“Essentially, all you need is safe access to the existing light, common hand tools, something to test for voltage and wire connectors,” says Jeff Kunkel, a master electrician and chair of the board of directors at the Electrical Association.
The effect can be dramatic. “Consider changing your lighting whenever a room needs a facelift,” advises Kirsten Gaiennie, co-founder of New Orleans lighting company Sazerac Stitches. “It’s cheaper and faster than buying furniture, and it adds so much oomph.”
Here’s how to do it.
Calculate the appropriate scale for your new light fixture
Before you commit to a new light fixture, figure out how big it should be. Otherwise, your “upgrade” may wind up looking or functioning worse than what you already have. “You don’t want a huge chandelier over a small island or a single lightbulb above a dining table,” says Bryan Johnson, CEO of Shades of Light.
Most professional designers use this simple calculation to determine the best size ceiling light for a space: Measure the length and width of the room (e.g., 10 feet by 12 feet), then add those two numbers together (e.g., 22 feet). Then substitute inches for feet (e.g., 22 inches), and you’ll get the ideal diameter for your new fixture.
Keep clearance in mind, too. Lower ceilings — eight feet high or so — may necessitate a flush-mount fixture so no one bumps their head. Lights hung over dining tables or kitchen islands need to be low enough to illuminate the surface and high enough so people don’t run into them. Lumens has a helpful online guide with more details.
Determine whether you need an electrician
If you have fairly standard wiring and you’re somewhat handy, changing a light fixture is probably a project you can DIY. But there are some questions to consider before you proceed. Ask yourself:
- Is the fixture I want to install a dramatically different style and/or much heavier than the existing light? (For instance, if you want to put a big chandelier in a room where you have a couple of can lights.)
- Is the wiring in my house from the 1960s or older, and/or is it visibly damaged?
- Am I unsure how to safely cut the power to the fixture before I change it. (Am I worried I will shock myself?)
- Is the light in a high, hard-to-reach place, such as a two-story foyer or above a stairwell?
If you answered yes to any of those, you should enlist a licensed electrician. Your safety is paramount, and any of those circumstances can significantly complicate this project. For example, if you replace a small, lightweight fixture with a larger, much heavier one, you may need a new junction box (the small enclosure that holds the wiring inside the ceiling) to ensure that your new chandelier won’t pull down the ceiling. Installing one isn’t rocket science, but it’s trickier than many DIYers can handle.
Ready to DIY? Get the right tools.
Changing a light requires touching electrical wires, so the most important tool to have on hand is a voltage detector — an inexpensive, easy-to-use device that will indicate whether you’ve successfully cut the power to the fixture. You can pick one up at just about any hardware store.
From there, you’ll need a screwdriver, a wire stripper, a good ladder and wire nuts or connectors (which look a little bit like toothpaste caps).
Shut off the power to the fixture
Before removing the existing fixture, turn it off both at the light switch and the breaker box. (Because your light will no longer work, make sure you start this project early enough in the day that you can count on natural light. A headlamp may also come in handy.)
To make sure the power has truly been cut — incredibly important for your safety — Johnson recommends enlisting a buddy to help. “I send my wife to the garage with her cellphone. Then she calls mine while I stay by the light we want to change out,” he says. “She flips off the breakers one at a time, and once the one attached to the light is off, we retest it at the switch.”
Remove the old light
Depending on the fixture you have, removing it usually means undoing a few screws from a crossbar attached to the junction box that holds the wires in the ceiling. For very fragile or heavy fixtures, get a partner to help. Once you’ve unscrewed the old fixture, it will dangle from the ceiling by the wires and need support.
In most cases, you’ll see three wires coming out of the old fixture: a black wire (hot), a white wire (neutral) and a ground wire that may be bare copper or insulated in green. Use your voltage detector to test the black/hot and white/neutral wires; it will light up or give a digital readout if the wires are still live.
Once you’ve confirmed the wires are safe to touch, unscrew the wire nuts (those things that resemble toothpaste caps) that attach the fixture wires to the wires coming out of the ceiling. The ground wire will either be affixed via a green screw or wrapped around the bracket holding the light; use a screwdriver or your hands to disentangle it.
Untangle the old fixture’s wires from the wires in the junction box. Keep the junction box and the crossbar for the old light in place.
Inspect your new light fixture
Before installing your new light, read all the instructions that came with it. It should have three wires — black, white and either copper or green, just like the old light — coming out of it. Use your wire stripper to remove a little bit of the plastic covering on the new wires (an inch at most).
Connect the new wiring
Holding the new light close to the junction box, “twist black to black, white to white, and the ground wires together,” says George Noble, lead carpenter at WilderWorks. “Then you gently screw the nuts over the ends [of the three pairs of connected wires] and push all the connected wires up into the ceiling.”
It helps to have two people: one to hold the new fixture, and the other to attach the wires.
Secure the new light fixture
Use the screws that came with your light to attach the fixture’s canopy to the crossbar in the ceiling junction box. Twist in your lightbulbs and attach any shades. “Then turn the circuit back on, flip the switch and enjoy your new light,” Kunkel says.
Jennifer Barger is a writer in D.C. who covers home and travel.
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