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Upgrading the lighting in your home is not a complex or difficult endeavor; in fact, most of the time it’s incredibly simple.  So, you certainly don’t have to suffer with the stock offerings that came with your humble palace.  If your home is a bit older, then perhaps the light fixtures might also be showing some wear — or worse yet they look dated to you.  And we’re not talking about the good kind of dated, either.  We’re talking that 70’s Brady Bunch look that gives you the shudders every time you see it.  Don’t despair, all you need to change a basic light fixture is about 30 minutes and a few basic tools. 

But before you go charging off to buy lighting, you need to know what you’re dealing with.  Your best bet is going to be to scout lighting and get a good idea of what’s out there — and what you’d like to install — then go home and see if that type of fixture will work for your application.

Read on past the jump for more information and lots of photos.

Things you need to look at are issues such as: will the new fixture fit in the space available?  Or will the new fixture expose holes in the wall that’ll require filling if you go with a different style?  The easiest way to tell is to remove the older fixture to see what you are up against.

A very important note: Make sure to flip the breaker off to disconnect power to the fixture you are working on before you do anything.  Also, be sure to test to make sure you have the right breaker by turning the light on and then cutting the power.

Now that the power is off you can pull off the old fixture and see what’s under there.  If your house was built after the 60s, you’ll see something that looks like a box with some holes around the edges and a few wires in it.  Sometimes they’re square and sometimes they’re round.  In either case, it won’t be an issue.


If the light is a single pole switch — only operated from one location — like this one then there will be three wires in the box: a ground (which is normally green or copper), a white wire, and a black wire.  If it’s a dual pole switch there will be more wires, but the ones you will be interested in are the ones that you disconnected from the old fixture. 


For this project we’re installing a three bulb wall vanity, so the first and most important part to go on is the backplate. This plate will position and hold the weight of the fixture to the wall.  Practically all commercially available fixtures these days will have a universal mount pattern like this one that mates right up to the standard box located in the wall or ceiling.  It’s handy and works well so you may as well use it.  There may also be holes near the ends to mount further hardware to keep the unit in place.



Fit the wires through the center hole, then place the plate in position and fasten it down with a few fasteners for a solid, snug fit.  It’s up to you to decide how much securing is necessary but remember: better safe than sorry.


Once you’re happy with the placement it’s time to move on to wiring, which is relatively straight forward on a project like this one.  The ground goes to the little green screw located somewhere on or near the center ring.  Simply loop it around and tighten it down securely.

Read on to page 2 for the rest of the install.

pages: 1 2


8 Responses to How-To: Replace a Light Fixture

  1. Rick says:

    Hah… Kick ass.. You guys have some kind of crazy timing..
    I just went to Home Depot this past week and picked up two new fixtures. I ALMOST picked up a clearance ceiling fan for the living room too, but the light on it was one of those circular fluorescent ring style bulbs – so I wasn’t convinced it was going to be right enough.

    In any case, I just installed them this afternoon in my bedroom and the hallway. Then tonight I sit down to read toolmonger and I see this. Too much.

    I’d never seen that style of clip for the electrical connection before. That’s a new one to me. I actually have an old cut up wire coat hanger in my “electrical” toolbox that I use to hang a fixture from the box while I make the connections. That way the fixture isn’t hanging from the electrical cables. Then once those are done I remove the coat hanger and install the fixture.

    Also, I made mention of my electrical toolbox. It’s an old tackle box style toolbox and it contains all of my electrical-related tools. I find this is easier than taking the roll-away into the house. That said, besides my lineman’s pliers, electrical tape, crimpers, wire strippers, a nice flat and phillips head screwdriver, etc. I also have old bits/scraps of left over wire and/or other bits and pieces. I’ve got a varied selection of wire nuts, etc. The strips of cable come in handy at times.

    About two weeks ago I needed to install a new 230v fusible switch in my laundry room for my driver. I had the outlet coming off of the old switch through a bit of conduit. When I installed the new switch, the cable from the outlet needed to go to a different location in the box. So I pulled out a nice piece of 10 gauge wire that I had left over from another job. It was about 4 feet long, but I only needed about a foot to make the connection I needed.

    In any case.. that’s my little bit of electrical advice 🙂 – and like Sean said – can’t emphasize this enough. TURN OFF THE BREAKER. Another nice piece to have, and I can’t recall if it’s been reviewed here already or not is an inductive electrical tester. It’ll tell you if you have any live wires in the box without needing to make contact with the copper. Just by putting it against the wire, it’ll beep if it detects a live current. I’ve found that invaluable to ensure that there’s no current in the box. Oftentimes the fixture I was going to work on had no power, but there were other wires that were running through it to other outlets and/or fixtures in the room. So it was nice to check the other wires before I stuck my hands in there.

  2. Rick says:

    This is similar to what I have. But mine isn’t by fluke.
    Home Depot is where I got mine. Right now they have this one:
    ::link:: although it’s not exactly like mine.. But this’ll get the job done.

  3. It’s more fun when you pull the old fixture and find no box…

    I’ve found them screwed driectly into the paneling in my house (yes paneling). I’ve been slowly replacing it (and just about everything else).

    I also like how they used lamp wiring as conductor for switch jumpers.

  4. nrChris says:

    I replaced one set of wall sconces (basement) last weekend, and hope to hit another set next weekend. Thanks for the good tutorial, fortunately my installs were both straight replacements onto the mounting box.

  5. Morgan Wingfield says:

    One thing I’ve learned that may be helpful is when you’re joining the white to white wires and black to black, wind them around each other clockwise so when you put the cap over them, the tightening of the cap will further tighten connection between the wires (as opposed to winding the wires counterclockwise so the cap will tend to separate them).

    Same thing applies to winding Teflon tape around a plumbing joint.

  6. joelfinkle says:

    Like Donald, I’ve found fixtures with no boxes — especially outdoors, where I discovered Romex embedded in the masonry’s mortar, and the old fixtures just screwed into lead anchors! And the new fixtures’ mounts are 90 degrees off… meaning new anchors, just to mount some shallow surface-mount boxes.

    You may not see a ground wire in some boxes, if it’s all metal conduit. If your boxes or conduit are plastic, you darn well better have a ground wire, otherwise, just screw the fixture’s ground wire to the box — often there’s a cross-brace that has a green screw on it.

    I really like the clip-on wires — that would save a lot of headaches.

    Last word of advice on fixture selection: pick ones you can put CFT bulbs into, meaning you probably don’t want to be able to see the bulbs, but you also have to make sure the fixture isn’t on a dimmer for most CFTs.

  7. Leslie says:

    Good article, great details, but the obsessive-about-electrical safety part of me would really love to see you include having folks actually test the wires with a meter before proceeding, especially if the fixture is being replaced because it didn’t work, thus rendering the “turn the switch off and on” test useless.

    Actually I think a how-to article just on using a volt-ohm meter would be great (I’m a newbie, so be kind if this is something you’ve done recently). Maybe just a run through of some of the basic tasks you might use a digital multimeter for, from testing battery strength to testing circuits to testing audio cables (and don’t forget to mention which setting the meter should be on for each task – I’ve seen articles that failed to mention this, which makes it useless for a newbie), and reminding folks of safety issues that they might not always consider, such as if there are two sets of wires coming into an outlet, you have to test both since it might be connected to two seperate circuits (I learned this one the hard way – ouch!).

  8. rhonda says:

    I am trying to replace a bathroom wall fixture for the first time. My backplate for the new fixture is round, but my electrical box with all the wires is rectangular. The two don’t seem to fit together. The backplate is smaller than the electrical box. I understand how to do the electrical part, but what about making this backplate fit? The holes don’t align. Someone please tell me what to do next. Thanks!

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