How to replace a light fixture

To avoid serious injury, make sure to shut off power to the fixture at the circuit breaker before starting work. (Photo courtesy of Angie's List member Libby H. of Boston)

To avoid serious injury, make sure to shut off power to the fixture at the circuit breaker before starting work. (Photo courtesy of Angie's List member Libby H. of Boston)

If your light fixtures are dated or damaged, it may be time for replacement. Experienced homeowners can tackle and complete a simple fixture replacement in less than an hour.

However, if you discover any unexpected problems behind a fixture or are unsure how to proceed, it's always worth hiring an electrician. Better a small cost than a big shock. Here is a step-by-step guide to replacing a light fixture.

1. Make sure you stay safe

Step one is always safety. Start by making sure that the power to the fixture is off. Don't just flip the switch. Turn off the fixture's circuit breaker. Typically, circuit panels list what each breaker controls by room, so for a fixture in the kitchen, look for one that says "kitchen," or "kitchen lighting." You can also choose to shut down every breaker in your home with the breaker's master switch, but this is not a requirement.

The risks of exposed, live wiring are significant. Most homes in the United States are wired for 120 volts of alternating current at 60Hz. This means the current fluctuates between +120 and -120 volts 60 times each second. If you touch a live wire and receive a shock, the alternating nature of the current means you may be able to pull your hand away when the cycle hits zero volts and suffer only minor tingling or burns. It's possible, however, for current to arc through your chest, causing your heart to spasm or stop, or causing your muscles to lock up, resulting in a fall.

2. Get the right tools

To complete most light fixture installations, you need: a screwdriver, wire strippers and a pair of gloves. The screwdriver is used to remove the old fixture and install the new one, while the strippers are necessary if your new fixture needs a ground wire and your old fixture doesn't have one. Gloves are a good idea for added safety, but if you find you can't complete detail work with them on, they aren't a requirement.

3. Take it step-by-step

Once the power is off (and you're sure it's off), use the screwdriver to remove the hardware from your old light fixture. Underneath the fixture you'll find the junction box, which is a metal container that houses the wires. You'll see two or three pairs of wires, matched by color and covered by small plastic caps. They may be wrapped in electrical tape. Remove the tape, unscrew the caps and the wires will separate; you can now remove the old fixture.

If you have only two wires coming from the junction box, you're missing a ground wire. This wire acts as a path of least resistance for electricity, helping to prevent shocks and trip breakers in the event of an electrical short. Most new lights come with a ground wire attachment, and your junction box should have a space for one to be attached. If it doesn't, you may need to replace the box.

To install a ground wire, choose a wire color that's different from the two already in use. Strip a small portion of each end of the wire and put one end into the ground wire receptacle. Secure with a screw. Once that's complete, reattach all wires by color, twisting their copper ends together and then putting caps back on. Cover with electrical tape for added safety and reattach the new fixture using your screwdriver. Turn the breaker back on, install light bulbs and make sure the fixture works.

Replacing a light fixture is a task most experienced homeowners can tackle with the right precautions, the right tools and the right procedure. Slow and steady makes this project straightforward and safe.

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