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Question DetailsAsked on 1/27/2016

I need instructions on how 1970 track lighting works

I have 1970 track lighting installed in my vaulted ceiling and the lights, 20 of them, are all operated by a control panel of 8 dimmer knobs and eight different switches. Each dimmer and switch works 1, 2 or 3 lights of the 20. I'm wanting to put them on 1 or 2 switches instead of my 16. Or take them down. Can you please help me find some information on how they work?

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1 Answer


Definitely sounds like it was originally a DIY job.

Obviously, not knowing the model and make I can't be specific. However, likely one of two types - the second far more likely if from 1970's:

1) low voltage system (probably 12V) with end connectors to provide the power - either ceiling panels connecting to a standard electrical lighting box in the wall then to transformer at the switch on the wall, or more commonly a transformer in an electrical box above the end connector - one per individually powered strip.

2) 120V system with standard wiring like any other light fixture - may have an end connector with wiring into an overhead box, or sometimes just a lamp cord running to an outlet, with an in-line switch on the cord.

The power end connectors look like this typically - can be rectangular or round -

Lamp cord wired ones looked like this typically - the lamp cord would be wired into the removeable plug on the end, have an in-line thumb switch on it, and plug into a wall outlet Since you have wall switches, almost certainly the hard-wired into the ceiling type.

Since you have varying numbers of lights on the tracks, not clear if you have 8 tracks, or fewer tracks joined together with dummy connectors like following - look exactly like the live connectors usually except they had no metal joining prongs or contact strips to carry the juice between the track segments - track segments just slipped onto the connector and were tightened with a setscrew.

Now - how to figure out what you have. Obviously, the switch that controls certain bulbs is connected to them by wiring - if you have a situation where multiple switches turn on the same bulb(s) that another switch does, then you have a multi-switch situation, similar to stairway two and three-way switches, and DEFINITELY need an electrician to straighten out how it is wired. Switches could be across the room to allow control from several places, or arranged to allow different variations in lighting in the room. What you have was done in early entertainment center/rec rooms, pit group seating (now that is a 60's/70's concept Iiked) and home video filming studios, for instance.

I would guess any one or set of bulbs is controlled from only one switch, and the installer or owner went bezerk on what options they had available for lighting.

Now - check a bulb - obviously if 24V (or remotely possibly 12 or 36 or 50 volt), then the switches could be running on 120V feeding to individual transformers in the mounting boxes for each segment of track, or possibly in a gang panel int he wall somewhere. If switches are feeding 24V (or other low voltage) to the lights, then somewhere there would be a moderately large (say about 6-12 inch cube) transformer feeding the low voltage power to the switches, then wiring from each switch to each track segment. Transformer(s) could be in the electrical boxes, or with a vaulted ceiling situation, could have a wiring center with transformers installed in the attic, I guess - with your 8-switch arrangement no telling what you will get into.

Anyway, whether 120V or low voltage, once you figure out which voltage it is and which switches operate which lights, you can decide if you want to try to mess with them. An electrician (or you) would have to figure out what wiring size is running to them and how many bulbs it can safely carry (based on amperage) - that is not too tough.

Where it gets tougher - you would have to find the brand and rating of the track and connectors (usually labelled on the back) - most were rated for 3-5 heads at not more than probably about 100W each (head capacity paper/plastic label likely up inside the head, visible if you remove bulb) - so going from eight switches to just one or two might be a real problem if you are looking at feeding significantly more track length (and heads) from fewer switches. Even if the feed wiring can handle many more bulbs, the track might not be abel to safely accomodate more than 3 or 4 heads per circuit, so you have to be careful about that.

An electrician might be able to help with this - but without brand and model info quite possibly not.

So - bottom line - a work-around that might or might not work easily. Using 1 or 2 switches to control all or about half the lights from each switch as you want - but keeping the original wiring from the individual tracks, converting the existing box (or putting in a junction/terminal box elsewhere nearby where the wiring from the tracks will reach to without splicing being needed) - with the individual feeds from the tracks coming together at a suitably rated terminal block or strip (with live and neutral and ground wires that are being combined to one switch coming to their respective terminal bars), then a single appropriately sized wire from there to the wall switch which will control it.

The difficulty - anytime you splice a circuit wire it has to be done in a junction box, and that has to be readily visible and accessible (though can be in crawlspace or closet or such in most cases) provided the switches themselves are labelled as feeding to a junction box. Ditto to a junction box like this, so finding a place to do that without rewiring all the track feeds could be an issue, or result in using the existing space where the 8 switches are and replacing much or all of them with a junction terminal box.

Below is what a terminal/junction box looks like typically - first one happens to show one for pool lighting, but yours would be similar but likely larger with either 2 or 3 terminal strips pulling together the wires for all the track segments going on a particular control switch, depending on whether it is a 2-wire or 3-wire feed (i.e. track has ground wire or not). Second image shows more of a closeup (second photo) or what a terminal or junction bar looks like, where incoming wires from the tracks would come together to make one circuit. yours would not look just like this - just a concept example. Most of those track lights did not originally have 3-wire wiring, which depending on your local code requirements also may or may not be a problem that needs to be looked at, because if a problem it would mean pretty much total rewiring to bring it up to code. Using a junction box with terminal strips may seem like a lot of hassle, but you cannot just wire nut 5 or 10 wires together.

DEFINITELY need an electrician for this work, and will most likely involve some drywall repair too, after messing with getting the wires to the junction box, which does NOT have to be immediately adjacent to the new switches - they can be remote from the junction box, whereever you want to run the wires to, within reason. It would be wise to get an electrician who has done smarthome wiring - not that this is smart home, but needs similar terminal junction wiring concept.

You would have to talk to the electrician about cost - IF you can do the junction terminal box concept without major hassles or unacceptable architectural issues (they do come in fairly nice appearing colors as well as circuit breaker box gray and tan),, then probably a good deal cheaper than replacing the lighting, assuming you were planning on staying with the 20 bulbs or so - ESPECIALLY since in a vaulted ceiling, and the terminal concept avoids any damage or work in the ceiling so easier to do, and no drywall or paint/woodwork repair.

BTW - modern dimmer switches work as on-off too (as did most of the 70's ones), so you will not need a separate dimmer and switch for each.

One other option I should mention, assuming the wiring is long enough - there are slide switches for about $100 each that can handle up to three different fucntions - so you could have for instance two track segments individually on or off, or both on, or both off - all in one switch. However, would not also have dimming capability without a separate dimmer switch in line BEFORE the slide switch, which would complicate the wiring somewhat and take yuou back to something goofy looking like you have now.

Also remotely possible this is a remotely radio controlled X-10 low voltage system like Radio Shack came out with in the 70's, although X-10 systems really came into vogue in the 80's - if so then the wiring to it is low capacity in all likelihood, so changing anything around is not real likely to be easy, so I won't go into that. Also - I would not count on the system being usable much longer - you cannot get parts with any ease, and most of them have died by now, so if that is your case you might end up just doing a total rewire with new lighting rather than sink your money into a system unlikely to last much longer. I really don't think that is the case here, with the dimmer knobs and switches - they used a momentary-contact push-button magnetic switch panel system on the ones I remember - very different looking from a normal wall switch,, more like an alarm system or miniature elevator control panel.

You definitely need to talk to and electrician with terminal bus wiring experience, and he will almost surely need to get into the wall (for $75-150 probably, and meaning wall repair needed eventually) to see how much slack there is in the wiring and where it is coming from/to, but with the complexity of your situation I don't see avoiding that, and could eliminate having to rewire the entire room for lights or mess with the ceiling.

Answered 4 years ago by LCD

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