How to Choose Track Lights
Why Choose Track Lighting?
Track lighting presents cost-effective, energy-efficient and aesthetically pleasing lighting choices for a variety of environments. It is ideal for task and ambient lighting, as well as for decorative accent lighting to complement other fixtures in a room. Track lighting offers advantages over other ceiling lighting options:
- A track system can be installed with the use of just one junction box, as opposed to a series of fixtures which each require their own individual power source.
- Track lighting is highly customizable, with removable light sources that can easily be rearranged to match changing decor.
With diverse systems and fixtures to choose from, track lighting offers one of the most economic and versatile lighting solutions.
Consider Your Lighting Needs
Before selecting a track system and accompanying elements, it is important to consider the specific lighting tasks to be addressed. General ambient lighting, accent or wall wash lighting, and task lighting all serve different purposes, and each will require different placement and positioning.
Ambient and General Lighting: Track lighting serves this purpose well in entryways or halls, but generally is not well suited as the sole light source for a room. Instead, it is ideal as complementary illumination along with other fixtures in a room. Larger rooms can accommodate larger track layouts, and track pendants or spot lights can be selected that complement the existing décor.
Accent and Wall Wash Lighting: These types of lighting configurations are recommended for displaying pictures, book cases, and decorative pieces placed on a wall.
- Wall washing is ideal for an all-encompassing, non-focused spread of light, and can reduce the number of track heads required. Wall wash track heads frequently feature energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs as an added bonus. Make sure that a wall wash fixture is placed at a sufficient distance from the wall to avoid unattractive shadows on the wall.
- For more focused accent lighting, use adjustable spot light track heads. These fixtures can provide a higher level of light on a specific area. Angle the track heads at approximately 30° in order to minimize glare and reflection.
Task Lighting: This is a specific lighting configuration that illuminates small areas where light is needed for various activities. It is ideal for reading, food preparation, and workbench areas. Low voltage spot lighting is an excellent option for task lighting, as it is highly energy efficient and well suited to illuminate counter spaces and kitchen islands.
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Choose Your Track Type
While there are many variations and styles of track lighting systems, the following types are most commonly found:
- Standard Track: This is a user-friendly system that is secured directly to the ceiling with screws. This is usually a “straight track” system, and can be configured into “L”, “T”, and “H” shaped patterns with 90° angles.
- Monorail Track: Monorail track is sleek rail that is suspended from the ceiling by standoffs with a uniform height throughout. Monorail is often flexible, with some designs even being hand-bendable. When bending flexible track, it is important to bend the track at one foot increments, and at no more than a 30° angle.
- Two-Circuit Monorail Track: Similar in design to standard monorail, two-circuit systems are essentially two tracks built into one. They allow separate fixtures on a single track run to be connected to two separate switches, providing greater lighting customization. Components for single-circuit and two-circuit systems can be incompatible with each other, so it is important to be aware of this when making installation or expansion selections.
- Cable: A cable system consists of two strands of conductive wire with fixtures suspended between them. It is ideal for rooms where track cannot be mounted to the ceiling, as it utilizes turnbuckles installed into the walls instead. Supporting standoffs and riggers are required for cable runs over 20 feet long or when using heavier lighting elements, though.
*Tip: When determining the length of cable required for a run, multiply the length of the run by two, and add an additional 10% to feed through the turnbuckles. For example, a 20 foot run would require 45 feet of cable.
Track fixtures, commonly know as elements, come in many varieties, but generally can be divided into track heads and track pendants.
- Track heads consist of directional and spot lights, as well as wall wash and ambient fixtures. They are ideal for task and display lighting.
- Track pendants are more decorative, but can provide good down lighting for areas such as kitchen islands or counter and sink areas, as well as general ambient lighting. Track pendants are often broken down into three customizable parts: the track system connector, the socket set with stem or cord, and the shade. Socket sets can also be combined with special ceiling canopies for mono-point applications.
*Tip: Select fewer elements when using larger size fixtures in order to avoid a crowded look on your track run.
Line Voltage or Low Voltage?
Another point to consider when choosing tracking lighting is whether to go with a line voltage or low voltage system. Both types have their own strengths and advantages, so selecting one over the other is largely a matter of preference. There are, however, several things to keep in mind when determining which system is right for a room.
Line voltage track systems operate at 120 volts, often come with a lower price tag than low voltage systems, and are easy to install and expand. Line voltage track does not require a transformer, and can generally hold more fixtures since it is not constrained by wattage limitations. Some line voltage systems are so simple to install that it's simply a matter of plugging them into a standard socket. Further, track heads utilizing energy-saving compact fluorescent bulbs are only available with line voltage systems.
Low voltage systems may cost more at the outset, but they are a wise investment long term, as they use less electricity while providing the same amount of light output as their line voltage counterparts. Low voltage directional heads frequently come with 12 volt MR16 halogen lamps included, which are ideal for task lighting in kitchens, over workbenches and in studios. Low voltage systems require a transformer for operation.
As a general rule, track lights should shine near walls or directly onto a work space such as a counter or kitchen island. For most standard height rooms, track should be located an 18-36 inch distance from the wall. Taller rooms should have the track farther from the wall. Plan your track layout, and determine the length of track and the number of fixtures needed for the lighting effects you want to create.
Most track systems are installed over an electrical junction box, although some can be powered by a standard outlet. Typically, a J-box installation is more aesthetically pleasing and professional in appearance, since it has no exposed wiring, but an outlet installation can be more convenient. A power feed will link the J-box to the track. Low voltage track systems require the use of transformers, which may be built into the canopy or remotely located out of sight within a wall.
It is crucial to purchase all your track components from one brand, as they may not be compatible with systems made by different manufacturers. Always read about the track system carefully in order to be aware of any potential compatibility issues. Lastly, make sure your track installation is safe by not placing fixtures within six inches of curtains or other flammable materials.
Track Lighting Transformers
Low voltage track systems require the use of a transformer to operate with the line voltage current found in residential wiring. The transformer is often built into a canopy that mounts directly over a junction box, and is known as a surface transformer. Remote transformers are also available. These transformers are hidden behind walls to offer a more minimal and clean aesthetic. The average transformer is limited to 300 watts per track run, but some models may be rated higher.
When using a transformer, it is important to take necessary precautions to avoid voltage drop. These are the leading causes of voltage drop in low voltage fixtures:
- The number of elements on a system is too high.
- The length of track is too long for a single system.
- The length and gauge of wire from a remote transformer to the power feed exceeds the recommended limit.
Don’t let these precautions limit you, though. Sections of track can be physically connected but electrically separate, using different transformer sources in order to provide the visual appearance of a longer, uniform length of track lighting. (*Tip: Be sure to use isolating connectors with the separate power-supplied sections of track.) Another method for creating a longer run is by using a dual feed transformer canopy. This effectively provides two transformers within one canopy and allows for two separate track runs moving in different directions.
Remember that your transformer must have a wattage rating equal to or greater than the total wattage of all the fixtures included on your system. For example, a set of five 50 watt pendants on a low voltage track system requires a transformer rated at a minimum of 250 watts.
Track Hangers and Connectors
Track connectors and standoffs are the key components to creating a customized look for a track system.
- Straight connectors and “X”, “L” or “T” shaped connectors are common designs found for most systems.
- Flexible connectors are also available.
- Cable lighting systems feature unique connectors designed to redirect a cable run in nearly any direction.
- Isolating connectors join sections of track while isolating power feeds from one another.
Many connectors come standard as conductive, but not all are. It is crucial to always be aware of which connectors will cause conductivity between two sections of track when installing or expanding a track system.
- Uniform height standoffs must be used for an entire monorail track system and should be installed every 3 feet along the track run.
- A power feed canopy will double as a standoff.
- Power extenders can be used for longer ceiling drops.
*Tip: Keep in mind that for many systems combination canopy feed/connectors, combination element/track connectors, standoffs with multiple track connectors, and more combination connector types are available to further customize your track lighting design.
Keep it in the Family
The key thing to remember while shopping for track lighting is that not all heads or pendants fit on to any track. On the ATGStores.com site there is a tool to help you create your dream track lighting system, custom to your preferences, from LBL or Tech Lighting.
All from One Place
If you are looking for a simpler option, track lighting is also available in kits. Track lighting kits come with all the required parts; however the style comes as is and cannot be mixed and matched as easily as the custom track lighting options from individual manufacturers.