How to Install a Light Fixture
Yes, you're handling electrical wires but no, you shouldn't be intimidated! Follow basic safety precautions (and learn which colored wire goes where), and you'll have that light fixture up and on in under an hour.
While any projects having to do with electricity are not to be taken lightly, installing a light fixture is a task many DIYers, with careful preparation and attention to detail, can handle. Switching out a dated fixture for one that better suits a home’s style can do a lot to freshen up a space. And while shoppers will find many fixtures that are quite affordable, the expense of hiring an electrician could put a damper on dreams of updated lighting. Take heart: Learning how to install a light fixture isn’t too hard, and many DIYers probably already have many of the necessary tools, although you may have to pick up an inexpensive voltage detector.
Before You Begin
Understanding some of the fundamentals of electricity and wiring before attempting to install a light fixture will go a long way to ensuring the safe and successful completion of the project.
It’s important to understand, for example, that all electrical power is fed through a meter to a breaker panel, which contains several breakers tied to specific parts of a home. Shutting off a single breaker shuts off power to that zone, whereas shutting off the main breaker box closes off power to the entire home.
Also know that simply turning off a light switch doesn’t mean the wires in the light switch box aren’t “hot.” Speaking of wires, DIYers should know that black or red is the current, white is neutral, and green or copper is the ground wire.
Working Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 1 hour
Skill Level: Beginner to Intermediate
Estimated Cost: $50, plus the cost of the selected fixture
How to Install a Light Fixture
These instructions assume that you’re replacing an existing fixture and that the junction box with the necessary wiring is already in place. If you are a DIYer and your project is more involved than that, it is a good idea to hire a professional electrician.
STEP 1: Shut off power at the breaker.
It’s always a good idea to shut power off at the breaker before undertaking any electrical work. 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.)
STEP 2: Connect junction box wires to the light fixture’s wires or screws.
A standard box for a light fixture has three wires: white, black or red, and green or copper.
Some light fixtures may come with a plate that will be connected to the two screw holes on either side of the box. If you can, connect the plate before connecting the wires. (This is particularly helpful if you have a heavy fixture that will need to be supported while you are connecting the wires.)
There are a couple of different ways that you can connect wires in the wall or ceiling to the wires in your new fixture: In some cases, you’ll wrap wires around screws to make a connection. In other configurations, you’ll wrap wires from the fixture to wires of the corresponding color in the ceiling, and clinch the connection with wire nuts.
In both cases, you’ll first use the wire stripper to remove ¾ inch of wire sheathing. To attach the wire to screw connections, bend the wire into a U-shape, wrap it around the screw, then crimp it closed and tighten the screw. You’ll connect the white wire to the silver screw, the black wire to the gold screw, and the ground wire to the green screw.
To attach wires to wires, twist like-colored wires together and then cap the connection with a wire nut.
STEP 3: Attach the light fixture to the junction box.
Consult the directions that came with your light fixture to determine how it should be attached to the junction box. Some light fixtures may have two screws that are driven into the box; others have just one screw that attaches to the mounting plate. Once the fixture is in place, screw in a light bulb of the appropriate size and wattage, turn the breaker back on, and let there be light.
Though novice do-it-yourselfers might be intimidated about the electrical aspect of installing a light fixture, the task is pretty straightforward. The most important step is to make sure that power to the junction box has been cut at the breaker, and be sure to confirm that it’s off using a voltage tester. Given that you’re working overhead (and on a ladder, perhaps) and you may not have a clear view of what you’re doing, it’s also a good idea to have a helper on standby to stabilize the ladder, hold nuts and tools, and make sure the job goes off without a hitch.
While installing a light fixture isn’t terribly complicated, it’s definitely something you want to get 100 percent right. If you still have questions about this DIY-friendly light installation, you’ll find some answers below.
Q. Do you need an electrician to install a light fixture?
If you’re confident in your DIY skills, you should be able to install a light fixture yourself as described above, and you can save the hassle and expense of hiring an electrician.
Q. Is it hard to install a light fixture?
It is not hard to install a light fixture. Just be sure to read the above steps carefully, assemble your tools and supplies in advance, and don’t cut any corners. Some very heavy fixtures might be easier to install with a second pair of hands to help hoist the light.
Q. Do I need to flip the breaker to change a light fixture?
Technically, no. But most electricians would recommend shutting off the breaker, just to be safe. If you just turn the light switch off, and a kid walks in the room and flips the switch on, you could be in trouble.
Q. Which wire is hot when both are the same color?
If your junction box has two black wires, one of the black wires might have been intended to go off to a second fixture that wasn’t installed. You might have to turn the power back (after capping off your wires for safety) and use a voltage detector to determine which is hot.
Q. What happens if you mix up hot and neutral wires?
Called reverse polarity, mixing up the hot and neutral wires can result in a short circuit, which in turn can ruin the fixture, shock someone who touches the fixture, or cause a fire.
Q. Can reverse polarity cause a fire?
Yes. Reverse polarity can cause a fire.