Track Lighting Buying Guide
Track lighting, also known as rail lighting, is one of the most versatile types of home lighting.
While this versatility is undoubtedly beneficial, it also means there are a lot of decisions to make during the buying process.
Start the process by deciding upon the specific use of your new lighting. Next up is choosing a track type, head type, and shade type.
Once the basic decisions are out of the way, it’s time to think about the overall style of your new lighting, including its color and finish, and the materials used as well as its shape and size.
Finally, you must consider the number of lights, type of light bulbs, and overall layout as well as any additional features (like a custom control panel) you want to include.
We’ve put together a detailed track lighting buyer’s guide to take some of the guesswork out of the buying process.
A. Intended Application
The intended application of your track lighting largely dictates the specific type of components and layout that are best for your home.
Three of the most common applications are general lighting, accent lighting, and task lighting.
1. General Lighting
Source: Arcadian Home
General or ambient lighting is when the light in question is the main source of light for a room.
Track lighting is a great option for general lighting in smaller spaces, such as hallways or entryways. It’s not designed to light large spaces on its own.
Pair this type of lighting with other types of lighting fixtures for use in larger rooms.
2. Accent Lighting
Accent lighting or wall wash lighting is when the light in question highlights a specific item in a room (usually a plant, painting or another piece of artwork, or bookshelf). You can also use it to highlight a single wall.
3. Task Lighting
Task lighting is when the light in question is focused on a single, small area.
This type of lighting is often found in offices, private libraries, kitchens, and other areas where a single task is performed. The lights can usually be adjusted to better focus on the task area.
B. Track Type
All track lighting is constructed from two main parts: the track and the head.
The track is the piece that holds the lighting fixtures. It’s also known as the rail or the bar.
Connect the track to the ceiling in whatever configuration you prefer. The majority of the track is available in 4-foot or 8-foot lengths (although additional cuts are available).
Special connectors known as T-connectors enable you to connect multiple lengths of the track at different angles and directions.
The two main types of track are linear and flexible.
1. Linear Track
Linear track is the most practical and therefore the most common type of track.
It’s available as straight lengths of track, usually in 4-foot or 8-foot lengths. A single linear length of track has space for several lights.
Linear track is also the easiest type of rail lighting to install.
2. Flexible Track
Source: Home Depot
Can’t find what you’re looking for with linear track?
Then flexible track might be right for you. This style of track can be easily curved into the shape you desire. It can also be cut to your preferred length.
Flexible track is perfect when you need a unique, customizable lighting layout.
C. Head Type
Most track rails or bars are designed to accept several different types of track heads.
Still, it’s important to ensure that your track and your preferred head type are compatible before purchasing.
The head is simply the fixture that holds the lightbulb. It’s held up to the ceiling by the track.
The four main types of track heads are step, round back, pinhole, and gimbal. You can also use a pendant fixture instead of a head fixture.
1. Step Head
Source: Home Depot
A step head track light is the most common type of track head. This style of fixture is notable for its simple, clean design. It works well with any track type.
2. Round Back Head
Source: Home Depot
A round back head looks much like a step head. The exception is the rounded back. This sleeker more stylish design makes it work perfectly with a modern style track type.
3. Pinhole Head
Source: Home Depot
A pinhole head also shares the same basic shape as a step head and round back head. The back of it, however, is partially exposed. The industrial look of the partially exposed back makes it work well in art studios, garages, and other spaces that place function over fashion.
4. Gimbal Head
Source: Home Depot
A gimbal head looks like something you’d see on a movie set. Designed to mimic a movie camera, this style of head can swivel 360 degrees. Like pinhole heads, they look great in spaces that have an industrial vibe like art studios and workshops.
Most track heads are relatively industrial regarding looks. Those that want something more decorative should consider a pendant. Connected to a down rod, pendant track lighting is one of the most options for rooms that require general or ambient lighting.
D. Track Light Style
Selecting the right track type and head type is only the first part of the process.
Next, up is deciding on an overall style. The style you choose helps dictate the rest of your lighting design options, including materials, color and finish, and type of shade.
Select a style that works well with the rest of your room décor and furnishings.
1. Modern Track Lighting
Rail lighting is, by its very nature, modern in design, no doubt accounting for the popularity of the modern style.
The modern style is notable for its sleek, refined looks. You can expect clean lines, smooth geometric shapes, and crisp colors from modern lighting.
Modern lighting isn’t usually the focal point of a room. It tends to fade into the background.
2. Contemporary Track Lighting
Though contemporary lighting is often used interchangeably with modern lighting, they’re actually two very different styles.
Sure, they’re similar, but contemporary lighting is notably a little more relaxed and less upscale than modern lighting. Expect rounder edges and less clean, straight lines.
With that said, contemporary lighting is often more futuristic looking than modern lighting. It’s sometimes even used as the focal point of a room.
3. Traditional Track Lighting
If you prefer a classic look over something more modern, then traditional lighting is probably for you.
Rooted firmly in tradition, this classic style of lighting evokes images of days gone by where things were simpler. Indeed, traditional lighting is often very simple, straightforward, and laid back.
Use traditional lighting to create a welcoming, relaxed atmosphere.
4. Rustic Track Lighting
Rustic lighting is similar to traditional lighting, but it takes the “age old” look to a whole new level.
The emphasis of this style of lighting is in rugged, natural beauty. Think unobtrusive lights with light shades in earth tone colors.
Rustic lighting often gives a home a refreshed, grounded feel.
5. Victorian Track Lighting
Victorian style lighting is undoubtedly the most complex, detailed style of lighting.
Think of how ornate a Victorian home often looks. Take that same ornateness and apply it to the lighting. You often see engraved track and heads with the Victorian look.
Victorian lighting gives a home a dash of high-class elegance.
E. Other Design Options
By now, we’ve covered the basic design options you must consider when buying track lighting for your home.
However, there are a few additional design factors to keep in mind that will help you further customize the individual look of your lighting.
The range of materials used for track lighting varies wildly.
Though tracks and heads are often made from real metal like stainless steel or bronze, synthetic materials like plastic are most common.
It’s important to note that not only do the materials used need to be strong, but they should also be heat resistant as well.
An expert tip to finding the best material is to take a cue from the other types of finishes used in that room.
For example, track lights in a kitchen look great when they match the handles on cabinetry and doors.
2. Color and Finish
The material you choose will largely dictate the color and finish of your fixtures.
The most common colors and finishes used for this style of lighting include white, black, bronze, nickel, and chrome.
However, the options are nearly limitless. Painted tracks and heads come in almost any color you can imagine.
Other unique options include track lighting that looks like a tree branch.
Most track heads come with a built-in shade. However, certain heads are available where a custom shade can be added.
The goal of a track head shade is decoration. Select one that matches the overall style of the room the light fixture is in.
Common options for track light shades are frosted glass, amber glass, Tiffany glass, champagne glass, and colored glass.
4. Size and Dimensions
How big do you want your set up to be?
As mentioned above, most tracks are available in lengths of 4 feet or 8 feet. The size of each track head can also be customized to your personal preferences.
5. Layout and Number of Lights
How many lights do you need? How do you want them set up?
The layout and number of lights you choose for your new lighting fixture play a significant role in its overall effectiveness.
A different plan is ideal for ambient lighting while a completely different layout works best for task lighting or accent lighting.
F. Additional Features/Options
Consider a handful of additional features and options that are commonly used for rail lighting.
These include lighting kits, plug-in lighting, cable lighting, a dimmer switch, and control type.
1. Lighting Kits
Track lighting kits make installing this lighting even easier.
These kits come with everything you need to install rail lighting. You don’t have to buy pieces separately.
If you want to install your new lighting yourself, a lighting kit is the way to go.
2. Plug-In Track Lighting
One of the most difficult parts about installing new lighting is figuring out the wiring.
Hard wiring a new light fixture can also be dangerous. In fact, most DIY newbies should hire a professional instead of trying to work with electricity themselves.
One way around these dangers is with plug-in track lights. Instead of wiring these lights to your electrical system, you simply plug them into a normal electrical outlet.
3. Cable Lighting
Source: Certified Lighting
Though it’s not technically track lighting, cable lighting is close enough to the same thing.
The main difference is that cable lighting utilizes a cable instead of a track. The cable is connected to the ceiling with each light hanging from the cable.
Cable looking provides a unique look you don’t see in many homes.
4. Dimmer Switch
Few lighting accessories are more effective and appreciated than a dimmer switch.
A dimmer switch allows you to easily adjust the brightness of your lights. Turn the brightness up when you’re working, cooking, or reading. Or dim the light when you’re getting ready for bed or just relaxing.
Remember that not all types of light bulbs are compatible with a dimmer switch.
5. Control Type
Source: Los Angeles Times
Most track lighting is controlled by a normal wall light switch.
Other increasingly common options include a wall touch-screen or a special lighting app on your phone.
Voice recognition lighting is also available.
II. More Details
Here are some other important factors to consider when buying.
A. Installing Track Lighting
You have two main options for installing this style of lighting in your home: DIY or professional.
DIY installation is the cheapest option. But it requires you to do far more of the work yourself.
Installing the track and track heads isn’t exactly difficult. It’s the wiring part of the process that’s cause for concern.
If you’re uncomfortable working around electricity, it’s necessary to hire a professional electrician or contractor to do the job for you.
An easy way around this is by selecting a lighting kit that comes with everything you need. Go with the plug-in variety to eliminate the need to wire the light to your electrical system.
Another cause for DIY concern is the fact that this type of lighting is installed on the ceiling. If you’re uncomfortable installing lighting on the ceiling, hiring a pro is your best bet.
Professional installation will save you time and effort but costs more money. Shop around and get quotes from several different contractors for the best price.
Home Depot provides a great guide that breaks down how to install track lighting into several easy-to-follow steps.
B. Room and Location
“Location, location, location.”
The popular mantra often uttered by real estate agents about buying a new home also comes into play for installing new lighting.
The location of your lighting is critical. Not only the room that it’s in but where in that room it’s installed.
The best location for home lighting depends on its application. For example:
- General lighting fixtures should be installed in the middle of the room.
- Accent lighting fixtures should be installed near the item being accented.
- Task lighting fixtures should be installed near the place where the task takes place.
Other factors to consider include how close the lighting is to any walls. Improper placement of rail lighting can cast unsightly shadows across over room.
A great tip to keep in mind is to use track lighting as just one source of light in your room. Pair it with other types of lighting for the best results possible.
C. Cost and Budget
The cost of installation in your home will vary greatly depending on many different factors.
Chief among these are lighting type, installation method, and any remodeling that also needs to be done. Construction or inspection fees are additional expenses to consider.
According to ImproveNet, the average cost for materials is somewhere in the range of $60 to $145 for most people. This includes all the fixtures such as the track, heads, shades, and bulbs.
The organization states that additional materials, such as electrical items, tends to run another $30 to $40. For labor, they estimate that you can expect to spend anywhere from $500 to $500.
Altogether, ImproveNet estimates that most people in North America pay between $480 and $675 to install this type of lighting.
HomeAdvisor estimates a slightly different average. Their research shows that most people pay between $145 and $764 for this type of lighting. Their average is $451.
In addition to these averages, HomeAdvisor has calculated the high and low amount most people spend to install track lights. The low is $75 while the high is $2,000.
Of course, you can spend much more than this if you want to. Luxury track lighting routinely runs up to $5,000 and more.
That’s not to mention if any problems are encountered during the installation process. If issues are found during installation, especially related to wiring, expect to pay a lot more to fix them.
The best way to save money on installation and stay within your budget is by installing your lighting fixtures yourself. Luckily, a plug-in lighting kit makes this easy.
III. Where to Buy Tracking Lighting Online
Now that you know everything there is to know about selecting the best track lights, including the best rails, heads, and shades, you probably want to know where to buy these fixtures from.
Our favorite places to buy track lighting online include: