apart for a 12 foot ceiling. You can either maintain exact spacing for your fixtures or center them in the nearest ceiling panel, whichever you prefer.

Step 2

Aim a laser level across the ceiling, along where you will install the first row of light fixtures. This will help you line up the fixtures in a straight line without needing to measure each one’s placement.

Position the first fixture between two ceiling joists and center it over the laser level line. Extend the fixture’s side bars until the end tabs rest tight against the ceiling joists’ sides.

Hammer nails through the tabs’ holes to hold the fixture in place. Move down the laser level and install the next fixture in the same way. Continue until you have installed all the fixtures for that line.

Step 3

Move the laser level over the appropriate length and install the next row of light fixtures. Continue until you have covered the entire ceiling space.

Step 4

Measure the distance from the cross tee’s (the short grid bars) inner edge to the light fixture’s nearest and farthest edges. Transfer these measurements to the back of a ceiling tile.

Then measure from a main tee’s (the longer grid bars) inner edge to the light fixture’s nearest and farthest edges and transfer these to the back of the same ceiling tile.

HOW TO | Installing Recessed Lighting

Step 5

Connect the four measurements so you are left with a plus sign on the back of the ceiling tile. Use a spare cross tee as a straight edge. The location where the lines intersect indicates the center of the light fixture.

Step 6

Center a hole saw over the intersecting lines. Use a hole saw with the same diameter as your light fixture opening. Drill through the ceiling tile.

Step 7

Lift the ceiling tile into the grid opening. Line up the circle cut out with the light fixture’s opening. Lower the ceiling tile onto the grid. Move on to the next light fixture and repeat Steps 4 through 6 with a new ceiling tile.


Hang the ceiling grid before you mount the light fixtures so you know how they will be positioned in the grid.