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Track Lighting Buyer's Guide

Track Lighting Buyer's Guide

Why Consider Track Lighting: Uses and Benefits

Sometimes there are obstructions that prevent you from installing certain fixtures into your ceiling. What you’re left with is lighting that doesn’t really do the space justice. Luckily, setting up a track lighting system is the solution to that problem. It’s a quick and easy way to light your space without making the ceiling look cluttered and you can freely reposition the fixtures on the track. If you want a simple look or a more decorative style, track lighting or monorail lighting systems may be good options for you. These systems add functionality and style to a space without needing additional fixtures. You can go for spotlights or pendants, whatever you think looks best. Lighting systems can be installed on the ceiling or walls and are great for industrial or modern spaces.

Use just one system to provide general, accent, and task lighting to your room. The great thing about these lighting systems is that you can change the tracks to match the furnishings of the room. Only one electrical box is needed for the multiple fixtures on the track. Track lighting is perfect for DIYers and renters who don’t want to deal with rewiring or installing more fixtures.

There are many benefits to both track lighting and monorail lighting systems. Track lighting is versatile and can be customized for residential and commercial spaces. They are also scalable, meaning you can use a single-circuit for 1920W or about 240 fixtures with 8W LED lamps. This is the same as using 60W incandescent lamps. Or, you can use a two-circuit track which handles 4,000W. Because there are so many different shapes and styles to choose from you have more options for customizing your system. Another benefit is that you can mount the tracks in different ways, from suspending the track with rods or cables, to mounting it from drop ceilings (also known as T-bar or grid ceilings). Track lights are also diverse and are compatible with many other fixtures.

A monorail track lighting system is similar to a track lighting system, except they are malleable. The tracks can bend up to 45 degrees, great for a customized shape and design. You the choice of installing the tracks on curved ceilings and walls. Like the track lighting system, they work in residential and commercial spaces. There are some systems that can support 1920W and others that can handle as much as the transformer can. Monorail track lighting systems can also be suspended and installed onto drop ceilings. The system has many types of lighting fixtures, such as pendants, track heads, spotlights. Because it is typically used for decorative purpose, the system offers many different styles and shapes Some fixtures that can be added or removed to customize your look.

Uses of Track Lighting

Track lighting is great for creating all three lighting layers with just one track system. Illuminate an entire space with ambient lighting. Light specific areas or objects within the space by setting up some accent lighting. Or reposition the lights so you can work in your kitchen under some task lighting.

- Ambient

Light hallways and entryways with general illumination by using track lighting. Combine the lights with other lighting to brighten living rooms, bedrooms and other larger spaces. Utilize the lighting systems in residences or commercial spaces like restaurants, boardrooms, and retail showrooms.

- Accent

Attach spotlights to your track lighting system to highlight artwork and other features. Because you can adjust the lights, reposition them to fit your lighting purpose. Minimize glare and reflection by simply adjusting spotlights at 30 degree angles. Spotlights produce a focused light that is under 25 degrees, while floodlights cast a large beam of light 25 degrees and over. Feel free to combine spotlights and floodlights to have accent lighting and general lighting on the same track.

*Note: Wall washing brightens the entire room. Less lights are needed and you can choose energy-efficient bulbs.

- Task

This layer is for lighting specific areas such as kitchen countertops and reading areas. It has a smaller, concentrated light. Go energy-efficient or use low voltage lights to create this layer.

Types of Track Lighting

The difference between track and monorail

The two types of track lighting systems are track and monorail. There are a few differences between the two. For one, the systems use different voltages from each other. Tracks use line voltage or a 120V system, the amount a home’s electrical circuit can handle. The great thing about this is that you don’t need to calculate how many fixtures can be used on a transformer. A track system, also known as a linear track, has linear strips of track that are 2ft, 4ft, 6ft, and 8ft long.

The components of track lighting are the track, adjustable light heads, and canopy. The system is placed flat on the ceiling or walls, depending on the space. Its moveable track heads give you the freedom to move them back and forth anywhere on the track. Because track lighting systems aren’t decorative, you can choose any style of light fixtures.

A monorail system operates on a low voltage that convert 120V to 12V, using less energy. So you must know how many fixtures the transformer can handle. Choose between low voltage halogen bulbs and energy-efficient LED bulbs. The transformer and mounting system will determine how difficult the installation process will be. But if you plan properly it will be an easier project. The look of each system is different. If you want conventional then opt for a track system. They are typically used in kitchens, bathrooms, and hallways. The system is great on high ceilings with wood beams for highlighting artwork or perhaps a fireplace. The monorail has a more contemporary look that focuses on the decorative aspect rather than the functional. The track pieces are flexible and are curved or rounded. Monorail track systems hang from the ceiling. They are typically more expensive than track lighting.

How to choose between track and monorail

Think about whether you want track lights to provide functional lighting or for decorative purposes. Track lighting systems serve a more functional purpose than a monorail system. It’s budget friendly and easy to install. There are many areas where track lighting works perfectly, such as hallways, closets, and large vaulted spaces. It’s possible to hide the track by matching the color with the ceiling.

If you’re looking for style, then go for monorail. This system works in any space. You can place pendants on it to add character and make a statement in a room. Its adjustable feature is ideal for ceilings that are tall or sloped. Customize your lighting systems by mixing mini pendants with directional track heads. That way, you can produce ambient, task, and accent lighting on the same track.

Proprietary systems

Not all lights are compatible with the different tracks. The three standard systems that exist are Halo, Juno, and Lightolier. They are compatible with a variety of fixtures. It’s best to stay away from proprietary systems or you’ll be restricted to the fixtures of the same brand of your track system. That limits your customization of the lighting system.

Track lighting

It has fixtures called heads or “bullets” that are attached to a track. Electrical conductors power each head to illuminate the space. If you want a clean and seamless look then install the system flush with the ceiling, making sure they are both the same color. Track lighting is easy to install but can be an unattractive addition to your space. As a solution, hang pendants from it as a focal point to distract from the track itself. You can use two-circuit tracks to control two groups of fixtures that are on the same track. The location and purpose of your lighting determines what type of lighting you use.

If you’re looking to provide accent or task lighting, then you’ll want to consider linear track lights. These tracks are either 4ft or 8ft long.  Use T-connectors if you want to divert from the main line.

The head of the track light rotates so you can move it in the direction that you want to cast light. The step head is standard and fit for all decor. The round back head has a modern look. If you’re looking for more freedom to move then the gimbal head is a good choice. It swivels 180 degrees and resembles a movie camera light. Another type of track light is the pinhole head which is partially exposed in the back, giving it an industrial style. For accent or task lighting, try flexible track lights that can be customized to your liking. Not only can you curve the track, it’s moveable. This allows you to bring it closer to features that you want to highlight. And if you don’t like the size of the track, you can always cut it. Choose from a flexible track head or mini pendant. Flexible track lights are suitable for both residential and commercial settings. If you don’t want to deal with hard wiring, you can always opt for plug-in track lights.

Facts

The most common track systems are the H, J, and L track systems, which are compatible with Halo, Juno, and Lightolier. These lights are interchangeable so long as the system is the same. The H track system is compatible with Halo, J with Juno, and L with Lightolier. These systems are also single-circuit, meaning they are controlled by the same switch. They are 120V and used in residential and commercial spaces. All of these systems have similar performance.

Rail lighting

Rail lighting is perfect as a main light source for small rooms. Combine it with other lights in larger bedrooms. Rail lighting always works well in commercial spaces, such as restaurants, and boardrooms.

Facts

Because these systems are bendable, you can customize your design. They are made for curved ceilings and walls. There are so many fixtures and light sources to choose from, but most systems aren’t interchangeable. That’s why it’s best to go with a manufacturer that offers a wide selection of fixtures and different options.

Fixture types

There are a variety of track lights made for different uses. Track heads are great for task or accent lighting. Some fixtures you can choose from are spotlights, directional lights, wash fixtures and ambient fixtures, among others. Another type of fixture is a track pendant, which provides downlighting ideal for workspaces, and ambient lighting.

Lighting Kits

A lighting kit has all of the linear track lighting system components. The components come in many different sizes and with a broad range of track heads. Sometimes it includes the bulb. There are also the fixed track lighting kits, which contain all components. Most can direct light to wherever you please. The light heads are attached to a fixed or adjustable swing-arm bar. The heads pivot and rotate but can’t slide back and forth along the bar. The tracks can be installed into the ceiling junction box. Connect many tracks of all lengths with straight, T-shaped or L-shaped connectors. Connectors join tracks in straight lines and at any angle. Make sure the end is connected to another length or capped with a dead-end cap. Use dead connectors for closed loops and boxes without short circuits. Many kits come in decorative types that cast wide beams for general lighting. Regular linear and monorail systems have track heads that produce a focused beam of light ideal for task lighting and spotlighting. There are also track suspension kits that you hang from the ceiling. They work well for spaces with high ceilings, such as lofts.

Common Questions

What is the distance between each fixture?

People have many concerns about installing a track lighting system, such as spacing. It is best to follow the rule of thumb when spacing your track fixtures, which is to maintain at least 1ft between each fixture. Look at the lighting requirements which will also let you know how much spacing is needed.

Are systems compatible with any fixture?

As mentioned, you must buy the same the system and fixtures because of compatibility. The only exception is the Juno track fixtures, which are universal.

What is the maximum number of fixtures for each rail?

Halo (H), Juno (J), Lightolier (L) tracks, and Flexrail are all 20 amps and can handle 1920W on a single-circuit. Or you can install 240 fixtures using 8W LED or 60W incandescent lamps. J2 can handle 4,000W on two circuits. Solorail systems are low voltage and support as much as a transformer can handle. Usually a 250W transformer can handle 30 LED fixtures or 5 incandescent fixtures.

Build Your Own System

Both track and monorail lighting systems comprise of three parts. They each have the track or rail, a power feed or transformer, and light fixtures. It’s important to know the wattage of each fixture and be aware that the circuit may not be able to withstand the wattages. It’s best to contact a certified electrician so he can ensure that the circuit can support all the fixtures you plan on installing.

Overview of components 

1. Track or Rail

Keep in mind that most of these systems are proprietary. This means that you must check whether the fixture is compatible. Tracks are offered in 2ft, 4ft, 6ft, and 8ft lengths. The great thing about these systems is adaptability. You can shorten the track by field-cutting or connect the tracks if you want it to be longer. The monorail only comes in 4ft and 8ft and you will need mounting hardware. Bend the rail if you want to shorten it. Note that connecting too many rails will cause voltage drop. Position fixtures close to the ceiling if you want to prevent sightlines.

2. Power feed or transformer

Since track systems are 120V, you only need to connect it to your home’s power source. On that note, monorail systems are low voltage, which means they operate on 12V. They need their own transformer to convert from 120V. They come in surface-mounted and remote options, depending on the installation requirements.

3. Light fixtures

 

 

You have quite a variety of bulbs. Choose standard bulbs or line and low voltage halogen and LEDs. Use adapters to add line voltage and low voltage pendants to track lighting. This lets you add some decorative features. Monorail systems are designed to be decorative so there is a bigger selection of fixtures, such as mini pendants. Because these fixtures can be used on its own or with other directional heads, to serve many different lighting purposes. Choose your fixtures and plan your layout before buying your transformer, because the type you buy depends on your layout and fixtures.

Best practices

- Spacing

Track lights have many advantages. You can reposition the lights by adjusting the heads. And depending on the system, you have the option to choose where to position the heads on the track. When spacing lights, the track heads on a linear and monorail track should be 12 to 24 inches apart. If you want to accent artwork or other displays, then your lighting should be 18 to 26 inches away from them. Spacing depends on what lighting layer you plan on using. However, keep the space at least 4 inches apart.

- Sloped ceilings/walls

Some tracking systems can be used on sloped ceilings or walls. Check the fixtures to see whether they can be installed on those surfaces. They add style and compliment architecture.

- Dimmers

Add a dimmer to control the look and mood of the space. If you are using LEDs, the dimmers must be compatible. Line voltage systems that use incandescent bulbs will work just fine with a regular wall dimmer.

Determine layout & power

There are many track lengths and connectors giving you the option to design the layout you want. Use a standard track or a flexible track in single-circuit or two-circuit configurations. Use the power supply from the junction box or plug in the power cord into an electrical outlet. A floating canopy connector is used if you are powering from the middle of the run. You’ll need a live end connector for powering the end of the track. Cover the box under the live end connector with a canopy plate. Install directly to the ceiling or suspend the track from it.

Track Systems

Choose track lights

The lights must meet certain requirements before you build the system. Look into any accessories you may need and any lighting effects that you want to create. There are accessories that you can use that will modify the way a fixture looks and the type of light it will cast. Special lenses are available that allow you to change the shape of the light. For example, there are honeycomb louver, spread lens, and beam elongating lens to name a few. You can also choose the color it will cast using color lenses or color dichroic lenses. Direct and focus light with a framing projector or barn door.

You must know the length of the rail and the amount of lights it holds, which typically ranges from 3 to 6 lights.Color temperature, lumens, and wattage affect light quality. Halogen and LEDs are typically used. Use warm white color temperature for living rooms and bedrooms, bright white color temperature for kitchens and workspaces, and a daylight color temperature for reading nooks and studies.

There are many different styles and finishes of track lights. Flexible and fixed tracks are decorative. You have various glass shades to choose from, such as frosted glass, amber glass, tiffany glass, champagne glass, colored glass, white, black, and brushed nickel. The finish of your lights should match with existing finishes. White is best for blending light with ceilings.

- Things to consider

Track lighting and rail lighting systems provide function and visual appeal using ambient, accent wall washing, and task lighting layerse. These systems give you the ability to control the positioning of the lighting for any setting. Track lighting is also cost effective, great for energy-efficiency, customizable to suit any decor that you have, and only needs a junction box or transformer for installation. Think about whether one type of fixture or a mixture of fixtures will best suit your needs. Know what lighting layer you need to use. Do you want energy efficiency? Then LEDs or incandescent lamps are your best options.

- Line voltage, low voltage, and integrated LEDs

You will need to choose whether you want line voltage, low voltage, or integrated LED lights. Line voltage supports 120V on a direct track current. It connects to a home’s 110-120 volt feed, like other ceiling lights. Rather than using a transformer, plug the system directly into an outlet. Tracks that use line voltage are easy to maintain. They have many options and accessories, are less expensive upfront, and give you the ability to use a dimmer for more lighting control. Line voltage fixtures can use an array of lamps, depending on the use. Because they are ideal for longer runs, voltage drops aren’t an issue. Line voltage fixtures also have a concealed conductor which prevents shock.

Low voltage converts 120V to 12V or 24V using a transformer. This voltage gives you better dimming capabilities than line voltage as well as comfortable lighting. Another advantage is it can cast a more controlled and focused beam of light. Controlling the light means you can adjust features such as color temperature and beam spread. They use halogen or LED MR 16 and MR 11 lamps.

If you go with integrated LED lighting, you have the choice between line or low voltage. These lights include a LED lamp or module on-board. If you are looking for energy efficiency, cost effectiveness in the long-term and low maintenance, then this lighting system is your best option. Integrated LED lighting also has great dimming capabilities and lighting control. They last for over 50,000 hours, while incandescent bulbs have a lifespan of approximately 2,000 hours. Another benefit is that using LEDs will cause less damage to artwork.

Track system layout

- Things to consider

As mentioned, fixtures of a specific model number will be compatible with a system of the same number. So, check for compatibility first.

- Components

1. Choose a track system

It’s important to make sure that the track section is compatible with your fixtures. For a system using one circuit, the track sections come in 2, 4, 6, and 8 inches. A two-circuit system only comes in 4, 8, and 12 inch sections. The section lengths you use should work with your layout. These sections have two end caps and are resizable. This means you can cut or join the connectors. Most people choose H tracks, which have a wide variety of finishes.

2. Choose power feed

You’ll either use a junction box or a receptacle. You can choose live end feeds to use with a junction box that will power the track at any end. Use a Romex or BX cable for powering a live end feed. If you have a junction box that lines up with an I-connector, use a power-connector to feed the track. Lining up the track with the junction box allows you to use a floating canopy to power anywhere on the track.

- Choose connectors

There are 5 popular types of track connectors. An I-connector joins two track sections without a break in power. Dead-end connectors put two pieces of track together but you won’t have power continuity. T-connectors are usually used for track grid configurations and join 3 sections of track in a T-shape. To connect 4 pieces, use an X-connector, which creates an X-shape. Left or right connectors will give you a 90 degree angle by joining two pieces.

Rail Systems

- Things to consider

Before building your rail system, there are a few factors you must keep in mind. Determine which fixtures will work best for your lighting purpose. Maybe only rail heads should be used on its own. Or perhaps they will work better if combined with pendants. Decide on what lighting layer you will need to use to achieve the look you want. Note whether you want energy efficiency or are okay using incandescent or halogen bulbs. Again, LED lights is the best option if energy-efficiency is important to you. Technology has improved over the years making LEDs a great source of power. Remember, that you can choose between low and line voltage with LEDs.

- Components

Quick Connector pendants and fixtures, rail sections, fixture adapters, rail connectors, power feeds, and stand-offs are all needed for rail systems. Quick Connector fixtures only work with the proper adapters.

1. Choose rail sections

The length of your system determines which rail section works best for you. If your system is more than 20ft then choose the Flexrail system or a Solorail. Transformers have a maximum run length of 20ft and Solorails systems are only for when there is less than 20ft of continuous rail. Rail sections only come in 4ft and 8ft sections, so make sure that you get the appropriate one for your layout. These sections include two cuttable end caps and you have the option of adding connectors.

2. Choose fixture adapters

Solorail systems are low voltage so they are only compatible with low voltage lights. Flexrail systems are compatible with low and line voltage. However, a Quick Connect transformer is required for each low voltage connected to the Flexrail.

3. Choose power feed

You must power circuits with a junction box. Solorail Power Feeds have 75-600W transformers that come in 3, 4 ½, and 5 ¾ inch lengths. The transformers have magnetic or electronic versions. Use extension bars for longer drops. Another option is the Flexrail Power Feeds. They have stems that accept power. They also have flexible connectors that are available in 6, 12, 24, 36, and 48 inches that are all cuttable.

Installation

1. Safety first

Be sure to turn off the electricity for the fixture on the circuit breaker. The light switches should be off, as well. Then use a voltage meter to verify no power is flowing through the wires. The wiring and electrical connections must be up to date and meet building codes. Check with a certified electrician if you’re unsure. If you need new wiring you may also need a permit, so contact local authorities who will advise you on the steps you need to take.

 

Check the wattage output. A fixture with one bulb ranges from 5 to 105W. Verify electrical connections can handle the wattage of the track lighting you’re installing. There may be other lights and appliances on the circuit. Let an electrician install another circuit if you find that the wattage is more than the maximum wattage of the circuit.

2. Materials & tools

Rail kits offer all the materials and tools required for installation. These kits include wire nuts, electrical wires, tracks, light fixtures, bulbs, and mounting hardware. Any material not included will need to be purchased. A voltage meter, tape measure, electrical tape, wire strippers, drill, and safety glasses are your essential tools.

3. Placement

To highlight any features or objects, position lighting about 18-26 inches away from the object or wall to heighten the effect. For task lighting, center the track above the work area, using downlighting. Keep drapery and flammable materials at least 6 inches away from the track. The track needs to line up with the joists, so be sure to take measurement. For a parallel track, measure the same distance inward from the wall at each end of the marked path. You should use at least 3 connectors for every 8ft of rail and two connectors for every 4ft of rail to provide enough support for the system.

4. Installation

Document setup

Either take a photo or label wires with tape to note how the new system will be connected. There will be a bare copper ground wire, a black supply wire, and a white neutral wire in your current fixtures. If there is a red wire, you can use it for a dimmer switch. If the wires are different then consult an electrician. You’ll need to determine whether the new fixtures screw into terminals on the plate or if you will need to attach the new fixtures with plaster connectors or wire nuts. If the fixtures screw into terminals then you will need special connectors called pigtails to join multiple wires together. Strip ½ inch of the rubber coating from the end of each wire with wire strips. This will provide a strong connection.

Connect ground wire

Ground wire needs to be connected properly because it is a safety release that sends excess current into the ground rather than an outlet. Running the current to an outlet may cause damage. Also, if the outlet’s current doesn’t work, the ground provides a path for the current in the neutral wire. Connect the bare copper and the insulated green wires using a wire nut. If there is no green wire, there should be a grounding screw inside the junction box with a green head. Wrap your house’s ground wire around the shaft of the screw, securing the screw by tightening it.

Install track

Place all the connected wires in the junction box and secure the mounting plate. Use a locking screw if you need to. Customize your layout with the angle and straight track connections, and T-connectors. Anchor the track into the ceiling joists and drill holes to mount the track. To avoid screws from loosening or coming off you’ll need toggle bolts or anchors to attach the screws onto the drywall or plaster. Then attach the caps at the end of the run for a seamless finish.

You’ll have directions for installing your track heads. However, you will either use a metal arm for tightening the lights, or the heads will affix to the track with the ability to turn 90 degrees. Then add light bulbs to the fixture according to the manufacturer’s instructions. If you don’t install the bulbs properly you may have to replace them often. After you have installed the lights, turn the circuit back on and turn the light itself on to see if it lights up. If you find that the fixture doesn’t work then run a test again, checking all the wire connections to see if they are connected before turning the power on again.

If you don’t plan on installing the track lighting in the same location as the box, it’s best to contact a professional to help you with the process. Or you can use a track lighting kit and connectors specially made to run from an existing box to the new location where you plan to install the lights. This kit allows you to install lights anywhere you want. The result is that you’ll have a track that runs from the old fixture to the new one. Once you install your lights, you’ll have the ability to adjust the fixtures to your desire. Put shims on the fixture to tighten the track head if you have trouble securing it place. Be creative so try other styles, bulbs and lens shape to customize your design. Track lighting systems lets you build the look that you want so take advantage of it!


You can find a great selection of modern track and monorail fixtures from the following manufacturers: WAC lighting, Nora, and Tech.

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