Track Lighting Overview Track Lighting Overview

Track lights are a convenient and versatile way to provide task or accent lighting - lighting directed to shine on a specific area or subject you want to highlight. Once the tracks are installed, adjustable fixtures may be installed or removed from the track with a simple twist. No additional wiring is necessary. This flexibility allows you to achieve the mood or presentation you desire by simply pointing the light where you want it. Later, you can change the presentation by redirecting the light, or by adding or removing fixtures.

You don't have to be an electrician to install track lights. Many homeowners are afraid to tackle electrical projects-and rightly so; improperly handled, electricity poses electrocution and fire hazards. But the truth is that simple jobs like installing track lights are easy and safe if you follow a few simple rules. And don't forget to always follow the manufacturer's instructions.

Basic Electrical Overview

The most basic principles of the wiring in your home are simple. The following is elementary information which every homeowner can benefit from.

In contemporary wiring, individual wires run in a sheathed cable. "Two-wire with ground" and "three-wire with ground" cables are available. Two-wire with ground cables have a black wire, a white wire and an uninsulated ground. Three-wire with ground cables (used when installing three-way and four-way switches) have a black wire, a white wire, a red wire and an uninsulated ground. Older houses may have "knob and tube" wiring - a two-wire system. With this system, individual wires are insulated with white or black treated fabric.

Regardless of the type of wiring in your home, the white wire is usually the neutral wire, the black wire is "hot," and the exposed copper wires are ground wires. The white wire is sometimes used as a hot wire because some wiring installations require it. In this case, the white wire should be coded black with paint or electrical tape. Note, however, that it is possible that whoever did the wiring may not have coded the wire. If a red wire is present, it should also be hot.

If only a single cable enters the box (or one set of black and white wires), the fixture is at the end of the circuit. This is usually, but not always, the situation with ceiling light fixtures. If two cables enter the box (or two sets of black and white wires in older "knob and tube" installations), the fixture is in the middle of a circuit. A third cable (or set of black and white wires) may also enter the fixture, depending upon the installation. The placement of the fixture within the circuit affects how it is wired.

If Your House Has Aluminum Wiring

It is easy to tell if your home has aluminum wiring: The metal under the insulation is almost white instead of copper colored. Aluminum and copper wires should be connected with a wire connector specifically rated for this purpose. Otherwise, copper and aluminum will react with each other, possibly leading to a loose connection and creating a fire hazard.

Just What is a Pigtail? (You'll need to know this later.)

"Pigtail" leads are short wires which are connected to terminals on receptacles or switches, and which are then connected to the home wiring by the use of "wire nuts." Codes in some areas require that pigtails be used on all standard receptacle connections since, with this installation, one faulty terminal connection will not shut down an entire circuit. In any case, when more than one wire must be connected to a single terminal, pigtails should always be used.

Installing Track Lighting

Some track lighting systems have a cord which can simply be plugged into an existing outlet. These systems require no electrical wiring, but must be located near the outlet. Another drawback with this system is the electrical wire which, unless hidden somehow, can be seen running to the outlet. The second type of system provides a more professional looking installation with no exposed wires, but requires that a few electrical connections be made at a "junction box" (an electrical box in the ceiling or wall) during installation of the track. If no junction box is available along the proposed path of the lighting track, you'll need to install one or have it installed by an electrician. This will involve extending a circuit from an unswitched wall outlet to the newly placed junction box. A switch is installed in the circuit between the outlet and junction box to provide on/off control of the track lights. This how-to assumes that a junction box is already available.

Determine and Lay Out Your Track Location

  • This decision may be influenced by the location of an existing junction box as well as by the object or area you're wishing to highlight. You are not limited to just a straight track; fittings are available which allow you to form T's or angles, for example. Just make sure that the fittings you'll need are offered by the manufacturer of the track light system you plan to purchase.
  • Mark along the ceiling to indicate the placement of the track. You can assure that the track runs parallel to a wall by measuring out from each end of the proposed track placement. The two measurements should be equal.
  • Do not place fixtures within six inches of curtains or other flammable materials.

Make the Electrical Connections

  • Before removing the old light fixture, be sure to observe the first rule of electrical work: Turn off the power to the circuit you plan to work on! Do this at the service panel (breaker box), and check the circuit to make sure it is off. Inexpensive circuit testers are available that are, essentially, a light with two probes designed to handle house current. They are very useful for testing ground and hot wires, as well as for determining whether a light fixture is carrying current. Once the circuit has been turned off at the breaker and has been checked, there is no need to fear working with the wiring on that particular circuit.
  • Remove the existing light fixture from the junction box you plan to use. Your new lighting track will be wired the same as the previous fixture. (After all, the old fixture worked. You are simply replacing it with something more functional and attractive. There is no need to reinvent the circuit.) Most of the time you'll simply be connecting white wires to white wires (or a silver screw terminal), and black wires to black (or a brass colored screw terminal). If several wires are involved, however, or if the wiring seems more complicated and perhaps even includes a red wire, take note of the connections before you disconnect them. Make yourself a sketch of how the fixture is wired (index the sketch by wire color) or mark the wires themselves with masking tape and a pencil so you will know how to put them back.
  • Depending on the track lighting system you have purchased, electrical connections to the track may be made in one of two ways. Either you'll make the connection by joining wires with plastic connectors often called "wire nuts," or you'll screw the wires directly to terminals located on the track connector. For screw terminal connections with multiple wires, it will be necessary to first attach pigtails to the track terminals, then attach the wires to the pigtails with wire connectors. Install the connector by twisting it onto the wires.
  • If the new fixture includes a ground wire (bare or green insulated wire), it should be connected to any other ground wires that may already be in place, and to grounding screws in metal electrical boxes when metal boxes are used to support the fixture.

Install the Track and Fixtures

  • Tuck any circuit and fixture wires into the junction box, and install the mounting plate firmly to the box.
  • Snap the track into place on the junction box, following the instructions provided by the manufacturer, and align the track with your positioning marks. Once in position, tighten the track locking screws on the mounting plate.
  • Secure the track along its length with either toggle bolts or screws. Toggle bolts must be used in areas where access to the ceiling joists is not possible. Screws installed into drywall or plaster simply will not hold. Screws should be used whenever possible, however, if they can be located in areas where they will extend into the joist above the frame.
  • Attach any angle, T, or straight fittings along with additional track sections to achieve the track layout you desire. Also insert any end pieces at the ends of the completed track.
  • Attach the electrical adapter to the track by inserting it into the track and twisting it. Then install the cover over the adapter/mounting plate assembly.
  • Insert the fixtures into the track and twist them to secure.
  • Install the appropriate bulbs for the fixture. Install only bulbs recommended by the manufacturer, and follow all of the manufacturer's safety guidelines since, as with any light fixture, you must not to exceed the established wattage limits.
  • Turn on the current and test the lights. If they fail to work, turn off and test the current once more and double check your work for incomplete connections.
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