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Track Lighting 101

In the history of lighting design, few concepts have proven so useful, practical and adaptable as to grow in popularity for decades. Track lighting is one of these ideas. Although few people desire to be experts on the topic, a basic understanding of how these systems work will prove useful to anyone considering lighting solutions. This article is intended to provide just such an understanding.

This article covers traditional track systems which should not be confused with monorail lighting or cable lighting.

When to use track lighting traditional track lighting installation - side view
- Consider track systems when adjustable lighting is required. If the focal points in the area to be illuminated move often, track may be a good solution for you. 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 track lighting primarily for accent and task lighting rather than general illumination. Linear lighting systems are rarely suitable to illuminate an entire room. Most spaces require a balance of general, ambient illumination, task and accent lighting…linear systems are best used for task and accent purposes.

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

How track lighting works
Track systems are really quite simple. The image above shows a side view of a typical installation with several common types of fixtures. Note that the system is attached to the ceiling with toggle bolts inserted directly through the track itself. Ideally, bolts will be placed into studs, but the light weight of most of the systems will typically allow them to be installed into sheetrock or plaster as well. Above the ceiling on the left is a four inch junction box. A standard component, these boxes serve as a common mounting point for a wide variety of ceiling fixtures.

When planning an installation where the system will be attached directly to the ceiling, remember that the track must run directly beneath a junction box where it will connect to power via a power feed canopy. Canopy is a term for the connecting component that attractively covers the point of power (the junction box) while also making the physical connection from the junction box wiring to the track itself. Floating canopies may be installed at any point along the track while other power connecting hardware (such as the common ‘live end’ connector) must be installed at the end of a track run.

Finally, the fixtures themselves simply snap in. The image above includes line and low voltage track lighting fixtures as discussed in part 2.

Line voltage track lighting vs. low voltage track lighting
line voltage track lighting fixture The most significant change in track lighting in the past decade is the emergence of low voltage fixtures. The pros and cons of line voltage vs. low voltage track lighting systems aren't covered in depth here but a basic understanding of the differences is important.

‘Line voltage’ is a term used to describe the ubiquitous type of power that runs throughout homes and offices everywhere. Standard wall outlets provide line voltage power and, as everyone understands, line voltage power can be dangerous. ‘Low voltage’ refers to power that has been converted from line voltage by a transformer to a safer level.

When working with traditional track light systems remember that all traditional track carries line voltage power. When someone refers to a low voltage track system they are referring to the fixtures themselves. low voltage track lighting fixture

Low voltage fixtures for traditional track convert power from line to low voltage using a transformer built into the fixture itself. In the illustration at left, the longer black connectors seen on the pendant on the right and the small track head in the middle contain transformers. These are low voltage fixtures while the large can shaped fixture above is a line voltage fixture.

The emergence of low voltage fixtures has been driven in large part by consumer’s desire to reduce the overall size of the track fixtures in their homes. The smaller size has produced hundreds of new compact fixture styles for both track heads and pendants. Additionally, low voltage fixtures use halogen bulbs which produce exceptionally crisp, white light rather than the more yellow light common to older incandescent fixtures. Finally, low voltage fixtures consume less power to produce the same amount of light.

Low voltage fixtures may or may not be appropriate for your application.

Three track lighting standards
It’s important to understand that, over the years, track lighting has settled into three major standards: ‘H type’, ‘J type’ and ‘L type’. When buying additional fixtures or components for an existing track lighting system, it is essential to buy components designed for the same standard. Identify which track lighting standard you currently have in place.

If you are designing a new system, it is sufficient to understand that you should use ‘H type’ track. The ‘H type’ standard has certain design advantages over the other standards and thus makes up the majority of new systems installed today.

Track lighting limitations
For all its merits, track lighting does have limitations. One limitation is that, typically, every fixture on a given piece of track is on a single circuit and thus must be controlled together. Thus, it is impossible to dim one or more fixtures independently of the others. This limitation may be overcome somewhat by using dual circuit track.

Dual circuit track allows fixtures to be isolated into two groups and controlled independently. Often, this is used to dim pendants separately from track heads attached to the same run of track. It should be noted that the point of power (the junction box to which the system will be installed) must be wired appropriately to allow independent control of two groups of fixtures.

Installing track systems
Track lighting systems are not extremely difficult to install. For those comfortable working with electricity, the systems may typically be installed in less than an hour. For those not comfortable with such projects, any experienced electrician should be able to install a track system of any standard quickly and easily. Track lighting offers an extremely versatile and, recently, stylish way to add accent and task lighting to almost any space.

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