Track lighting is an alternative to traditional wired lamps and fixed recessed lighting designs. Most systems use a length of exposed electrical wiring hidden inside a plastic or aluminum track, which can be wired directly into pre-existing circuits or plugged into wall sockets for power. After the track has been mounted to the wall or ceiling, a separate lamp and socket assembly can be snapped into place anywhere along the track itself. Metal plates in the socket make contact with the charged wiring in the track, which in turn activates the lightbulb.
This type of lighting is very useful in situations where traditional lighting is problematic. It can be very effective for isolating a work of art or other prominent design element. Several pinspot lamps can be installed in a single track and pointed in any number of directions. Traditional spotlights may take up valuable space on a mantle or table, and the backlighting effect from below is often unpleasant. Track lighting allows floodlights and spotlights to be hung unobtrusively from the ceiling or upper walls.
Some home renovators also find lighting solutions for older homes to be tricky, and instead of trying to install new wiring in an old ceiling, decorators can use surface-mounted track lighting instead. Manufacturers offer a number of decorative lamps and extensions designed to work with track bases. The main trick when working with this type of system is to know which of three basic track models have been installed. This information should be listed somewhere in the instruction manual included with the lamps and track. Some systems use a two-wire connector, while others use a three-wire grounded system or a wider two-wire connection. Lamps and extenders designed for one type of track will not fit any other design.
Another important consideration is the wiring method used. Some systems use the standard line voltage of 120 volts to power high-wattage bulbs, while others have a low-voltage system that uses a transformer to reduce the current from 120 volts to around 12 volts. The two systems should never be confused — a low-voltage bulb placed in a line voltage system could cause a serious electrical fire. Most decorative lighting designs, such as pinspots, use low-voltage systems, but functional ones may use 120 volt house current and 75 watt lightbulbs. The transformer for a low-voltage track lighting system may or may not be apparent, so it's always safest for homeowners to replace blown lightbulbs with those with identical wattage and purpose.