Low Voltage vs. Line Voltage Track Lighting

Track lighting with fireplace
filo / Digital Vision Vectors / Getty Images

Track lighting just might have a place in your home as an easy-to-install, flexible form of interior lighting.

Track lighting is one way to run lighting in a minimally invasive way—no drywall demolition required. Plus, because all of the components are exposed, track lighting is flexible. If you don't like the current configuration, you can change it with little fuss.

What We Like
  • Easy to install

  • Walls do not need to be opened up

  • Flexible - add more tracks if needed

What We Don't Like
  • Surface lighting may not be to everyone's taste

  • Lights hang lower than the ceiling

The most common type of track lighting tries to disguise itself and blend in with the ceiling with low-profile tracks in cream or white colors. By contrast, a newer style of track lighting calls attention to itself with curvy, stainless steel tracks and drop-down pendant fixtures. It's all a personal choice. Understanding the two major types of track lighting—low voltage or line voltage—makes a big difference when you are doing this job yourself.

Track Lighting Basics

Track lighting is a type of illumination system where a long metal track or wire is charged with electricity. Its interchangeable fixtures or track heads can be inserted at any point on that track, up to a maximum number of fixtures.

  • Exposed: Track lighting is a non-invasive way of illuminating your kitchen or bathroom because no walls or ceiling need to be opened up. Track lighting resides on the surface of the wall or ceiling, not inside.
  • Flexible: You can mix and match tracks to reach any part of a room. Tracks snap end-to-end, so you can extend the lighting (though voltage requirements will eventually limit you).
  • Flexible: Newer track lighting is not all like those of the past. Many of the newer tracks can be curved in different directions.
  • Lower: One advantage of using recessed lights is that they tuck away and remain flush with the height of the ceiling. All track lights hang lower than the ceiling height. This can be a problem if your ceilings are lower than the standard 96 inches high.
  • Expandable: It is easy to pop in another track head or fixture where you need extra light or take out lights to save energy. Note that components are rarely interchangeable between different manufacturers. 

Track Lighting Components

Heads or Fixtures

Track heads have expanded beyond the old gooseneck style heads. One significant development has been the pendant light. By dropping the light on a cord, up to 42 inches, greater illumination and pinpointing of the beam is achieved.

Bulbs

Bulbs depend on the fixtures, but common wattages are 35W, 50W, and even up to 90W. Of course, with energy-efficient LED bulbs, you can get the same amount of light with a small fraction of the energy used.

Tracks

  • Monorail tracks have exposed contacts and can be curved. Stand-offs hold the track a few inches away from the ceiling and act as insulators.
  • Straight tracks with enclosed electrical contacts come in lengths up to 96 inches. Heads usually attach by inserting the conductor end into the track, then making a quarter-turn.
  • Cable or wire tracks suspend the heads between two attachment points. The cables or wires should be tensioned very tightly to avoid a droopy effect.

Line Voltage Track Lighting Systems

Line voltage systems are the most common type of track lighting. They draw directly from a 120-volt feed.

  • 120V
  • Direct feed from the power lines (via the home's service panel)
  • Usually cheaper than low voltage
  • Avoid problems of having a transformer in view

Low Voltage Track Lighting Systems

Low voltage systems draw their power from a transformer, and this transformer must be mounted near the track system. In essence, this transformer acts as an intermediary between the track light and the house's power system running to the power line. As with line voltage systems, low voltage systems, too, have the service panel upline from the transformer unit.

  • 12V
  • Better energy consumption
  • Brighter light
  • Requires transformer, which means having to hide the transformer
  • Usually easier to install yourself
  • No danger when touching any point of the track below the transformer because the voltage is too low

Components You Will Need

  • Connector: "T", "L", and straight connectors serve to connect separate tracks.
  • Transformer: Transformers are used for low voltage systems.
  • Pendant Adapter: Attaches pendant lights to tracks.
  • Accordion Flexible Track Joiner: These connectors let you send tracks off in directions other than straight or perpendicular.