Improving home energy efficiency: removing recessed lighting fixtures

Last year (2008) we were starting to look at alternatives to our oil-fired burner for heating our house. The house is an almost rectangular 35x60 ft ranch a little over 30 years old, and came with a 1000-gallon buried oil tank, no longer allowed in town codes, so we knew we had to at least get rid of that some time. We finally got that taken care of a few weeks ago. How we're going to heat our house this winter we're still not quite sure. Anyway... one of the interesting options then (and now) was a geothermal heat pump system, and we had several contractors come in and give us quotes. Not cheap at all, mainly because we would have to switch from baseboard radiators to forced air, and putting in the ductwork and vents would take a lot of labor. But there's a 30% federal credit available so we may still go that route.

One of the things that came out of that estimation process was some analysis of the insulation quality of the house - in short, not good. The attic insulation was thin: R-11 to R-19 according to the estimator. To make things worse, we had a lot of recessed lights - a total of 10 between the family room, kitchen, one bedroom and two bathrooms. I had no idea that recessed lights were such a detriment to home energy efficiency but the more I looked into it, the worse they looked, at least in our case. What's wrong with recessed lights, you ask? Well, here's some of the problems with them in general:

  • they require a hole in the ceiling - if not sealed tight (and ours were certainly not) each light is another pathway for air to travel from the main house into the attic (though this isn't an issue in a two-story house with the recessed lights on the lower floor)
  • the boxes ("high hats") stick way up into the attic, so even if covered by insulation, it will likely be thinner total coverage than elsewhere, or else you'll have a very lumpy insulation layout
  • most recessed light enclosures are not supposed to be covered by insulation anyway (though ours had a thin covering) because they get hot when the lights are on
  • that heat from the lights escapes into the attic, instead of warming the house as lights can do (particularly old incandescents - not efficiently, but it's something) in the winter
  • you need higher wattage lights for the same final light output in the room below, because some of it is absorbed by the enclosure or leaks into the attic

By mid-summer 2008 we'd decided we weren't yet ready for the geothermal heat pump work, but we definitely needed to improve our home's insulation. Target #1: the recessed lights. There were also 4 rooms in the house (living room and three bedrooms) that had no overhead lighting at all, despite light switches (which led to electrical outlets) on the walls, and they could benefit from some attic/ceiling work as well. After some trial and error we discovered our only good option with the recessed lights was to completely remove them and put in a smaller number of regular lighting outlet boxes in the ceiling instead. I worked out a reasonable routine that did the job pretty quickly and with minimal damage to the surrounding ceiling, and the results looked pretty good after I was done. Details and photos follow.


First step was removing the cover part flush with the ceiling - if you have these you have had to do this to change lightbulbs in the past, no big deal. This was mainly to avoid broken glass when the box fell.


The remaining box in the ceiling viewed from below - take the lightbulb out also, again to avoid any chance of broken glass.


We're going to be doing electrical work - always remember to shut off the appropriate circuit breaker before heading up into the attic. I had a couple of minor shocks from occasional forgetfulness on this one...


The view from the attic side - notice the metal top of the old high-hat box poking above the insulation layer, to the left of the tool box. Since you may have a very confined space to work with in the attic, it's best to have a collection of tools immediately to hand.


With the insulation pulled away, here is the full view of the old high-hat box from abonve. Note the wiring entering an attached electrical box on the right-hand side, and the tab (one of 3) holding the box to the ceiling in the lower center of the view.


Before you can remove the fixture box, the wiring needs to be disconnected. We won't need the wires leading into the fixture itself, but all the other wires will be needed either to set up a new small fixture in the ceiling, or very likely at least to leave the rest of the electrical wiring in the house connected together.

So to take care of the wires:


First straighten them out.


Pull through the holes in the electrical box - some of the wire connectors may need to be removed for the wires to fit through the hole.


And here's what they look like out of the box.


With the wires leading to the high-hat box disconnected from the others, it's now possible to remove it pretty easily. Those tabs are all that is holding it up.


So, with a pair of needle-nose pliers, I just twisted them away from the box.


And it's gone, with a satisfying crash!


The scene below.


We don't need the surrounding metal components either - so cutting them away with metal snips is the easiest way to take them out.


Here's the remaining nice circular hole we have left in the ceiling.


The new electrical box - attached to a piece of 2x4 to hold it across the gap left by the old recessed light. Careful measurement is important to get the new box positioned in the right location and flush with the ceiling below. Note that the bottom of the box extends about half an inch beyond the wood (thickness of ceiling drywall layer).


These boxes have cutouts for the wires to enter - note that a screwdriver is probably a better tool to knock these pieces out than the crowbar I happened to have handy.


Separating the wiring into individual cables - if I hadn't had to do this before (to pull the wires out of the old box) it's needed now to put them nicely into the new one. Be sure to make note of what wires were connected before, it's not always obvious particularly for switched outlets.


Here the wires are pushed into the new box.


Then reconnect - be sure the electrical connectors are suitable and the metal parts of the wires linked together securely.


And now it's time to place the new ceiling box with its 2x4 support secured to the roof joists. I drilled holes for 2 1/2 inch screws at an angle for anchors. Note that it's important for the 2x4 to cross the hole and lie flush on the ceiling drywall, in order for drywall attached from below to be positioned correctly.


And we're almost done with the attic - time to cover it up with insulation again.


Here's what the final box area looked like with the R-11 or so insulation we had.


After I was done with all the recessed light removal and other electrical work in the attic, I added a thick R-30 layer of fiberglass on top of everything.


Now we have to fix the rest of the hole from below. Here's what the new ceiling box looks like - but it only covers part of the old recessed light opening.


It would probably have been simpler to cut a more square piece out of the ceiling, but getting a new piece of drywall to cover the hole didn't take that much extra work.


My cutting wasn't terribly accurate, still leaving at least 1/8 inch gaps around the edges. Using drywall screws I attached the new piece to the 2x4 holding the electrical box, to keep it in place.


I then taped around the edges and applied drywall compound to cover the gaps and smooth the transition from old ceiling to the replacement piece. All that's left is some painting, and to attach a nice normal ceiling fixture to replace the old recessed one.

So that was last year's home improvement adventure; aside from my own time (which was a few hours per high-hat box, plus about 40 hours to lay down the heavier insulation) the total cost was under $1000. From our bills it looks like the extra insulation already saved us about $1000 worth of heating oil last winter, so I'm not at all worried about it paying for itself, definitely worth doing.

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Thanks, Arthur! Very

Thanks, Arthur! Very interesting! Our house has several of those recessed ceiling fixtures and I didn't realize how bad they were for home efficiency. We had a home efficiency audit done this past winter and, although our attic insulation is not quite up to modern standards either, he didn't think it was low enough for there would be much gain by putting more in. He thought the real bang-for-the-bukc would be to is have insulation blown into the outside walls (which right now have NONE...in Rochester, NY...What were they thinking?!?!) I might have had that done this summer but now that we are no longer sure we will be staying here, such projects have been put on hold.

I think this was a great post

I think this was a great post I to have a old house full of this type of lighting. Thanks for all the tips on this. We have a 160yr old home and the last few years we have spent trying to make it more Energy Efficientbut as you know when you fix one problem there are 10 more. With time we should have the hole house more energy efficient.

Great post, I've been looking

Great post, I've been looking for something to help me with my old lighting setup in my grandma's old house.

I'm also considering putting down underfloor heating - would you be able to do a walkthrough for that? ^_^ Also what supplier would you recommend? I was considering Floor Heating Online... What do you think?