So you finally found that perfect barn light. Maybe it is the result of hours of painstaking online research. Maybe it’s you scored an authentic vintage gooseneck barn light from a resale. Or maybe you saw your friend’s, drove right to the store, and got yourself the same one. In any case, now comes the next step: installing it.
Hiring an electrician can be expensive, costing between $50 and $100 per hour and with the average home visit costing $506. Luckily, with just a few tools and a willingness to learn, replacing a light fixture is a fairly easy process.
First things first
There are a couple of things to consider before deciding to tackle the project yourself.
The first is that replacing a light fixture is not hard. However, putting a light fixture where there wasn’t one before is far more difficult. Getting the electrical wiring from an existing power source, wiring in a switch, and installing the hardware the light fixture will mount to is much more involved. Perhaps more importantly, this all must be done to code, with electrical codes often varying from one county to the next.
Faulty electrical work can start fires and many insurance companies won’t cover damage from unlicensed electrical work. Another thing to consider is the age of your home. Really old homes that haven’t been rewired may have brittle old wiring that can be difficult to work with, and it may have unusual hardware not readily suited for a modern light fixture. And remember: it’s always okay to give up and call an electrician.
With all of that said, putting that new barn light up will probably be easier than you think, and if you’re lucky, it will require little more than a screwdriver and gumption.
Shutting down the electrical circuit
Before getting started, it’s imperative to shut the power off to the light. To shut down a circuit breaker, leave the light on and go to your breaker box. There should be a ledger, usually on the back of the door to the breaker box, telling you which switches control which areas of your house, such as “kitchen,” “master bath,” or “garage.” Flip off the switch that corresponds to the room where the light is located. Now go back to your light. If the switch is on, but the light bulb is out, the circuit has been successfully shut off. If the light is still lit, your light is on a different circuit. Try the next most logical circuit until you get it. Be aware that shutting off a circuit will cut power to anything that’s wired into that circuit. Stoves and microwaves may lose their time, and be sure to power down desktop computers and expensive electronics that might be on that circuit. Now that the circuit is shut off, you can work with the electrical components with confidence.
Removing the old fixture
The first step in changing out the light fixture is removing the old fixture. Doing a good job taking apart the old fixture entails noticing how it is attached to the wall or ceiling and how it is wired. This will make life much easier when it comes time to install the new fixture, so take your time and pay attention.
Every light fixture gets removed a little bit differently, so there are no universal instructions to removing the fixture. When it comes to the outside of the light fixture, just dig in. There may be nuts, bolts, as well as countless screws. There are often thumbscrews that don’t necessarily look like hardware, but can be twisted off by hand. There may also be little plugs matching the finish of the light fixture that need to be removed to access the hardware that attaches the unit to the wall.
It may be necessary to take a shade or the bulb out to access all the screws. The idea is to get to the “junction box” where the electrical connection is made. There are several kinds of boxes, but every box has two mounting screws between two and four inches apart and will be the termination point for the wiring. In order for the new fixture to install properly, strip off everything down to those mounting screws, but don’t go any further.
Trying to use brute force will likely only result in damage to the drywall or siding that will have to be repaired and painted. So, be patient and methodical. The old fixture will eventually pop free. Don’t let yourself be surprised by gravity! At some point, whatever’s holding that light fixture up is going to be loosened. You don’t want to let the light fixture fall off the wall and drop to the floor. This is especially true for barn lights, as the bulb end is usually heavier than the side that attaches to the wall.
Unwiring the old lamp
As soon as the old fixture is free from the wall, stop. The light fixture will still be attached to the wires inside the wall, and it’s important to see which wires go where. If you have a camera phone handy, it’s not a bad idea to take a few pictures. There is no reason whatsoever to pull other wires that might be inside the wall out for a simple fixture swap.
What we’re trying to figure out at this stage is which wires from the lamp fixture are hooked to which wires in the wall. The old light fixture should have a black, and a white wire coming out of it. There’s a decent likelihood that the wires are simply hooked to the correspondingly colored wire in the wall: black to black, white to white.
In 99% of cases, the white will be hooked to a white wire, though the black may be going to a wire of a different color. This is okay. If the old light fixture worked properly, hooking up the new fixture same way will be fine. Newer fixtures will also have a green or bare copper wire attached. If so, note where it’s attached to. If the existing fixture does not have such a wire, there’s nothing to worry about.
Finally, and most importantly, if one of the wires from the fixture is attached to multiple wires, make sure they stay together. In other words, the white wire from the light fixture may be attached to 2 or more wires in the wall.
Take a special note of this. Once the wiring scheme has been determined, it’s time to detach the wires. That’s as simple as untwisting the wire caps, and pulling the wire from the old light fixture away from the wires in the wall. Hold on to those wire caps, even if the light fixture comes with new ones. The ones from the light manufacturer may not be big enough to replace the old ones.
If the wire from the light fixture is attached to multiple wires, do as much as you can to extract the one wire from the light and keep the rest of that bundle as intact as possible. Now the old light fixture should be ready to come off the wall entirely.
Installing the new barn light
Like taking a light apart, putting the light together will vary from light to light, and following the manufacturer’s instructions is the best way to go. The last piece of the puzzle is getting the wiring back together. Luckily, our careful work taking the old light apart will make this easier. Simply attach the new light the way the old light was hooked in. In some cases, the new light has a green or bare copper cable but the old one did not.
That green or copper wire is a ground. It is not strictly necessary for the function of the light, but adds shock protection. If there’s a green or bare copper wire coming from the wall, hook it up to that. If there’s no ground wire in the wall, attach it to some piece of metal nearby, such as screwing it into the electrical box.
Once the wires are attached, follow the instructions from the manufacturer on installing the fixture. In most cases, the light will be hung from the two mounting screws on the electrical box, often using a few common pieces of hardware. For larger, heavier lights, the fixture may be additionally anchored to the wall or ceiling, but that information will come from the manufacturer.
Once the manufacturer’s instructions are finished, all that remains is to switch the circuit breaker back on and enjoy the distinctive charm of a stylish new barn light.