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Monorail Lighting 101

Monorail lighting is often referred to as ‘flexible track lighting’, 'curved track lighting', or 'flex track lighting'. Monorail is shapeable, bendable metallic rail used to both power and suspend light fixtures.

Although often placed in the same category, these systems should not be confused with traditional track lighting, cable lighting or twinrail systems as each has unique characteristics.

When to use monorail lighting
monorail lighting The advantages of monorail track lighting over traditional track lighting are largely aesthetic. Whereas the suspension system for traditional track (that is, the track itself) is entirely functional…monorail has become a design element in itself. It may be shaped to form complementing contours and is commonly available in attractive finishes such as satin nickel, chrome, gold or antique bronze. Increasingly, these finishes come with optional accent colors that run along the rail itself to highlight other colors in the space to be illuminated.

Design considerations aside, monorail lighting advantages are similar to track lighting advantages. In short, it is a good solution when adjustable lighting is required. If the focal points in the target area aren’t fixed, the reconfigurable nature of these rail systems may offer a good solution. Classic examples of shifting focal points are restaurant tables and art on walls, but almost any room without built-in furnishings is a candidate.

Use this type of linear lighting primarily for accent and task lighting rather than general illumination. Rail systems are rarely suitable to illuminate an entire room. Most spaces require a balance of general, ambient illumination, task and accent lighting…low voltage rail systems are best used for task and accent purposes.

Also consider this type of lighting if the space to be illuminated has few points of power. Another reason linear lighting systems are so practical is that it allows many fixtures to be powered from a single junction box. When remodeling, it is often an easy way to add more light to the space without requiring installation of more ceiling junction boxes by an electrician.

How monorail lighting works
monorail lighting detail Monorail lighting fixtures are powered from current running through the exposed metallic rail itself. A closer look at a piece of monorail will reveal that it’s really two small metallic rails with a thin piece of insulating connector between. Although the connectors along the rail may look like a single piece of metal, they actually connect to both the top and the bottom of the rail to carry power to the fixtures and the power source.

Obviously, carrying line voltage electricity along exposed rails such as this would be dangerous. Not surprisingly, the evolution of monorail lighting is closely tied to the growth in low voltage lighting…that is, until recently.

How to speak monorail
Monorail systems are comprised of many different components. Each component described below comes in a variety of options allowing limitless installation options.

Standoff – a piece of hardware used to physically support the monorail lighting system from the ceiling. They are either rigid or adjustable. Rigid standoffs are commonly used to support systems mounted close to a flat ceiling although, with special hardware, they may be used to mount monorail systems to vaulted ceilings. Adjustable standoffs are vertical supports comprised of thin aircraft cable attached to both the ceiling and the rail. Adjustable standoffs are commonly used for irregular ceilings or in situations requiring the monorail lighting system to be suspended a significant distance from the ceiling.

Powerfeed – often similar to standoffs, powerfeed components support the monorail system while carrying power from the transformer or power source to the rail itself. For a clean look, these components are typically designed to look exactly like a standoff or, in the case of adjustable standoffs, they are discreet flexible power cables.

Stem – an optional extension (typically between 2 and 24 inches) on a monorail lighting fixture that allows the fixture to hang below the monorail. It is often useful to hang track heads below a monorail run when the ceilings are unusually high. Stems are common to many light fixtures…they are mentioned here to clearly differentiate them from standoffs.

Surface mount transformer – a transformer, typically housed in a stylish enclosure, attached directly to a power junction box in a ceiling. Surface mount transformers are more common than remote transformers due to their ease of installation during remodeling projects.

Remote mount transformer – a transformer, within a metallic housing designed to meet fire code, designed to be mounted in a remote location such as a nearby closet or within the wall itself. Remote mount transformers provide a very clean look and are typically used when installing lighting in a new construction project where access behind walls is available.

Lamp – another word for light bulb.

Shaping monorail lighting systems
As mentioned before, one major aesthetic advantage of monorail lighting systems is that the rail itself becomes a design element. Monorail may be shaped by hand in the field (no special tools are required) or formed around a wooden template. When bending monorail, be careful not to form very tight curves as this may damage the monorail. Typically, curves with a radius of more than 12” are fine.

Low voltage vs. line voltage monorail lighting
A few years ago, all monorail systems were low voltage. They required the use of a separate transformer to convert standard (line voltage) power into low voltage current before it was sent along the exposed rails to power fixtures. One limitation of low voltage monorail systems is that they cannot carry more than 300 watts in any length of a monorail run. This means that one monorail circuit may power six 50 watt fixtures or eight 35 watt fixtures (both are common bulb wattages.) Although more than one transformer may be used to increase the number of fixtures that may be used on longer runs, this has been a long standing limitation of low voltage monorail systems.

Demand for the style advantages of monorail and the power capabilities of traditional track has recently driven development of line voltage monorail systems. Line voltage monorail retains the shapeable characteristics of low voltage monorail while enclosing the conductive components inside of the rail. This allows more fixtures to be powered along longer runs of rail without installing a transformer within or on the surface of the ceiling.

Monorail lighting standards and compatibility
Unfortunately, every manufacturer of monorail has developed a different, proprietary standard for their brand of monorail and the components are rarely interchangeable. Configuring any one of these standards can be very confusing...learning to configure more than one standard is entirely impractical. To make configuration of these systems practical for the end user, Brilliant Lighting has developed a unique web-driven system to allow users to easily configure designer grade monorail systems in a few easy steps.

In closing, despite its complexities, monorail lighting offers a vast array of previously unavailable design options.

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