Home Project Tip 15 – Changing A Light Fixture


Another Home Project Tip from Javabird.comZap! That’s the sound you want to avoid at all costs when you’re doing a project involving electricity. No one wants to end up with a short circuit, start a fire, get shocked, or create a problem bigger than the one they started with. For that reason, if you haven’t done an electrical repair in the home before it might be well worth investing in a basic book on wiring or seek out a professional to do the job for you. However, some electrical projects are fairly simple and straightforward. For example, changing out a wall or ceiling mounted light fixture. Let me show you how a recent change went at my house.


A broken glass light shade.

You can see the crack in this glass shade. I glued the broken pieces together with super glue but it was only meant as a temporary fix.

We recently broke one of the glass shades on our kitchen light. If you’re happy with the light fixture you own, you can sometimes find a replacement shade at the hardware store. Just take a good one with you when you go to make sure the new one is really a match. If you can’t find an exact match you may be able to change out all of the shades and basically end up solving the problem without changing the fixture. That could update the look of a room without any need to worry about wiring.


In this case, my wife and I never liked the light fixture when we moved into the house in the first place so breaking the shade turned out to be a great incentive to replace it. I went to Lowes to find a light that would do the trick. While the original fixture we had was designed to hang low over the table, we recently removed our kitchen table and replaced it with a chest of drawers. We decided we needed more kitchen storage and we could eat all our meals in the dining room or in front of the TV. Thus, we wanted to replace our old fixture with one located closer to the ceiling.


Replacing A Light Fixture: Step By Step


Now, before we get started, we want to remind our readers that many home projects, especially those involving electricity, plumbing, heating, or otherwise may require a permit. To be sure you aren’t violating local ordinances check with your local city or county building department to see if their permitting rules apply.


Don't get stuck with a missing part.

Take everything out the box and look for the parts list before you do anything else.

Step 1) Directions: Open the box your new fixture came in and pull out the directions. Make sure the box contains all the parts it should. If it doesn’t, you can usually find a number you can call to sort it out. Otherwise, wrap it all back up and take it back to the store for a replacement. If you find the directions look confusing or the job sounds much more complicated than you were expecting DO NOT HESITATE TO CALL AN ELECTRICIAN! Remember, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.


No, don't do it!

Get the right tools to use on the job. A stool is bad idea.

Step 2) Gather Tools: Assuming you have all the parts you need and are still game for the job, gather the suggested tools which usually include a screwdriver or two, a pliers, a utility knife and perhaps a small wrench. The specific list may depend on your particular fixture.


Use a ladder rated to hold your weight.

A good ladder has lots of uses besides a project like this one. Own one.

Step 3) Get A Ladder: Depending on the height of the fixture you’ll want to locate a good ladder. Don’t skip this step. Most accidents occur in projects like this one by failing to take a few basic safety precautions. A tall chair or stool just won’t do the trick. Chances are you’ll tip it and go flying backward. You could easily land on your back, your butt or your head. If you don’t own one, get a ladder rated for your weight. If you’re unsure about that ask for assistance at your local hardware store.


Flipping the breaker.

Don’t even think about trying a project like this without flipping off the power first.

Step 4) Turn Off The Power: Locate the circuit breaker (or in older houses the specific fuse) related to the light you’re changing and shut it off (flip it if it’s a breaker, remove it if it’s a fuse). This is much easier to do if you have a friend who can stand in the room with the light on and yell to you when it goes off. Once you know what breaker turns off the circuit make a point to mark it on the door panel of your outlet box.


BONUS TIP: If you’ve got the time and inclination it’s a good idea to spend a half hour with a friend and label all the breakers in your house. That can come in handy when you’re doing a repair yourself or have to deal with an unexpected emergency. The best way to do this is turn off all the breakers, and then turn on all the lights and appliances. Now, one by one flip a breaker to determine what goes on. When you’ve got the breaker labeled, turn it off again and continue the project until you’re done. Use a cell phone to communicate with your partner.


Flip off the light switch.

Don’t forget to turn off the light switch, too.

Step 5) Remove the old fixture: The breaker should now be off, but just to make sure you’ve taken all precautions flip the light switch off as well.


Cut weight by removing the pieces you might break first.

I’m cutting the weight of my old fixture first. Here I’m removing my bulbs and glass shades.

5A) Lower The Weight Of The Fixture: Next up, remove any glass or metal shades and light bulbs in the fixture before you try to remove the fixture itself. This will cut the overall weight. At some point, that old fixture will be hanging by nothing but a wire so the less weight the better.


Use the old rhyme: Lefty loosey. Righty tighty.

This fixture is held onto it’s bracket with a center screw and the nut pictured above. Rotate counter-clockwise to loosen the nut.

5B) Remove Nuts: To remove the old fixture, find the nut(s) or screw(s) that hold it in place and remove them. Remember, that goofy old rhyme as you go to remove nuts or screws. It goes like this: “Righty tighty. Lefty loosey.” It means turn clockwise (to the right) to tighten and turn counter-clockwise (to the left) to loosen.


5C) Remove Fixture Bracket: Once the fixture itself is detached from the fixture bracket, you may need to remove the bracket from the recessed outlet box to access the wires or wire nuts. This can get a little tricky if you’re doing the job yourself and have to hold onto the fixture with one hand and try to loosen screws with the other. If you don’t care about keeping the old fixture, you can always snip the fixture wires to free the fixture—just don’t snip the household wires coming from the recessed outlet as you don’t want to shorten them.


Removing the old bracket is easy.

Here’s the old fixture bracket, center screw which held the fixture in place, grounding screw, and the two screws which attach the bracket to the recessed outlet.

If you prefer not to snip wires, remove the fixture bracket instead. In older installations the screws used to attach the bracket to the outlet are typically slotted. In newer installations you’ll most often find “Phillips” head screws. Check which type you have and then use a screwdriver or drill gun to remove the two screws holding the bracket. You may need these screws depending on what came with your new light fixture. Hold onto them for now.


It's time to disconnect the wires.

With the bracket off you should be able access the wires. Pull them gently out of the box and undue the wire nuts.

5D) Disconnecting Wires: You will typically find 3 wires, a white, a black and a ground in most modern homes. The white and black wires will be sheathed in plastic and the ground will be unsheathed. It’s the one that’s all shiny copper. Pull the wires and wire nuts out of the recessed outlet box to get a better view and then undo the wire nuts by twisting them off. The old fixture should now be free.


5E) Recycle: You may be able to recycle your old light fixture. Check with your local recycling utility to find out any restrictions. In some cases, you may need to remove the wires and dissemble the parts before recycling metal or glass. Or if the fixture is still in decent shape, you may be able to sell it “as is” at a garage sale.


Step 6 ) Installing The New Fixture: With the circuit breaker and light switch still off and the old fixture gone, it’s time to install the new fixture.


Read the instructions that came with your light fixture.

If you haven’t done it yet, this is a great time to read or review the instructions.

6A) Instructions: Before you install your new fixture, review the instructions that came with the unit for any peculiarities that might come up during the installation process. In some cases, you’ll need to follow steps in a particular order. For example you may want to attach wires first, or you may want to replace the fixture bracket first and attach wires second. It can save time and energy to know this up front.


6B Reduce Weight: Installing a new fixture is really just uninstalling one in reverse. It’s much easier to install a fixture when it isn’t weighed down by glass shades or light bulbs so be sure you hold off attaching those until the fixture itself has been installed (that is, unless your directions tell you otherwise).



6C) Establish The Order: Once you’ve prepared your new fixture and your tools and parts are laid out within easy reach, it’s time to begin the real work. In most cases, you’ll be replacing the bracket on the recessed outlet box before reconnecting wires. However, sometimes, you’ll need to connect wires before doing this. It will depend on your installation and particular fixture and how easy it will be for you to tuck wires into the box when the bracket is in place. If you have to connect wires first, skip to 6E and then come back to 6D. Otherwise, just take the order as listed.


Installing our new bracket.

In this case, we installed the new bracket before reconnecting any wires. Your installation may be different. Check the instructions.

6D) Install The New Bracket: If you were following the instructions above, the old bracket has already been removed.  Your new one will come with the lamp. If you don’t see it with the rest of your parts check through the packaging materials your new fixture came in. If you still don’t see it, refer to the directions. Assuming you have the bracket you need, screw it onto the outlet box either with screws provided or use the ones we held onto as we removed the old bracket. As mentioned, most newer screws are “Phillips” head and that makes using a portable screw gun a real convenience.


6E) Connecting Wires: A good rule of thumb is try to match colors and you should be fine. In other words, attach a white lamp wire to the white outlet wire, a black lamp wire to the black outlet wire and the ground lamp wire to the ground outlet wire. If your lamp has two white or black wires it shouldn’t matter which wire you attach it to in the outlet box (except you wouldn’t connect it to the ground wire). Note: Your ground lamp wire may be a silver color instead of copper. Don’t worry about that. Just attach it to the unsheathed copper ground in the outlet box. Once you’ve attached the wires it’s time to gently tuck them back into your outlet box to get them out of the way. Don’t just jam wires back into an outlet receptacle. You might inadvertently loosen a wire nut. A little finesse here goes a long ways.


Twisting on a wire nut.

Attach all wires with wire nuts provided. If you can’t locate a ground wire inside the outlet box, attach the ground from the fixture to the green screw on the fixture bracket.

6F) Grounding: If you don’t see a ground wire in the outlet box, then look for a green screw on the fixture bracket and attach the ground wire to it. Just wrap the ground wire from the fixture around the screw and tighten it with a screwdriver. Otherwise, if you see a ground wire in the outlet box use it instead.


6G) Wire Nuts: Always use wire nuts to attach the wires. Never attach them with electrical tape. To attach one wire to another, align the outlet wire and lamp wire so that they are parallel to each other (side by side and pointing the same direction). Then screw the wire nut down until it’s snug. You don’t need to crank down hard on it. Just twist together until you feel a good firm connection. If you twist too hard you can break off the fragile lamp wires. Lamp wires are typically made from cheap “twisted” wire. If it does break you’ll need to strip a half inch of the sheathing off the wire and try again. To strip wires of sheathing, use a “wire stripper” which cuts only the outer plastic protective sheathing and not the wire itself. Then carefully pull the sheathing off with your fingers. If you have questions about anything we’ve done so far, check the directions that came with your fixture or refer to a basic wiring book for more information.


7) Finishing Up: At this point, your new fixture is likely hanging by nothing more than the wires. No doubt you’re still holding onto it with one hand and trying to figure out how to attach the screws or nuts that hold the fixture itself firmly against the wall or ceiling. This is where an extra set of hands can really come in help. If nothing else, it’s great to have someone on the floor who can pass you a nut, screw gun or wrench, re-read a section of the directions out loud, or steady the ladder.


My finished installation.

My lights are working. I like the new look and having them up out of the way.

7A) Determine How To Attach Fixture: It’s a bit difficult to say how your new light fixture compares with mine. Mine has two screws that came pre-mounted in the fixture bracket. I had to carefully align the two matching holes in my light fixture to these screws and then press the fixture upward against the ceiling until about a quarter inch of the thread was showing. At that point, I was able to screw the small “canopy” nuts provided in place. Once those were snug my fixture was set. You might have noticed my old unit had a large hollow center screw and a nut that fit over it to hold the fixture in place. Different manufacturers use different types of mounting systems, but these two variations are common.


Installing new bulbs.

When you’re ready install the new shades and bulbs on your fixture. This style of bulb should be installed using the plastic suction cup provided. That keeps corrosive finger oils from harming the bulb and increases its life.

7B) Develop A Plan Of Attack: You’ll need to examine your particular fixture to determine how it attaches to the ceiling. If you can’t figure it out by looking at it, you can usually find a decent illustration in the directions to explain it. It’s a good idea to sort this part out before you lift the fixture into place. Believe me, a little forethought is bound to save some grief as you fuss with getting your fixture in place.


7C) Install Shades And Bulbs: Once the fixture is set, it’s time to install the glass or metal shades and light bulbs that came with it (hopefully yours came with bulbs or you bought those separately). There are two options here. If you are confident you did everything correctly, you can install all the shades and bulbs at once and then turn the power back on. However, it’s often a good idea to put a single bulb in the fixture, go flip on the breaker, and then come back and turn on the fixture with the wall switch. If it doesn’t work, you won’t have to remove all the shades and bulbs again to recheck your wires and connections. If it does, you can simply turn off the light switch on the wall and install the rest of the shades and bulbs as indicated in the directions. Hey, you’re done!


Final Thought


We can’t stress enough that when you’re uncomfortable about a particular home project it’s often best to get help from a “qualified” friend or hire a professional. That’s particularly important when the job you undertake involves electricity, carpentry or plumbing. Play it safe. Be smart. If you’re not sure you can handle it, there’s never any shame in seeking the help you need to do the job right.

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