How To: Install a Light Fixture

Since my current residence is only half finished, there are a lot of fixture-less light boxes in the ceilings—which means I am tripping over tools in the middle of the night more often than I care to admit.

Electrical DIY projects are not a favorite of mine; probably a result of being shocked as a child by the current from a cut phone line (or perhaps the innate fear of sudden death by electrocution). But for simple electrical work around the house, a little knowledge and the right tools can make the work slightly less intimidating and—more importantly—less shocking.

GETTING STARTED

Here are a couple of things you should know about electricity and residential wiring before you get started.

- All electric power is fed through the meter to your breaker panel. If you shut something off at the panel there is no power to the wires or boxes in the house.
- Shutting something off at the switch does not necessarily mean that there is no power to the wires in the electrical box.
- When looking at wires, black or red is the current, white is neutral, and green or copper is ground.
- Don’t stick a bobby pin into an electrical outlet, even if your cousin dares you to.

What You’ll Need

How to Install a Light Fixture - Tools and Materials

Photo: Kit Stansley

To replace or install a light fixture, here’s what you’ll need:
- Voltage detector (not strictly necessary but highly recommended)
- Wire strippers
- Screwdriver
- Light fixture (a simple pull chain fixture is pictured but most fixtures install the same way)
- Work light/flashlight if working in an area without natural light
- Wire nuts (depending on your fixture)

INSTALLATION

Step 1: Shut off power
For some fixtures you can simply shut the power off at the switch, but I recommend always shutting power off at the breaker. If you’re lucky, the breakers on your electrical panel will be labeled. If not it’s a bit of a guessing game, shutting off breakers and then using the voltage detector to make sure the area you’re going to be working in isn’t “hot.” (The voltage detector will beep and light up when a current is present.) I always power down my computer before randomly flipping off breakers … just in case.

Step 2: Connect wires
A standard box for a light fixture will have three wires, a white (neutral), black (current), and copper (ground.)

How to Install a Light Fixture - Connect Wires

Photo: Kit Stansley

A permanent fixture may have a plate that will be connected to the two screw holes on either side of the box, and I find it’s easier to have that done before connecting the wires (particularly on a heavy fixture that will need to be supported while wires are being connected.)

Wires may be connected to the fixture in different ways. In this case, the wires are wrapped around screws to make a connection. There may also be wires (of corresponding colors) in the fixture that would be connected to the ceiling wires with wire nuts.

In either case, use the wire stripper to remove 3/4″ of wire sheathing. To attach to screw connections, bend the wire into a U-shape, wrap around the screw, then crimp the wire closed and tighten the screw.  (White wire to silver screw, black wire to gold screw, ground to green screw.)

How to Install a Light Fixture - Wires to Screws

Photo: Kit Stansley

To attach wires to wires, twist like-colored wires together and then twist a wire nut over them.

Step 3: Attach fixture to box
This simple pull-chain fixture was attached with two screws that go directly into the box, but you may also have just one screw directly on to the mounting plate. Once the fixture is mounted, install a light bulb, turn the breaker back on, and let there be light.

How to Install a Light Fixture - Complete

Photo: Kit Stansley

For more on home electrical, consider:

The Electrical Rough-In
Electricity in the Modern Home
Installing Electrical Wiring in an Old Home