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Track Lighting 101
Whether you live in a contemporary high-rise or suburban ranch, track lighting is sure to provide dramatic and enhanced illumination to any room of the house.
In the evolution of illumination—from torches to torchiers—track lighting is a relative newcomer. While originally used in galleries, museums, and commercial installations, track lighting has become a popular choice for many homeowners today, regardless of whether they live in a sleek, contemporary dwelling or rustic, country cottage. And with good reason. Track lighting can add drama and a modern aesthetic everywhere from the bathroom to the finished basement, and is relatively affordable and easy to install. Here’s all you need to know to bring the flexibility and flair of track lighting to your home.
What Is It?
Track lighting is very much what it sounds like: a track that screws into your ceiling and provides power for a series of independent lights that are suspended from it. Lights can be placed anywhere along the track and directed in a variety of angles. Track lighting is great for calling attention to a specific workspace, piece of artwork, doorway or architectural detail. If, however, you are looking for general illumination to light up an entire space, a standard ceiling fixture will cast a more dispersed glow.
As with most home lighting, there are two basic types of track lighting systems: line voltage and low voltage. Line-voltage systems use the standard electrical wires and current in the home, which provides 120 volts to the fixtures. These type of track lighting installations tend to use incandescent spot lights or flood lights and have the largest light fixtures. Low-voltage systems have a small transformer built in which takes the current down to 12 volts, allowing the system to use a greater variety of bulbs and light fixtures; often much smaller than line voltage lighting, but equally as bright. Low-voltage track lighting bulbs also last longer, getting about 2-3,000 hours versus the 700 to 1,000 hours a line-voltage bulb will get. In the case of low-voltage LED systems, the lights can last an impressive 10,000 to 100,000 hours.
Types of Tracks
The most basic type of track lighting systems are those that consist of a straight line- voltage track that holds the lighting fixtures. These tracks can come in one of three configurations: H, J or L style, which refers to the way in which the track is shaped internally. When buying new track lighting or replacing fixtures along an existing track, make sure the lights you choose match your track style.
Another popular system is the monorail track. This can come in a variety of styles, but at its most basic, consists of a custom-formed track from which lights are suspended. So if you have a curvy kitchen island, for example, you can get a monorail system that would follow its contours. There are pre-formed monorail systems, those you can flex yourself (called flexrail) and those that are dropped down from the ceiling via a series of connectors (called suspended monorail). There are also two-circuit monorail systems that allow you to work some lights with one switch and others with a second switch. In such a system, you could have one circuit operate spotlights aimed at particular areas while another could light pendants for dispersed ambient light.
The lights that sit along the rail in a track lighting system are known as track heads and are available in styles as wide as those found for ceiling fixtures. You’ll find spot lights, drop-down pendants with gorgeous glass shades, flexible-arm track heads, and much more. If you already have a track lighting system in your home, you can refresh it by just swapping out the track heads; just make sure you purchase new lights at the correct voltage and for the same style track.
If you already have a ceiling light fixture, track lights are easy to install. Simply remove the old fixture, screw the track into the ceiling using toggle bolts or other appropriate anchors, connect the new track to the electrical box, snap your lights in place and enjoy the fun of moving them around to get the lighting in your room exactly the way you want it!