The Great Recession: How Recessed Lights Took Over Our House

Week 47 – Joe

The pace of our work is picking up as we get closer to another major renovation milestone for us – electricity!  Amy and I took a personal day from our “day jobs” last week so that we could work together on the house and make a few more final decisions that we (I) have been putting off.  In addition, I worked at the house every day after work this week and we were also able to take full advantage of the 3-day holiday weekend.  We have made good progress!

Accent lighting in the dining room
Recessed lights in the dining room

We are now officially (pretty much) done with the electrical rough-in, so a couple weeks ago we had an electrician come and do a “pre-inspection” inspection.  Amy won’t brag on herself, but I’ll do it for her.  The electrician was impressed with her work and confirmed that Amy had done everything correctly. He was able to offer a couple suggestions on how to make three-way wiring a little easier for ourselves when we hard wire the fixtures.  After re-working those three way runs everything is all set to be wired in.  After reviewing her work, the electrician reminded her that she could actually become an electrician if she wanted to and said that he would hire her. I told you my wife is amazing, remember?

One of my main jobs for the week was to get all the recessed lighting hung and hardwired as you see in the picture above.

I vividly remember walking through the house with our architect (haven’t I started a sentence with those words before?) as he asked us about our intentions for lighting.  He asked if we were planning on using any recessed lights.  Amy and I looked at each other and confidently said, “No.  We are really more of a lamp-lighting kind of people.”  We hate using the single overhead flushmount lighting, but I’ve never had recessed lighting so I was willing to think more about that option.  You know what happens when I start thinking….

It all began with the kitchen lighting.  We decided that recessed lighting made good sense because, well, it’s a kitchen.  You need to be able to see as you cook.  We wanted plenty of layers of light, so we included 4 pendants, three runs of under-counter task lights, and added 6 recessed lights.  Next, it was the playroom.  There is ductwork that runs right through the middle of the ceiling making it impossible to center a light fixture.  The solution – recessed lights.  Well, then it just made sense to continue the recessed lights down the hallway that leads to the kitchen…  one at the bottom of the stairs, one outside the bathroom doorway, and one at the top of the door to the basement.  And what about Lucy’s room?  The ceiling is a little low and a normal flush-mount light fixture would just be in the way.  Better add a few recessed lights there too!  But that was it.  No more.

Lucy's ceiling
Recessed lighting in Lucy’s room

Until…  we started thinking about accent lighting.  Oooooh.  We have a beautiful fireplace.  Maybe it would make sense to install a couple of recessed lights angling down in front of that?  And how about that built-in cabinet in the dining room?  Yep.  That makes sense.  Piano in the living room?  Sure.  But, no more!  Well….  What about accent lights on the walls where we know there will be artwork?  Oh, okay, let’s just put up a few more.   TWENTY-NINE recessed lights later, we are done.  Really!  In our defense, it’s so hard to resist the temptation to go all-out while you have the opportunity to customize.  Now is the cheapest and easiest time to do it.

(This is a good time to point out that if we had actually hired an electrician, they most assuredly would have quit by now and we would have been left to do it ourselves anyway.)

Installing the recessed lights was not terribly difficult.  Honestly, the hardest part was deciding what type of recessed lighting to buy.  In addition, it does involve some careful thinking about placement, which is difficult when we don’t really know what the lights will look like at this point.  Everything looks great in our imaginations!  We ended up using 4″ cans with incandescent lighting for the kitchen, playroom, and hallway and then decided on 3″ gimbal kits with halogen bulbs for the accent lighting.  We just couldn’t bring ourselves to get the LED lights…  the light is still so cold and harsh.  We did end up getting LED lights in Lucy’s room, but only because the ceiling height is so low and we didn’t want light bulb heat to be an issue.

Almost all of our floor joists are too narrow for the default length of the adjustable hangers that suspend the light fixture.  This meant that I had to break off the pieces (that are supposed to be broken off) to create smaller hangers.  Unfortunately, this was a pain in the butt because once you broke them they were difficult to put back together.  I spent a couple evenings just watching a movie with my son while I sat on the floor and assembled these lights.

The 3" gimbal light, can, hangers, and hanging mount
The 3″ gimbal light, can, hangers, and hanging mount

I spent many, many hours this week on a ladder with my head (and headlamp) between the floor joists, measuring, cutting, adjusting, and wiring all 29 of these things.  I could bore you with all the inane details of this process and it’s minor frustrations, but instead I’ll just tell you that I can pretty confidently say that I am not interested in becoming an electrician.  I am more annoyed by it than I am gratified.  Also, while I’m on the topic of electricians…  It seems that they are a very pragmatic and logical lot, but sometimes I wonder why there hasn’t been just a little more thought on the development of more user-friendly features for installation.  For instance, why is it necessary to try to shove 9 stiff wires, with 3 wire nuts, into a tiny 3″ square?  And why does every piece of metal have to be so sharp that you risk numerous abrasions at any given moment?  Maybe those electricians know exactly what they are doing…  They are trying to save their jobs by preventing anyone else from wanting to do the work.

This was pretty much my view all week…

The final product
The final product

It was a pretty tedious task and I definitely developed my “ladder legs.” in the process.

Side note:  I discovered long ago that the absolute best way to keep your mind engaged while doing repetitive tasks (like wiring recessed lights, painting, or re-glazing windows) is to listen to NPR podcasts.  This is way better than listening to music, although music is always nice when you are doing jobs that involve moving around the house and producing occasional bursts of noise.  The particular podcast to be chosen really depends on your mood, time of day, and how much time you have.  For instance, if you are getting to the house early and the sun is barely up, listen to the program Wait, Wait, Don’t tell me! Comedy is always a good way to start the day.   If you don’t have much time and just need something to kill 10-20 minutes, listen to the wonderful stories of The Moth…  but be careful, some of the stories could leave you emotionally drained.  If it’s a long job and you are fully awake, listen to Invisibilia or Radiolab.  These will both blow your mind and keep you mentally engaged while moving forward with your task.

Once I completed the task of installing and wiring all 29 of these lights, I happily turned my attention back the windows!  Now that I am an “experienced” window rehabber, I decided I was going to do these as quickly and efficiently as possible.  I even utilized those precious bonus minutes before sunrise or after sunset to get a little more work done.

Just me and my work
I know this photo might look cozy and quaint, but in reality it is only 40 degrees inside our house.  It’s just cold and dark.

Everything has gone well (so far) on this next batch of windows except for one broken pane of glass.  It still feels awful to break one, but it just happens sometimes.  The glazing putty on this batch of windows is in better shape.  This is a bad thing because it means it is a little harder to remove.  After that one broken window I decided to get even more serious and enlist the help of a steamer.  Any time I got to a rough patch of putty I let it simmer for a minute under the steam.  I got this idea from some original research I did on window rehab.  I noticed a professional company that created a huge steaming chamber.  They would put the entire window into the steamer and just let it sit for a while.

Softening the glazing putty

The steam really helped and I was able to fly through the next 7 pieces of glass I removed.


I wish I had thought of doing this earlier.  It definitely sped up to whole process.

Glass is removed
Glass is removed

The next step was to do the initial scraping to remove the paint from the exterior side of the windows.  This needs to be done outside, even if it IS snowing a little.


I actually WAY prefer scraping paint in the snow than scraping paint in the hot and humid July weather.  The cold is a good motivator to move fast, so I got through all 9 sashes in record time.

Meanwhile, Amy has also been very busy checking things off the electrical to-do list.  She will do a blog update soon to document all her progress.

Under the crawl space... again!
Under the crawl space… again!

The exciting news is that we have a scheduled appointment for an electrician to assist with the connection of the service panel this Saturday!  This means light in every room with just a flip of a switch. Hard to believe.

[Edit from Amy: Hopefully that will happen.  It’s crazy to spend months on a project by myself without being able to see a working result.  I’ve had to have a lot of faith in my wiring textbooks.  However, this weekend I was able to use an existing cable that was hooked up to the service panel when we purchased the house to create a three way switch at the top and bottom of the basement stairs.  When we turned the breaker back on I truly did not expect the lights to turn on.  BUT IT DID!  That was really exciting. When the light came on and I was able to switch it on and off it made my heart skip a beat and I felt like throwing my hands in the air shouting, “IT’S ALIVE!!” Only time will tell if the rest of the house will come to life as well. If we find out on Saturday that I’ve done something majorly wrong I will do the opposite of alive.]

We are also currently waiting on one last new window to arrive so that we can install it.  Once that is complete – insulation and drywall!

[Edit from Amy: I’m starting to feel like the girl who cried wolf. I’ve been telling people for about a month now….insulation!….drywall!…it WILL happen…..eventually. Right?  For now, we’ll keep donning our headlamps and crossing our fingers.]

3 Comments Add yours

  1. amyheavilin says:

    Congratulations! What a HUGE step! Yay!!!


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