Intro: Installing Dimmable Track Lighting Without House Wiring
I recently renovated my home office to go to a standing desk configuration and simultaneously change the look, which I'd had for almost 12 years.
One of the items I wanted was track lighting so I could could have the flexibility to point task lighting exactly where I wanted it and add or subtract lighting to suit me.
My home office (a converted bedroom) doesn't have pre-installed lighting fixtures on the walls where I wanted my track lights, and installing them would be expensive and too permanent should I want to sell the house, so I decided to create my own.
An added plus would be the ability to place dimmer switches exactly where I wanted them rather than having to walk over to the door every time I wanted to adjust lighting levels.
Following is a description of how I made my own outlet-powered custom dimmable track lighting.
Step 1: Materials & Tools
- track lighting kit (or purchase track, lights, track power connector and wire nuts separately)
- light bulbs suitable for selected lights (don't use CFL bulbs unless the package specifically notes it's OK for dimmer use)
- 16 gauge 3-conductor extension cord (15' will work for most)
- dimmer (I chose a sliding dimmer in black which also has an on\off switch)
- "handy box" electrical box (1/2" knockouts)
- 1/2" screw-in connector for flexible metal conduit (You can also use the kind that clamp the wires, but I liked the appearance of this one better)
- toggle bolts or drywall anchors
- switch cover plate
- mineral spirits
- paper towels
- spray paint
- Track lighting kit selected here is has no stated rating but a quick web search found recommendation of no more than one light per foot of track up to 38 lights per circuit - almost 20 amps - standard household lighting breaker size
- 16 gauge 3-conductor cord selected here is rated for up to 13 amps
- Dimmer selected here is rated for 600 watts - about 5.45 amps at 110VAC. In other words the dimmer is the main limiting factor here and household dimmers have built-in overload protection so we're safe in this regard
- #2 Philips screwdriver
- wire stripper
- wire cutters
- ladder or step stool
Step 2: Prepare the Electrical Handy Box
1. Knock out a plug of your choice from the electrical box.
2. Insert screw-in connector into knockout and fasten into place
I went with all black - cord, dimmer and handy box to match the track and fixtures. The handy box was basic utilitarian unpainted steel (hey, what do you want for 87 cents?), so I painted it flat black.
Because the box has a coating of oil from the factory you'll need to wipe it down with mineral spirits and dry it before painting or your paint won't adhere properly. I also had to remove a small UPC sticker.
- For best results you don't want to touch the metal with your fingers once it's been wiped clean - oils from your skin can also prevent perfectly proper paint adheration. (I made that word up, I think.)
- Be sure to cover all areas that will be visible once mounted and then let the paint dry thoroughly before working with it further. Trust me - flat black paint is a booger to get off of skin, jeans, etc.
Step 3: Install Track Electrical
OK, first the obligatory warning - if you don't know what you're doing with electrical wiring you can get hurt or killed.
Don't try this project if you are uncertain about basic electrical wiring!
Still here? Good!
1. Decide where you'll want to mount the finished dimmer switch box and cut the extension cord to suitable lengths - the plug section from nearby outlet to the dimmer box location, the other section from the dimmer box to the track mounting location.
In my case I started with a 15' cord. The distance from where I wanted the box to mount to the nearest electrical outlet is about 3 feet. This would then leave me with about 12 feet of cord from the dimmer to the light track.
I added a couple of feet and cut the cord at 5 feet on the plug end and 10 feet on the light track end. 10 feet would allow plenty of room for moving the box around if I wanted to do so later. You may need different dimensions for your needs.
2. Cut the socket end off the extension cord and discard. (I left a few inches of wire so I can re-use the socket on another project if I wish.)
3. On the plugless part of the cut extension cord use wire nuts to connect the wires to the corresponding wires on the track power connector - green to green, white to white and black to black.
4. Attach the track power connector to track, carefully following instructions included with the connector. Note that the track will be marked so that the power connector and lights go in properly to maintain correct power & grounding orientation.
One side of my track has an indentation running along it's length. That side has the ground wire, so it's important to insert the power connector and lights such that when you turn them to lock them into place they make that ground connection.
5. Attach cover on power connector, being careful to not pinch wiring and to run wire out the opening in cover. A plastic cover (like mine) could be easy to crack so it may take a bit of maneuvering to get the wiring in the right spot to avoid undue stress on the cover.
If you have some smaller wire nuts than were provided with the kit that may make it easier. I just made it work with a little wire wiggling.
Step 4: Mount the Track
Rather than go into all that, I'll just say that if you aren't very good with hanging pictures or art, go learn how, then come back. I'll wait.
Are you back yet? No? I'll wait some more then...
OK, there you are! Glad you made it! Now let's get back to the track lighting...
1. Decide where you want the track and use toggle bolts or drywall anchors to install.
- Be sure to level the track (unless you're going for a special zany artistic effect). I found it easiest to fasten one end of the track at the desired height and location then use a level while fastening the other end.
- Track lights are normally installed horizontally but can be installed at any angle to suit your application and can be installed on ceilings or walls.
Step 5: Install Dimmer Electrical
1. Insert cut extension cable ends through screw-in connector on electrical box and pull out 6-12 inches so you can work with them easily.
2. Put a simple loop in the wires about 4 inches from the ends - later this will serve to prevent wires from being pulled out and putting strain on electrical connections. This step isn't necessary if you are using a clamp-type connector.
3. Strip outer sheathing back 2" on all exposed wire ends
4. Strip wire insulation back 1/2" on all resulting exposed wires
5. Use a wire nut to splice black wire from plug cord to one black dimmer wire. (Doesn't matter which black dimmer wire you use.)
6. Use a wire nut to splice remaining dimmer wire to the black wire going to the track light.
7. Use a wire nut to splice 3 green wires together
8. Use a wire nut to splice 2 white wires together
9. If you want the dimmer fastened down, now is the time to mount the electrical box in desired location
10. Pull wires back out until they stop at the previously noted loops
11. Mount the dimmer into the electrical box using the 2 screws provided with the dimmer.
11. Secure cover plate on the dimmer using the 2 screws provided with the plate.
Step 6: Final Assembly and Adjustment
1. Prepare lights by inserting correct type and rating light bulb in each. Mine uses R20 floods with a max 50 watts. I used 45 watt bulbs.
2. Attach lights to track following instructions included with track - basically insert carefully as noted in track documentation and twist clockwise 1/4 turn.
3. Double check to ensure you don't have any forgotten wires or covers.
4. Plug into electrical outlet and test.
5. Carefully adjust each light's position on the track - do NOT attempt to just slide the lights on the track once they're locked in place! Twist them to disconnect, move, then twist back into position!
Mine are more-or-less evenly spaced but that's just my inner OCD at work. You can put them wherever works best for you.
I used this same method to place track lights on opposite walls of my office and I'm pretty happy with the results.
Hope you find this Instructable useful!
8/17/2014 - An update - after 3 years everything still works fine, though I've
since added lights so that each track now has 5, with some pointed at the ceiling for indirect light and some pointed down at specific areas for task lighting.