Brighten up a room with a new light fixture

By Tom Phelan - ReminderNews
Featured Article - posted Thu., May. 24, 2012
- Contributed Photo

The world of interior lighting seems to have exploded in the last decade. Gone are the days of choosing either incandescent bulbs or recessed florescent tubes. You can still have a surface-mounted ceiling fixture or a suspended unit, but the options have expanded considerably. Today the market focus on energy-efficient light bulbs, such as compact florescent lights (CFLs) and light-emitting diode (LED) lighting - and all the variations - just adds complexity to the decision-making process.

The good news is that what is behind the light fixture has not changed (although there are a few considerations I'll discuss later). That makes it easy to opt for new designs and more variety. Whether you stay with standard wall switches or enhance the room's ambiance with dimmer switches, the installation uses standard wiring, so all of the techniques and principles are the same.

Once you have picked out the new fixture(s), examine the contents of the box to see what mounting hardware is included. Then stop by the electric components aisle, and pick up an assortment of extra hardware for mounting the fixture to your box, as well as connectors and tools you don’t have in your shop. Most stores will allow you to return anything you don’t use.

Check the fixture's packaging for a warning that says you must use wire rated for 90 degrees centigrade. Some of the newest lighting fixtures may not be compatible with wiring installed before 1985. Insulation on this older wire may not be able to tolerate the heat generated by newer fixtures. Check the labeling imprinted on the exterior sheathing for the letter codes "NM-B" or "UF-B" to be sure yours can handle the higher temperature of some newer fixtures.

Once you have turned off the electrical supply to the area in which you are working, you might not have adequate light. I use an LED light on the visor of my cap to help me focus light directly on the fixture, tools and components I am working with.

Because we never seem to have enough hands to hold things in place while we use the right tools, I recommend suspending a new ceiling fixture from the mounting box by a length of rugged string. Some DIYers like to use a length of surplus wire or even an old wire hanger, but string takes accidental conductivity out of play. If the fixture is very heavy, it might be better to recruit a helper to work with you.

Even after you have checked labels and gathered all the tools and hardware you might need, you will most likely encounter a problem or two in the course of the installation. For instance, not every electrical junction box is grounded. You can check this by touching one probe of a circuit tester to the hot wire and the other to the metal box. If the tester lights, the box is grounded. If it is not, have an electrician install a ground wire to the box, and ground your fixture to it.

Short wires can not only make the job difficult; if not handled properly they could result in a faulty installation. You can deal with them by adding something called a pigtail to the short wire, or loosen the cable anchor in the box and see if there is enough slack in the cable to provide a little extra wire to your new connection.

Fixtures quite often contain stranded wire, which can make it cumbersome to with your electric system's solid copper wire. If you encounter this situation, strip more insulation from the stranded wire than from the solid wire. Match the ends of the insulation on the wires, and twist the wire connector until it is tight. This technique locks the stranded wire in the connector better. Always use connectors that have metal threads inside. If they are not supplied with your fixture, buy some while you are at the store.

Check to be sure the box has enough depth for all the wires and connectors. If it is recessed much above the ceiling's sheetrock, you might need to use a box extender.

In some cases, you may encounter aluminum wire throughout your home's electrical system. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, houses built between 1965 and 1972 might have been fitted with aluminum wire in the electrical system. There is evidence that aluminum wiring increases the potential for an electrical fire in these homes. If you have aluminum wiring in your home, read their assessment at and decide what approach you should take. You may not feel comfortable continuing with your DIY project, and may opt to call in a qualified electrician.

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