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How to change light bulb in recessed ceiling light with cover?

Changing a burnt out light bulb in a recessed ceiling light with a cover can seem daunting, but it’s actually a relatively simple job that most homeowners can tackle themselves. With the right tools and a bit of care, you’ll have that ceiling light working again in no time. In this step-by-step guide, we’ll walk you through the entire process from start to finish.

Things You’ll Need

Before getting started, make sure you have the following materials on hand:

  • Replacement light bulb(s) – Check the type and wattage printed on your existing light bulb and match it exactly
  • Phillips head screwdriver
  • Wire cutters (for clipping wire nuts)
  • Needle nose pliers (optional)
  • Electrical tape
  • Circuit tester (optional)
  • Stepladder
  • Replacement wire nuts (optional)
  • Safety glasses

It’s also a good idea to turn off the light switch that controls the recessed lighting circuit at your main electrical panel. This will cut power to the light and allow you to work safely.

Step 1: Remove the Cover

The first step is to remove the cover from the recessed lighting housing. There are a few different ways these covers can be attached:

  • With spring clips – Locate the spring clips on the sides of the housing and gently pull down to detach them from the housing.
  • With retaining screws – Remove the screws using a Phillips head screwdriver. They are typically located on the sides or top of the cover.
  • Friction fit – Some covers fit tightly into the housing with no clips or screws. Carefully grasp the edges and pull straight down to detach.

Remove the cover and set it aside safely out of the way.

Step 2: Remove the Light Bulb

Once you have access to the light bulb and wiring, it’s time to remove the old bulb.

  • Locate the bulb within the recessed lighting socket.
  • Grasp it gently and turn counter-clockwise to detach it from the socket.
  • Pull the old bulb straight out of the socket.

Examine the old bulb to try to determine why it burnt out. Look for a broken filament or any dark residue inside the glass, which could indicate an electrical issue.

Step 3: Disconnect the Wires

Most recessed lighting fixtures have wire nuts connecting the household wires to the fixture wires. You’ll need to detach these before installing the new bulb.

  • Locate the wire nuts, usually above the socket.
  • Use needle nose pliers to gently loosen and unscrew the wire nuts.
  • Carefully disconnect the wires, keeping track of which wires were paired together.

If the wires are connected with wire crimps or soldered connections rather than traditional wire nuts, you may need to cut the wires in order to disconnect them. Make sure to re-strip the wire ends before reconnecting them later.

Step 4: Install the New Light Bulb

Once the old bulb is removed and wires disconnected, you can install the new light bulb.

  • Check that the new bulb matches the old bulb’s type and wattage exactly.
  • Gently insert the new bulb into the socket, aligning the bulb’s threads with the socket threads.
  • Turn the bulb clockwise to screw it securely into the socket.
  • Give the bulb a gentle tug to make sure it is properly attached.

If the new bulb doesn’t turn on once power is restored, unscrew it and examine the threads on the base. They may need to be wiped clean and lightly sanded to remove any corrosion or paint.

Step 5: Reconnect the Wires

With the new bulb installed, you can reconnect the wires.

  • Match up the wires exactly as they were originally connected.
  • Wrap the bare ends of each pair of wires together in a clockwise direction.
  • Screw a wire nut over each pair of wires, turning clockwise to tighten.
  • Wrap electrical tape around each nut and connection to help secure it.

Give each wire nut a gentle tug to ensure none of the connections are loose. Make sure no copper wiring is exposed.

Step 6: Restore Power and Test

You’re almost done! Restore power and test the light:

  • Turn the light switch back on to restore power to the circuit.
  • Turn on the recessed light to make sure the new bulb illuminates.
  • Let the light run for a few minutes and visually check that there is no flickering or other issues.
  • Use a circuit tester to confirm power is running correctly, if desired.

If the light bulb does not turn on, carefully check your connections and make sure the bulb is properly seated in the socket before calling an electrician.

Step 7: Replace the Cover

Once you’ve confirmed the recessed lighting is working correctly, replace the cover:

  • Line up the cover underneath the housing so that the edges align.
  • Gently push the cover straight up into the housing until it snaps into place if using spring clips.
  • Replace any retaining screws or other fasteners if needed.

Check that the cover is firmly and evenly attached with no gaps or misalignments. This completes the light bulb replacement process!

Tips for Recessed Lighting

Follow these tips to keep your recessed lights working properly for years to come:

  • Clean recessed light covers regularly using a damp cloth to prevent dust buildup.
  • Use the correct wattage and type of bulb indicated on the fixture.
  • Check for any signs of electrical issues like flickering or scorch marks.
  • Hire an electrician if you need to replace faulty wiring or ballasts.
  • Make sure insulation and other materials are kept away from recessed cans.
  • Replace old recessed lighting with more energy efficient LED recessed lighting.

Taking good care of recessed lights and changing burnt out bulbs promptly will keep them shining brightly for years of flawless illumination. Follow our step-by-step guide and safety tips, and you can handle this repair job like a pro.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are answers to some common questions about changing recessed light bulbs:

How do I know what type of bulb to buy?

Check the wattage and shape on the burnt out bulb you removed. Match that exactly when purchasing new bulbs. The most common types are PAR20, PAR30, BR30, and BR40.

What if the wires fall back into the ceiling hole?

Use needle nose pliers or a wire coat hanger to carefully fish the wires back out of the ceiling. Prevent this by bundling wires together before disconnecting wires nuts.

Why won’t the light turn on after replacing the bulb?

Make sure the bulb is properly seated in the socket. Also check wire connections are tight and matched correctly. The issue could also be a faulty socket, ballast, or other wiring problem.

Do I need to turn off power at the circuit breaker?

Yes, cutting power to the recessed lighting circuit at your main panel reduces the risk of getting shocked while working on the fixtures.

Can I use a smaller wattage bulb to reduce energy use?

No, always use the exact wattage indicated. Too small of a bulb can overheat the fixture and create a fire hazard. Use LED bulbs to reduce wattage.

How do I determine the correct replacement bulb type?

The most common bulb types are PAR20, PAR30, BR30 and BR40. Check manufacturers specifications to determine which one your recessed light uses if it’s not printed on the old bulb.


Replacing a burnt out bulb in a recessed light with a cover is an easy DIY project for most homeowners. By following proper safety procedures and these step-by-step instructions, you can get your overhead lighting working again quickly. Pay close attention to properly disconnecting and reconnecting wires, matching bulb wattages exactly, and verifying the light works properly when done. With a little time and care, you’ll be basking in the bright glow of your recessed lights once again.